"The brave don't live forever, but the cautious don't live at all. Here's to the brave!"
~ Timothy Luce ~
Late November, 1942
Colonel Robert Hogan read his brother's letter for the third time, even though it made no difference. Ted's words remained
unchanged, the message searing Hogan's mind and heart.
August 1, 1942
I don't know what words to use to make this easier, or less painful. Lord knows, I'm still reeling. As soon as I saw the official /CENSORED/ seal on the letter we received yesterday, I knew. One of my brothers was dead.
Jim's gone, Rob.
From what little they told us, the /CENSORED/ went down at /CENSORED/ when the /CENSORED/ attacked /CENSORED/. Jim was below at his station. He never had a chance.
We're all walking around like zombies. Especially Susan, who's now a young widow with 4 kids and over seven months gone with the fifth. She's trying to put up a brave front for their sake, but she's just barely hanging by a thread. Lily and I don't know what to do for her, other than help take care of the details for the requiem and try to help her explain to the kids why they'll never see their father again.
Mom is in complete denial. She's convinced that since they don't have a body, Jim was somehow able to make it off the /CENSORED/ and is probably in a hospital somewhere and they just haven't located him yet. Even Father Weller can't get through to her that Jim's not coming home . . . ever. And of course, her denial is only making it worse for Susan. I swear, Rob, sometimes I just want to shake her when she starts in with her theory in front of Susan. I wonder when she'll finally get it that he's truly gone. And I dread it when she does.
Maggie's doing the best of all of us, I think. You know Maggie, get the grief out in the open, deal with it and go on with life. I wish I had the same practical attitude. She's been trying to run interference between Mom and Susan along with Lily and I, but sometimes it's even too much for her. She'll disappear for awhile, then come back, her "crisis armor" wrapped firmly around her again. In some ways, Rob, she's been even stronger than I've been.
I seem to constantly swing between grief, anger and frustration since that letter arrived. I'll walk into a room to do something and suddenly wonder what I'm doing there. There are times I just want to yell at the top of my lungs and I have to get away from the house to get it out. And then there are other times that all I feel like doing is cry.
I've written to Chris, too. He's probably going to take this harder than any of us, outside of Susan. I know that technically, he's no longer a kid, but he still wears his heart on his sleeve. It's hard enough knowing that you're alone, Rob, and that we're not there with you. But I can hardly bear to think about Chris without any of us beside him.
I wish I'd had more time with Jim before he shipped out. I wish I'd had more time with you and Chris before you both left. I wish you both were here with us and not dealing with your grief alone. I wish . . .
I wish I wasn't /CENSORED/ so I could personally take out my anger on /CENSORED/.
Rob, I'm going to tell you what I told Chris in his letter. Stay safe. Come home to us. I don't want to lose another brother to this /CENSORED/!
He glanced again through blurred eyes at the date at the top of the page. The letter was three and a half months old. Jim had been dead for over five months and his fifth child had been born.
Would the baby have Jim's eyes? His laugh? His love of music? Whatever the answers, Jim was beyond ever knowing.
Sergeant Andrew Carter fidgeted in his bunk, barely able to contain the overwhelming urge to scream in frustration. Rising into a sitting position, he looked from Kinch to Hogan's quarters, back to Kinch, then down at his watch. Gosh, it's been forty-five minutes! Somebody's got to do something!
As though he'd heard Carter's thoughts, Kinch slowly left his own bunk, took two hesitant steps toward Hogan's quarters, then reversed direction and returned to his bed.
"Go on, Kinch. Somebody should check on 'im, mate," Newkirk murmured, breaking the strained silence.
Carter leaned out and looked up at Newkirk on the bunk above him. The English RAF corporal was braced on his elbows, fingers playing with an unlit cigarette, his gaze fastened on Hogan's door.
"Oui, c'est vrai," Louis LeBeau chirped from the solitude of his own bunk. "Le colonel should not be alone."
Fierce protectiveness for Hogan's privacy surged through Kinch. "He wants to be alone! I'm NOT going to just barge in there!"
Carter bit his lip as the uncomfortable silence returned. They had no idea what news Hogan had received in the morning mail call, but they knew it had to be very bad. Hogan had opened his letter and started toward his quarters, reading as he went. He'd suddenly stumbled to a halt, his face draining of color.
Kinch had jumped to his feet and moved toward him, only to stop when the officer sharply waved him off without looking up from the letter. Without a word, Hogan had quickly retreated into his quarters, closing the door behind him.
"Well, I'm going to see if he's okay," Carter declared, starting across the room.
Kinch bolted from his bunk and placed himself firmly between Carter and Hogan's door. "No, you're not, Andrew." He sighed when Carter glared defiantly at him in a rare display of anger. Putting a hand on his shoulder, Kinch steered him away from the door.
"Why don't you check on him and then leave him alone?" LeBeau suggested with a hopeful expression.
"Yeah, mate! That way all of us are satisfied!"
Kinch threw his hands into the air. "Okay, okay. I'll go." He walked to Hogan's door and knocked, then entered before he could be refused.
Kinch emerged minutes later, more worried then before. He'd found Hogan sitting in the darkness, unmoving in a corner of his bunk. When questioned, Hogan had responded, but his voice had been flat, his brown eyes glassy and distant. Kinch slowly walked to the table and took a seat.
"His brother's ship was destroyed in battle. He never made it off before she went down."
Silence reigned as they absorbed the news.
Newkirk leaned forward from his bunk. "This would 'ave been Jim, then? The engineer?"
"Yeah. He and the colonel were just two years apart."
Carter sidled closer; worry lining his youthful face. "How's he doin'?"
"How do you think?" Kinch snapped. Carter winced and slumped in dejection. "Sorry, Andrew. He's in shock, I think. And worrying about Jim's widow and kids. And the rest of his family. The same things any of us would be dealing with if we'd lost our brother and were stuck in another country."
LeBeau wrapped his arms around himself and glanced over his shoulder at Hogan's door. "I wish there was something we could do to help him."
"We can help just by leaving him alone and doing our jobs, same as always," Kinch said softly. He remembered how
painful it had been when he'd received the news of his own sister's unexpected death. Over the following days, the
individual condolences from his friends had only served to renew his pain over and over again. He'd do all he could to
spare Hogan the same experience.
Kommandant Wilhelm Klink muttered irritably under his breath as he rifled through the stacks of papers covering his desk. Nothing had gone right since he'd gotten out of bed. First, there'd been no hot water for his morning shower. Then he'd dropped a bit of egg on his uniform at breakfast, causing a small, but noticeable grease stain. Then he couldn't find his riding crop or gloves. He'd spent twenty minutes searching before finally locating them between the cushions of his couch. By the time he'd left his quarters, he was in a miserable temper.
The morning had only gotten worse after he'd arrived at his headquarters. Fraulein Hilda's head cold had necessitated her early departure, leaving him alone to tackle the paperwork overwhelming his desk. Five frustrating hours later, he could scarcely tell he'd made a difference in the number of stacks on his desk.
His elbow bumped against one of the piles and sent it to the floor in a flurry of paper. With a pitiful groan, he leaned to his left and peeked over the edge of the desk. Papers were scattered everywhere like oversized flakes of snow. He even spotted one half way across the room beneath his coat rack. Wearily resting his head in his hands, he wondered if he even wanted to summon enough energy to pick them up. His eyes rolled to the door as Sergeant Hans Schultz entered.
"Where have you been? I called for you over fifteen minutes ago!" Klink snapped.
"I am sorry, Herr Kommandant," the Sergeant of the Guard sighed, waddling over to the desk.
Klink hesitated, momentarily taken aback by Schultz's crestfallen appearance and lack of excuses. "What is the matter with you?"
Schultz gazed at him with sorrowful eyes. "I was just talking to some of the prisoners from Barracks Two, Herr Kommandant. Oh, it is terrible." Schutlz shook his head and glanced out the window at a group of men gathered in front of Hogan's barracks.
"What? What? What is so terrible?"
"Colonel Hogan received news that his brother was killed at sea, Herr Kommandant."
"His name was Jim." Schultz respectfully lowered his gaze. "Such a terrible thing."
"Yes, most terrible," Klink murmured. He stared into the distance until Shultz's soft sniff reminded him that he wasn't alone. He motioned the man away with a careless wave of his hand. "That's all, Schultz."
"Herr Kommandant? I thought you wanted to see me for something?"
"Not now, Schultz. Dismissed!" Klink stood and snapped off a salute, sending Schultz hurrying from his office. Slowly sinking back into his chair, Klink considered his cluttered desk, the papers littering the floor and all of the morning's various irritations.
They no longer seemed important.
It was nearly time for evening roll call when Schultz quietly entered Barracks Two and headed directly for Hogan's quarters. Kinch jumped in front of the door and braced his hands against the sergeant's ample chest.
"Not now, Schultz. Whatever you need to see Colonel Hogan about, tell it to me and I'll take care of it."
"Nein, Kinch." Schultz brushed off Kinch's hands and moved to go by, but Kinch nimbly shifted positions to block him again. Schultz studied the American. If push came to shove, Kinch wouldn't stand a chance against his much greater bulk, but Schultz despised confrontation of any sort. He sighed and stepped back.
"The kommandant wishes to see Colonel Hogan and I am not to leave here without him."
Kinch stared, presented with the one scenario that he hadn't anticipated. Before he could decide on a solution, Hogan stepped out of his quarters. He nodded to Kinch in mute thanks.
"What is it, Schultz?"
"I am sorry, Colonel, but the kommandant wishes to speak with you," Schultz replied, feeling a pang of sympathy at how tired and pale Hogan appeared.
Hogan motioned Schultz toward the door and directed a wan smile toward his men. Their concern was touching, but not something he was emotionally ready to deal with yet. He followed the sergeant across the compound into Klink's office, using the time to get a grip on his fragile state of mind. Hopefully, whatever Klink wanted wouldn't take long. He wasn't sure how much he could bear at the moment.
Klink's back was to the door when Hogan entered the office. The German's posture was stiff, his hands tucked tightly at the small of his back.
Klink stiffened and slowly turned. The compassion in his eyes took Hogan by surprise, rooting him to the spot.
"I must apologize, Colonel Hogan, for summoning you here in such a manner. But I wished to speak with you and I was not certain that you would see me otherwise." Klink indicated the chair beside his desk. "Please sit, Colonel."
Hogan gave himself a small shake and sat down, his eyes never leaving Klink's. The kommandant perched on the corner of his desk, their knees mere inches apart.
"Colonel, Schultz has informed me of your loss and I simply wanted to convey my personal condolences. I was most sorry to learn of your brother's untimely death." Klink cleared his throat uncomfortably and leaned forward. Tentatively placing his hand upon Hogan's shoulder, he gazed into the officer's eyes, now bright with pain. "I have also lost family to this war. My cousin, Walter, whom I was quite close to, was killed shortly after the war began. Hogan, I know that nothing I could ever possibly say or do will ease your pain. We may be enemies in this miserable war, but I can only hope that you will look beyond this uniform now and accept my sympathy."
Hogan swallowed convulsively. "Thank you," he whispered.
Klink nodded. Gently removing his hand, he stood and went to the cabinet containing his schnapps. He poured a generous amount into two glasses. He presented one of the glasses to Hogan and lifted his own in a salute. "To your brother, Jim. May he rest in peace."
Hogan bowed his head, choking back the tears that suddenly threatened. Once he'd regained control, he stood and returned the salute. The two glasses met with a soft, ringing chime. "And to Walter. May he rest in peace."
Staring into each other's eyes, they tossed back their drinks, the liquor burning their throats as it went down.
Hogan burst into the barracks, desperate to reach the privacy of his quarters. His men's stunned expressions vaguely
registered upon him as he hurried past. As soon as his door had closed securely behind him, he stumbled to his bunk and
buried his face in his hands. His shoulders shook with quiet sobs and tears seeped from beneath his fingers while the walls
he'd built so carefully over the day crumbled and fell.
Completely oblivious to the passage of time, Hogan stared at his clasped hands, his mind curiously blank. Forcing himself to move, he rose from the bunk and took slow steps to his locker. With mechanical motions, he opened the locker, took down a single candle from one of the shelves, lit it and placed it on the desk. Staring into the dancing flame, he unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt and lifted from around his neck, the silver and black onyx rosary his mother had presented to him the day he'd left home for West Point. Kneeling in front of his bunk, he began reciting the Rosary in a hoarse whisper, seeking the peace and comfort he needed.
He faltered on the last phrase of the Ave Maria. The prayers he'd recited since his childhood suddenly seemed strange and
incomprehensible. Instead of peace, he felt only a growing emptiness. He bowed his head and his hands tightened
convulsively on the rosary. Taking a deep, steadying breath, he moved into the Pater Noster.
Pater noster, qui es in caelis,
He looked over at his ever-present shadow. "Yeah, Jim?"
"What are clouds?"
He sighed and dropped into a cross-legged seat on the ground beneath their favorite shade tree. Reaching down, he picked up a brittle twig and began absently breaking off small pieces while he searched for an answer that would satisfy a six year-old. He snuck a sideways peek at Jim's expectant expression and sighed again. He'd learned as soon as his little brother was old enough to talk, that being two years older wasn't always an advantage. For one thing, it meant he was supposed to supply wisdom whenever called upon. Like now.
He tossed the twig aside and brushed away the broken pieces that clung to his clothing. "Clouds are what gives us rain, Jim." Flopping bonelessly onto his back, he gazed up through the branches at the fluffy whiteness floating above them. After a moment, Jim dropped sideways on top of him. He shifted beneath his brother's slight weight and moved the sharp elbow poking him in the stomach to a less painful position. Jim's dark eyes were puzzled as he looked down from his comfortable perch. His small, restless hands absently patted the stomach beneath him.
"Why is there rain?"
"Umm . . ." He blinked sleepily at the fuzzy halo of sunlight around his little brother's tousled black hair. "Rain helps the grass and flowers and trees grow."
"Where do the clouds come from, Rob?"
He stared into the patient eyes above him. "Well . . .God sometimes puts the clouds up there to give us rain and . . ." He bucked upward, catching and rolling Jim onto the grass beside him where he began tickling him. ". . . to give little brothers a reason to ask zillions of questions!"
Sanctificetur nomen tuum,
The panicked shout jolted him out of the sound sleep he'd been lulled into by the warm sunlight. Twisting on his towel toward the sound, he saw Jim slip beneath the water, his arms flailing wildly at the ocean's surface.
He jumped to his feet and dove off the end of the pier. The sudden coldness tore a gasp from his throat and threatened to steal his breath away. With the long, sure strokes, he swam to where Jim had been moments before, then jack-knifed beneath the waves.
The water grew colder as he swam deeper, frantically searching for his brother in the murkiness obscuring all but the few feet around him. Methodically, he swept his arms around and down, blindly groping in the darkness growing with each foot he descended. Seconds passed as his heartbeat thundered in his ears and his lungs began to ache.
Suddenly, he touched skin. He grabbed the slippery, cold arm and strained for the surface, fighting against the painful urge to breathe. Blackness crept in along the edges of his vision and he blinked hard, willing himself to remain conscious.
He broke the surface and gasped for air as he swam toward shore, pulling his brother's unmoving body behind him. Reaching the sandy bottom, he backed up the rise on wobbly legs, dragging Jim's limp weight.
He quickly placed his brother face down on the sand and pushed hard on the thin back. He was rewarded when Jim expelled a gurgling rush of water. Another push, then he rubbed his hands briskly up and down Jim's arms and over his back. His brother remained still and silent.
Please God, he's only eight!
He pushed again and this time Jim gave a weak cough. Panting in relief, he turned Jim onto his side and supported him as he coughed out the last of the water. Grabbing their blanket, he wrapped it around Jim's shoulders and pulled the shivering boy closer, silently giving thanks that he'd been in time. After several minutes, Jim's damp head moved beside his own.
"Thanks, Rob." Jim looked up at him, his eyes wide with remembered fright.
He smiled, even though he felt like collapsing from his own terror. "What did you think you were doing, huh? You know the rules; no swimming alone!" His gentle voice softened the harsh words as he rubbed the blanket up and down his brother's arms.
Jim shrugged, still shivering despite the blanket and sun's warmth. "You were asleep and I didn't mean to go out so far. I hadn't been swimming too long when my leg cramped up."
It was his turn to shiver. If he hadn't heard Jim's shout . . . if he hadn't been able to find him in time . . . Shaking away the dark thoughts, he gave Jim a tight hug. "I'm just glad you're okay."
Jim grinned and some of the fear left his eyes. "Promise me you won't tell Mom and Dad? If they knew what happened, they wouldn't let me go swimming again until I was twenty!"
"Make that thirty!" he laughed.
adveniat regnum tuum
"Oh, Rob . . .?"
The sweetly voiced question should have alerted him. Instead, he turned sluggishly and received a face full of pillow. The blow sent him into a backward somersault that landed him hard on his stomach. Stunned, he blinked and looked up just in time to narrowly avoid his brother's leap. He rolled across the floor into a crouching position.
"What the . . .?"
Jim wove back and forth in front of him, his pillow firmly grasped and at the ready. "You've moped around here long enough, big brother!"
A flurry of blows rained across his shoulders. Letting out a yell, he sprang to his own bed and grabbing his pillow, set to defending himself with an energy he hadn't possessed in days. Several series of blows later, he fell back against the wall and grudgingly admitted to himself that his twelve year-old brother was getting the better of him. He narrowed his eyes, searching for weakness.
"Ah, ah, ah!" Jim lazily waved one finger at him while maintaining a close watch for an attack. "Not so easy this time, is it, Robbie?"
He growled at the hated nickname and launched himself forward. He scored one solid blow to Jim's side before realizing that he'd been goaded right into a weak position. Backpedaling, he tried to evade the graceful leap aimed at his stomach but failed miserably and this time landed flat on his back. Gasping at the weight on his chest, he flung his pillow aside and raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay! I give up!"
Brown eyes alight with glee smiled down on him. "Gotcha!"
He glared up at Jim for a moment and then started laughing. One of his own tricks had been expertly used against him. Sighing in good-natured surrender, he clapped one of the knees resting beside him. "You sure did!"
"Forget her, Rob." Jim tossed his pillow aside and patted his brother on the stomach. "Any girl who'd dump you for arrogant, hook-nosed, whiny-voiced Tim Braithwaite, doesn't have the teeniest bit of good taste. She's not worth it and she obviously doesn't know what she's given up." Having summed up his feelings regarding his brother's ex-girlfriend, Jim folded his arms and cocked his head to one side. "Better now?"
He nodded. "Much better."
fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra.
He jerked up in surprise, his head connecting solidly with the underside of the car's open hood. Rubbing at the painful lump forming on the back of his head, he turned and gave Jim an annoyed glare. "WHAT?"
Jim snickered and leaned on the fender safely on the other side of the car. "This thing's broken more often than not."
He blew his hair out of his eyes and planted his hands on his hips. "Did you have a reason for coming out here or do you just enjoy giving me concussions?" He picked up a wrench and tossed it to his brother, who caught it easily. "As long as you're here, make yourself useful."
Jim grimaced. "Waste my considerable talents on a car? Puh-leeze, Rob!"
"Think of it as a challenge. Show me just how good you are and get this thing running by evening."
"Oh, I get it!" Jim waggled the wrench at him. "You just want me to get it running so you can take Kristin to that dance tonight!"
He crossed his arms and braced a hip on the car's grill. "Okay, Mr. Mechanic Extraordinaire, you've seen Kristin. Surely your fourteen year-old brain can deduce why?"
"My brain is telling me that dancing isn't what you're wanting this car for tonight!" Jim's black eyebrows bounced. Laughing, the two of them tackled the engine together.
Panem nostrum supersubstantialem do nobis hodie;
He paused in the act of adding another shirt to his already loaded suitcase. Turning toward the door, he watched Jim hesitantly step into the room. His brother's eyes were downcast, his normally active hands quiet at his sides.
Jim moved further into the room until he stood next to the bed. He appeared to ponder the open suitcase. "You're, uh, sure about this?"
"Don't you think it's a little late for me to be re-thinking this decision?" He smiled at his brother's miserable expression. "It's not forever, Jim."
"It might as well be!" yelled Jim, turning away and crossing his arms tightly across his chest.
He tossed the shirt into the suitcase. Walking across the room, he steered his brother back to the bed and pushed him into a sitting position. "Okay, Jim, talk to me."
"West Point's so far away," Jim mumbled, staring at the suddenly fascinating rug between his feet.
"I'll have leaves."
"What about after you graduate, huh?" Jim demanded, looking up. "Then you'll be gone for another five years, at least! We'll hardly ever see you again!"
He laughed softly and took a seat beside his brother. "Hold on! I've only just become a cadet, but you've already got me graduated and on active duty!"
Jim jumped to his feet, his eyes darkening in anger. "This isn't funny, Rob!"
His smile softened. "Unwind a little, okay?" He reached up and pulled Jim back down.
Jim ducked his head at the gentle rebuke, pulling his legs up into his favorite cross-legged position. His fingers picked at the nap of the blanket. "It's not going to be the same without you around. I mean, you're always here in the morning and every night, and whenever I need to talk to you and ---- "
"You make me sound like the dog!"
"Well," Jim chuckled, "I admit there are a few similarities, but you know what I mean!"
"Look at it this way; now you get to be the oldest. And as far as wanting to talk with me," he shrugged, "write to me, instead."
"WRITE to you?" His brother's nose wrinkled in disgust. "You know I hate writing!"
He shook his head and returned to his packing. "You're basing that on the only person you've ever written to and that's Grandmother. Writing to me won't be quite the same, will it?"
"You can say that, again!" Jim snickered. "Okay, I see what you mean, but it won't be like having you right here to answer me."
He tucked a last pair of socks into the suitcase and called it good. Closing and latching the case, he put it on the floor and tiredly rubbed his face. Tomorrow was going to be a long day. "It'll be an exercise in patience, which you've never been long on. And I promise to write back as soon as I can."
Jim assessed him intently. "I'm being selfish. Here I am going on and on about me, but I'll still have the rest of the family. You're going to be all alone."
He shrugged uncomfortably at the thought. "I won't be alone. There's going to be over four hundred other guys there with me."
"You're not foolin' me for one second, Rob." There was a long pause and then Jim brightened. "I've got the answer that'll take care of everything!"
"What are you talking about?"
Jim's eyes danced with mischief above his wide grin. "Take me with you!"
et dimitte nobis debita nostra,
He turned away from the fire, blinking the residual spots from his eyes. Jim, clad in the warmth of a woolen sweater and corduroys, folded his legs and settled beside him on the floor.
"You have a minute?"
"You've got as many minutes as you want. I don't know what to do with myself. I'm so used to military schedules and duties that being back at home with all this time on my hands is driving me crazy!"
Jim laughed softly and maneuvered a few logs into the dying fire. Satisfied with the results, he replaced the fire screen and turned to his brother. "I always look forward to your Christmas holiday leaves. It sounds silly, but I feel like they're a special present to me every year."
He didn't know what to say to that. It was unusual for Jim to be so openly sentimental. But then, he'd noticed his brother had seemed to be in an unusual mood all evening.
"I want to tell you something." Jim cleared his throat.
He nodded encouragement.
"I've enlisted and I'm getting married."
He blinked at the rush of information, too stunned to even make a comment.
"Hello?" Jim prodded his shoulder with one finger, then waved a hand in front of his face. "Rob? Anyone home?"
"This is a first!" Jim laughed in delight. "I've reduced you to one word sentences!"
sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris;
He grinned at Jim's nervous reflection, swearing that he could hear his brother's knees knocking together. "Yeah?"
"I can't do this! What was I thinking? I'm not ready! Why did I ask her? Holy Mother, I must be crazy!" Jim turned away from the mirror and grabbed him by the lapels. "Get me out of here!"
He reached up and pried Jim's fingers off. "Calm down." Patting his brother on the chest, he said soothingly, "Take a deep breath. Okay. Now, do you love Susan?"
The panic in Jim's eyes faded. "Yeah." He nodded and then repeated in a stronger voice, "Yeah!"
There was a knock at the door. Ted stuck his head into the room, one hand pulling at the knot in his tie. "Shake a leg, you two! We've got over two hundred people out here waiting to see a wedding!"
He waved to Ted, and turned back to Jim. "Ready?"
Jim gave him a decisive nod. Not a trace of doubt remained in his eager expression. "You couldn't hold me back!"
Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,
He looked up from the tiny bundle in his arms. "She's beautiful, Jim," he whispered, not wanting to disturb his sleeping niece. His gaze returned to the newborn. Every miniature feature, from her thick black lashes to her delicate, up-turned nose, fascinated him. The nervousness he'd felt when Jim had first placed her in his arms had completed vanished, replaced by a faint ache in his chest. To have such a precious gift . . . he couldn't imagine it.
"She's really something, isn't she?" Jim gently brushed the back of his finger down his daughter's cheek. "We're so glad you were able to see her before your leave ended."
He nodded, feeling strangely bereft when the baby whimpered and snuggled closer against his chest.
Jim squeezed his shoulder. "I'm looking forward to the day I get to hold your first child, Rob."
Sed libera nos -----
The rosary snapped violently between his hands. Black onyx beads scattered to every part of the room. His eyes slitted in fury and his fist tightened around the silver cross. Stiffly rising to his feet, he dropped the silver chain into the waste can beside his desk, blew out the candle and crossed the room to his bed. He reached underneath the bunk, yanked out his footlocker and flung open the lid.
He unclenched his fist, revealing the beautiful silver cross that had always before given him comfort. Pushing aside the clothes in the footlocker, he thrust the cross into the darkness of the wooden box. He piled the clothes on top of it, slammed the lid shut and shoved the footlocker back beneath his bed.
He had no intention of ever touching a rosary again.
Newkirk shifted restlessly in his bunk, trying to find a more comfortable position. Rising up on one elbow, he fluffed his lumpy pillow for the fourth time and then collapsed back onto the mattress with a sigh. His tried and true method for going to sleep was failing him miserably, but he'd give it one more go. He relaxed every muscle in his body, drew in a deep breath and held it for several seconds. One. Gently, the breath was exhaled and another slowly pulled in. Two. The pattern was continued, his thoughts growing fuzzier with each count.
A soft, muffled sound jerked him fully awake again.
The barely audible sound repeated a moment later. He twisted onto one shoulder and stared through the darkness. The third time sent him sliding straight off the side of his bunk.
He muttered a vicious curse as his bare feet hit the cold floorboards. Mincing across the darkened room, he skillfully navigated the table and wood stove until he reached Kinch's bunk. He crouched and started to tap the black sergeant, then thought better of it.
Kinch's eyes flew open. "Yeah," he sighed softly, knowing what was coming. He'd been trying to block out the muted sobs, too. "What is it, Newkirk?"
"Mate, I don't think I can stand this any longer," Newkirk whispered. "The guv'nor --- " He moved over when LeBeau shoved up against him.
"S'il vous te plaît, Kinch!" The Frenchman pleaded.
"I told you," Kinch rasped, propping himself up on one elbow, "we've got to let the colonel take this at his own speed and in his own way. He'll come out when he's ready."
"But Kinch, he's missed three roll calls." Carter leaned over from his bunk. "He hasn't been out of there since he got back from Klink's office!"
"Oui! And he has not eaten since yesterday morning before mail call!"
"'ow long, Kinch?" Newkirk, thumped the mattress with his fist. "'ow long are we supposed just sit and do nothing while Colonel 'ogan's 'eart is breakin'?"
Kinch's head whipped toward him, his furious expression lost in the darkness. "Klink's showing better sense than all of you!" He clamped his jaw shut, giving himself time to rein in his temper. He shared their frustration, but wasn't about to act on it. "Klink knows why the colonel's not falling out for roll call and he's respecting his grief by leaving him alone."
"We respect it, Kinch. "Carter murmured. "We just want to help him!"
Kinch sighed. "I know Carter, believe me, I know. Look, as hard as this is, the best way we can help him is to give him the time he needs. He'll resent anything else."
He sent them back to their beds and sank back onto his own. None of them slept that night, but lay keeping silent vigil to
their commander's grief.
Hogan fell in for roll call the next morning, slipping noiselessly from the barracks after the others were already in formation. They started in surprise at his appearance and darted uneasy glances at his reddened eyes and blank expression as he walked around them and stepped into line.
Schultz counted down their ranks, reached Hogan and hesitated, one finger raised as if to ask something. Hogan turned his head just far enough to register his presence and then ignored him, staring at a point somewhere in the distance. Schultz gulped at the remoteness in the dark eyes and his gaze rolled to Kinch in concern.
Kinch pursed his lips and made a sharp cutting motion with one hand. Leave him alone!
Clutching his clipboard like a shield in front of his chest, Schultz slowly backed away from the senior P.O.W. Hearing the kommandant leave his office, he spun away from the vacant stare and hurried to his position.
Klink barely heard Schultz's stammered report. His gaze lingered briefly on Hogan, before traveling over the rest of the assembled prisoners. They avoided his eyes, either staring at the ground or occasionally toward their commanding officer. Klink nodded approval of their respectful silence. Executing a crisp salute, he dismissed them, glancing back once at Hogan before returning to his headquarters.
Hogan spun on his heel and retreated into the barracks while the men huddled to one side, carefully staying out of his path.
"Where do you think you're goin', Andrew?"
Carter stopped and turned toward Newkirk. "I've got to talk to the colonel," he said, rather defensively. The report he held needed to be brought to their C.O.'s attention and Hogan's appearance at roll call hours before had finally made his decision for him. He turned back toward the officer's quarters, only to be yanked to a stop when the Englishman grabbed his arm.
"Andrew, we aren't botherin' the guv'nor, you know that!" Newkirk tried to steer him away from Hogan's door, but Carter was having none of it. He yanked his arm from the Englishman's grasp, his blue eyes narrowing with determination.
"I've got to talk with him! This can't wait any longer!"
Hogan's mouth curled into a small grin at the bickering outside his door. The men had gone out of their way to leave him in peace, so it had to be something fairly important for Carter to try to see him. As he listened to the sotto voce argument, he finally acknowledged several points.
Sitting on your backside in your quarters isn't going to change anything, it's definitely not improving your mood, and you've ignored your responsibilities long enough! Get off your ass, Robert!
Pushing his hair back off of his forehead, he got out of his bunk and crossed to the door. It was time to get back to business and life in general, even though his heart still ached with grief.
He quietly opened the door and leaned one shoulder against the doorframe. Carter and Newkirk continued arguing, their noses almost touching. "Anything I can help you with, fellas?" he quipped, startling them.
"Colonel!" yelped Carter, his face reddening with embarrassment.
"Yeah, Carter? Is there a problem?"
"Yessir. I've been doing some inventory. We're low on detonators, fuses and some other stuff. We'd really be in trouble if we're given a job requiring demolition." He handed over the paper, one finger pointing out the worst of the shortages.
Hogan checked the list. "Okay. Have Kinch contact London, give 'em the list and schedule a drop." He handed the paper back, then took a moment to stretch his stiff muscles. He'd just finished when Kinch appeared from the tunnel.
"Tiger wants to meet with you, Colonel." Kinch studied Hogan, relieved to see the officer's eyes no longer held the frightening emptiness from morning roll call.
Hogan frowned. "We just met with her less than a week ago. Did she say why?"
"Nope." Kinch anticipated the next question and told him, "The message did have the proper recognition codes."
"All right, tell her I'll be there." Hogan started for his quarters, but glanced back over his shoulder at Kinch. "Carter's got a list of supplies he needs radioed to London. See that it gets out A.S.A.P., or we might find ourselves in what Newkirk would call 'a bit of a sticky wicket'."
"Got it, Colonel." The playful lilt to Hogan's voice reassured Kinch that the worst was over. Silently, he acknowledged his friends' relieved smiles. They had their commander back.
Nightfall arrived at Stalag 13. The searchlights atop the guard towers lit with sudden brilliance and swept through the growing darkness. Guards greeted each other with quiet voices as they exchanged sentry duty, their dogs growling and whining to each other in counterpoint as they passed.
Within the camp itself, most of the prisoners had settled in for the night; but in the tunnel system running beneath Stalag 13, a few were just beginning major activities.
Hogan closed the door to his locker and was just zipping his jacket when Carter and Kinch entered the room. "Hey, fellas. You ready to go out?"
"Yeah, boy! Sir!"
"I don't think I've ever seen someone so excited about a supply drop," Kinch commented, amused by the bounce in the younger sergeant's step. Carter had been hyperactive all day. At one point, Newkirk had even threatened to lock him in one of their footlockers to get some relief from the overabundance of nervous energy.
"It's gonna be nice just getting out of here for awhile," replied Carter defensively.
Hogan put an arm around his shoulder. "I'm with you, Carter. I'm looking forward to getting out of here, myself." Hogan gave him a last pat and started for the door. "I'll see you later." At the doorway, he hesitated and turned back. "Be careful," he cautioned in a voice edged with intensity. Seconds later, he was gone.
Kinch nudged Carter and jerked his head toward the tunnel Hogan had taken. "C'mon. That plane isn't going to wait around for us if we're late."
They reached the ladder in time to see Hogan's heels disappearing through the opening above them. Kinch started up the ladder as the lid to the stump entrance closed. Cracking it open again, he did a quick scan of the surroundings. Seeing the coast was clear of guards, he climbed out and held the lid for Carter. They dropped the lid back into place and dove for cover as a searchlight swept toward them, then moved on.
Kinch stood and saw Carter rise into view a few yards away. Kinch glanced in the direction Hogan would have taken,
knowing the officer was long gone. With a nod to Carter, Kinch led him in the opposite direction, bound for the
coordinates of their supply drop.
Tiger pushed a strand of her blonde hair behind one ear and breathed a soft sigh. She'd much rather be meeting Papa Bear at the HofBrau in Hammelburg in a quiet corner over a glass of wine, instead of along a deserted roadside. But the topic she had to discuss was much too important to risk being overheard by unfriendly ears.
"Good evening, pretty lady," came a low voice at her back.
To her credit, she didn't make a sound. She twisted around and found herself pressed against Hogan's chest when he took her in his arms. She gave him a playful swat on one shoulder.
"You are horrible!" she laughed softly, not at all upset about being caught unaware. His lips brushed against her forehead.
"Sorry, love. I couldn't resist." Tilting her chin up, he leaned down and kissed her. The action surprised her, since it wasn't often that he encouraged intimacy between them. She relaxed against him and felt his hands tighten at her waist. Breaking the kiss moments later with some regret, she reached up and caressed the side of his jaw.
"Very nice, Colonel," she whispered, "and perhaps we will have time for more, but first we must talk."
He straightened, dropping his hands to his sides. "What is it?"
She shook her hair back from her face, wanting to see his expression in the faint light. "We have been hearing rumors of a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler."
His face twisted with disbelief. "Come on, Tiger! We hear assassination 'rumors' all the time."
"This is different, Colonel," she stressed. "The names being mentioned are very close to Hitler himself."
He folded his arms and slouched against a tree. "Okay, you've got my attention."
"We believe that Field Marshal von Kluge has recently been contacted by a member of the Schwartze Kapelle." She smiled when his eyes widened.
"'Clever Hans?'" He whistled softly under his breath, following it up with a sharp look. "Whoever they are, they're either very brave or very stupid." Kluge, being commander of Hitler's Army Group Center and one of the Führer's favorite leaders, could easily execute the man on the spot.
She shrugged. "Perhaps a bit of both, with a good measure of desperation thrown in. The previous attempts on Hitler that we know of have failed due to last minute re-scheduling or Hitler tightening his security. But whatever the case, we believe that the contact was merely a messenger for the major players in the conspiracy."
"von Tresckow and von Schlabrendorff."
His head tilted and stared into the distance. "von Kluge's resisted all the other attempts to recruit him into any kind of plot to eliminate Hitler. Why would this time be any different?"
"It may not be," she sighed. "He may simply turn them down as he has the others. But think of it, Colonel! With von Kluge backing the conspiracy, what better chance to seize Hitler?"
Meeting her eyes, he reached out with one hand and pulled her closer. "von Kluge's too smart to put his neck out too far, Tiger. Why do you think they call him 'Clever Hans'?"
She rested back against his arms and stared up at him. "You're in a very cynical mood tonight."
"Realistic is more like it." One shoulder lifted in a careless shrug. "He may come through; but it'll be on his own terms and at a time of his choosing." A small grin appeared on his face as he traced the line of her jaw. She briefly nuzzled into the touch and then pulled back again.
"There is something else." She chuckled when he gave her a mock frown. "I have been meeting with a new resistance group for the past three weeks. They are still just a few, but I believe they will be most helpful to us." She reached up and used one finger to smooth the frown away. "I have been checking them most thoroughly, Colonel, and I'm convinced they are who they say they are. I would like you to meet with them soon."
He pulled her finger down, his frown returning full-strength. "Why do you need me?"
"They have desire, but no real organization yet." She tugged her finger free of his grasp. "I thought you and your men might talk with them and give them the benefit of your experience."
He grinned down at her. "Oh, you smooth talker. All right. Set it up."
"Thank you, Colonel." She snuggled against him, wrapping her arms around his neck as she murmured, "Now, I believe we
had an unfinished meeting of our own?"
Kinch glanced at his watch as Carter dropped into a crouch beside him and peered up at the night sky. Kinch pushed his sleeve back down and nodded in satisfaction. They were right on time. The low droning of a single plane punctually broke the night's stillness, followed by the rumble of anti-aircraft artillery.
Raising his flashlight, Kinch blinked out a signal to the plane's crew. A package dropped from the plane's cargo door. An instant later, a small parachute popped open and gently floated the package to the ground. The artillery continued for a few moments, before dying off in sporadic bursts as the plane gained altitude and safely disappeared into the clouds.
They sprinted to the package and pulled it upright. Carter detached the parachute, gave the box a cursory check and nodded to Kinch. Quickly, Carter stuffed the contents of the box into the knapsack he'd brought while Kinch kept watch. With the supplies now securely packed, they started back to camp, but paused when they heard a squadron of planes approaching. Six American bombers flying in tight box formation appeared moments later.
"Looks like we're not the only ones with a mission tonight." Kinch looked sharply to his left when more flak bursts filled the air. "C'mon, Carter, we've got to get out of here! That artillery's gotten closer!"
"Wait!" Carter yelped. "Two of them have been hit!" He grabbed Kinch's shoulder and pointed overhead.
Plumes of dark smoke could be seen pouring from one of the planes at the rear of the formation. The plane wobbled, straightened, banked sharp left and then exploded into a huge fireball. The artillery fire had also crippled a second plane, but its flight crew had time to bail out. Kinch and Carter pulled in twin gasps of horror when the parachute of the first man out caught on the smoking plane. The rest of the crew made it safely clear and four parachutes burst open while flak continued to riddle the sky.
"They're coming down right near us!" Carter's voice cracked with excitement when the first of the four men disappeared below the tree line. Seconds later, two more men dropped out of sight with the last not far behind.
Carter and Kinch ran toward the downed airmen, straining to hear any sound from them in the darkness. There was only eery silence. Even the artillery had fallen silent as the German soldiers joined in the race to locate the American bomber crew. Kinch guessed they had only minutes before the patrol arrived at their location.
"There!" He ran to the parachute he'd spotted draped over some brush. Yanking at the silky fabric, he located the man below it, only to draw back in revulsion. Flak had destroyed half of the man's face. Kinch shuddered and turned away.
"Carter?" He called softly into the darkness. "I've found one, but he's dead. Have you found the rest?"
"I've got another one, but he's shot to pieces!" Carter called back.
Just then, Kinch spotted another man, hanging just off the ground in the harness of his chute. He ran to him, bent down and felt for a pulse. Carter trotted up, still clutching the knapsack.
Kinch looked up and shook his head. "Broken neck."
Carter grimaced and frantically scanned the brush and trees. "There were four of 'em! Where's the other one?"
"We're running out of time, Carter!" Kinch hissed, glancing over his shoulder in the direction of the artillery.
A barely visible piece of parachute lying on a distant bush caught Carter's eye. "Over there!" He ran to the parachute and quickly followed it to the ground. "Got 'im!" He rolled the man over, dreading another grisly discovery. A low moan from the airman brought a smile to his face. "He's alive!"
Kinch didn't waste time checking for injuries. He hoisted the unconscious airman onto his shoulder, swearing he could hear the soldiers breaking through the brush behind them.
"Let's get out of here!"
Newkirk laid his worn deck of cards aside when Kinch and Carter's voices sounded in the tunnel. He stood and went to meet them, but pulled up in surprise as they walked into the room. "'Ey, mates! Who do you 'ave there?" He watched curiously while they gently lowered the unconscious man onto a small cot.
"The Krauts shot at a squadron of our bombers. This guy was on one of the two planes that got hit," answered Kinch, without looking up. "Five men bailed out, but he's the only one to make it down alive. The other plane exploded in mid-air. The crew never had a chance."
"Wot a bleedin' waste," Newkirk muttered.
Kinch unzipped and opened the airman's bomber jacket. An ugly blotch of blood was slowly soaking the tan shirt beneath. He tore the shirt open and whistled softly under his breath. "This is one lucky guy! The bullet just grazed along the ribs. It's deep, but nothing serious. Carter, I need something to clean his face and to stop this bleeding." Carter nodded and scurried away.
Blood completely covered the left side of the airman's face, beginning at his hairline and extending down his neck to his collar. Kinch gently probed through the airman's blood-matted black hair in search of the wound. "Hopefully, that isn't as bad as it looks," he commented, when he found it. Carter appeared held out some clean rags and a bowl of water.
"Thanks, Andrew." Kinch folded up one of the cloths and pressed it against the wound.
Newkirk bent down and peered closely at the airman's face. "'E looks kinda familiar, doesn't 'e?"
"Familiar?" Kinch dampened one of the rags and started wiping at the blood. Slowly, the man's features grew clearer.
Carter leaned over Kinch's shoulder, craning his neck to see better. "Newkirk's right, Kinch. He does kind of remind me of someone, but I'm not sure who." He tilted his head to a different angle. "Geez, he's young!"
"Well, whoever 'e is, I agree with Kinch, 'ere about 'is luck."
"What do you mean?" Carter looked at Newkirk in bewilderment.
"Look at 'im, Andrew! Even with all that blood all over 'im, 'e's quite the handsome young bloke now, isn't 'e? All that wavy hair and 'andsome face. 'E's what me mum would call a 'eartbreaker. Probably 'as the ladies climbin' all over 'im!"
LeBeau suddenly appeared beside them. "Qu'est qui se passe?" The little Frenchman peeked around them to see better. He gasped and turned deathly pale.
"'Ey, now! None o' that, Louis!" Newkirk admonished, grabbing LeBeau's arm in support. "You a' right there, mate?"
"Oui. I just was not expecting blood." LeBeau drew in a deep breath and focused upon their guest rather than the blood. "Who is he?"
Carter obligingly explained the man's presence.
Kinch rolled his eyes and went back to his work. He was just wiping off the last of the blood when Hogan returned from his meeting with Tiger.
"Hey, fellas!" Hogan called out as he walked across the room, stripping off his leather gloves. "What's going on?"
Kinch ducked his head and chuckled. Carter patiently repeated the explanation a third time.
Hogan approached the bed and looked down at the unconscious airman. The floor dropped out from under him and he collapsed onto a chair next to the cot. With a shaking hand, he gently turned the young man's face toward him.
"Colonel Hogan?" Kinch gripped Hogan's shoulder in concern. "Do you know this guy? Hogan didn't immediately respond and Kinch shared a worried glance with the others.
"Yeah, I know him. This is 2nd Lt. Christopher Aidan Hogan. My baby brother."
Hogan leaned forward on the chair and drank in the sight of his brother's face. Time and growth had wrought changes since they'd last been together. Chris had grown into a handsome young man. He'd lost the round softness so common to teenagers, and he appeared to have grown as tall as Hogan. God, how long has it been? Christmas leave, three years ago? Mentally calculating dates, he realized Chris would soon be twenty-one. His gaze traveled down the lanky body. He'll fill out soon enough, when his body catches up with his appetite! Smiling affectionately, he reached over and brushed Chris' long black forelock off of his forehead. You may be three years older, kid, but one thing hasn't changed. You still need a haircut!
Hogan looked up when Kinch entered the room.
"How's he doin'?"
"Okay, I guess. I just wish he'd wake up. It's been over an hour since you brought him in." Hogan looked back at Chris. "Maybe we ought to get O'Malley or Metzger down here to look at him."
"Not O'Malley. He's got some sort of influenza. You wouldn't want him anywhere near our barracks, let alone your brother, believe me."
"Great. Just great. And it's too late to get Metzger here tonight."
Chris' head rolled on the pillow and he moaned softly.
"Chris?" Hogan leaned over the bed.
Chris slowly opened his eyes and winced from the stark light thrown by the single bulb near the cot. He struggled to lift his head off the pillow in an effort to see where he was. Bolts of pain bounced through his skull. Ouch! Not a good idea. His eyes drifted shut and he sank back onto the bed. A hand gently pressed on his chest and someone told him to relax. Undeniable concern laced the familiar voice. Chris concentrated and finally figured out who was talking to him. Rob? His last thought as he lost the battle to stay conscious and spiraled deeper into the darkness, was that he'd simply wished his eldest brother's voice into his mind.
Hogan shot to his feet. "That does it! I don't care how late it is, I want Metzger here tonight!"
Hogan paced at the base of the ladder while Kurt Metzger lowered himself through the emergency tunnel entrance. Less than two hours had passed since Kinch's radio call, summoning the medical assistance. For Hogan, the wait had seemed endless. The doctor's feet had barely touched the floor when Hogan grabbed him and pulled him toward the room where Chris lay.
Metzger had to walk quickly to keep up, and he was frankly baffled by his friend's uncharacteristic behavior. Hogan's every move shouted of urgency. Metzger could only guess that the injured person had to be someone important.
Hogan finally stopped beside a cot in a small room off the main area of the tunnel system. Metzger moved past and quickly began examining the unconscious man.
Hogan shifted impatiently. "Well? Is he going to be all right?"
Metzger only grunted in response. After a few minutes, he turned to Hogan.
"He is a very lucky young man. Both wounds are mere grazes, which although quite bloody and painful, are nonetheless not dangerous. They've been cleaned very well, I might add." His expression reflected his puzzlement as he ran a hand through his hair. "Colonel, I am at a loss as to why you brought me here. What do you wish me to do?"
Hogan blew out a relieved breath and sat on the chair beside the cot. "I'm sorry, Kurt. I just wanted to be certain that he's going to be okay." He looked up with a faint, sheepish grin. "I over-reacted, huh?"
"Perhaps just a tiny bit," Metzger smiled, waggling his hand waist high. He pulled up a chair. "If I may ask., why are you so protective of this particular young man?"
"He's my brother," Hogan replied, meeting Metzger's surprised gaze. "His name is Christopher. Kinch and Carter were out on a supply drop tonight and he was shot down almost into their laps."
Metzger glanced between the two brothers. "Yes, I see the resemblance." He grinned impishly, his blue eyes lighting with private amusement. "Tell me, Colonel, does Christopher share your dislike for needles?"
Hogan gave him a malevolent glare. "Has anyone ever told you that you have a sadistic streak for a doctor?"
"Keep the damn things away from me." Chris' groggy voice made them both jump.
Hogan jerked toward the bed. "Chris?"
Chris turned unfocused eyes in his direction. "Rob? That really you?"
"Yeah, it's me. I'm right here," Hogan soothed, giving his arm a gentle squeeze.
Metzger prodded Hogan out of the way. "Tell me, young Hogan, how are you feeling?"
"Who are you?" Chris turned toward the unmistakably German voice, wishing the room would hold still long enough for him to focus clearly.
Metzger sighed. "I am Dr. Kurt Metzger, a friend of your brother's, yes? Now, answer my question."
"I'm okay for just getting my plane shot out from under me," Chris snapped. His sight gradually steadied, giving him a clear view of the man above him. There might have been a crisp edge to the man's voice, but his face was open and friendly. Thick blond hair, almost white in hue, hung above brilliant blue eyes that held a wealth of kindness and concern. Chris relaxed a bit, but didn't drop his guard entirely. He was in no condition to be making any sort of conclusions.
Ach, he is just as bad a patient as his brother! Metzger glared down at him. "That is not an answer! Are you seeing double? Are you feeling dizzy? Nauseous? Can you follow my finger?"
Chris stubbornly ignored the finger waving back and forth across his field of vision. Doctors rated right up there with needles on his personal dislike scale. The blue eyes above him narrowed in irritation. He hid a smile and looked over at his brother, who smirked in response. Chris suddenly had a change of heart. If I do what this guy says, maybe he'll leave us alone. Giving the doctor his full attention, Chris obediently tracked the finger with his eyes.
Metzger nodded. "Very good." He turned to Hogan. "Though he's not said so, he is undoubtedly suffering a rather bad headache and may experience some dizziness, but I find no evidence for concern. Just see that he rests, with no strenuous activity for a few days." He turned back and patted Chris' arm. "You, young Hogan, seem to share your brother's luck."
Chris stared at Metzger in confusion before his gaze slid to his brother's amused expression. I feel like I've fallen through the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Any minute now, Rob's going to turn into the rabbit and go running off to see the Queen! He squinted at Metzger. This guy definitely fits the bill for the Mad Hatter!
Chris' vision suddenly began to darken. He tightened his grip on his brother's hand. "Don't go away, Rob."
"I'll be here, Chris," Hogan reassured him. "We'll talk when you're feeling better."
Chris' sighed and let his eyes close. A few seconds later, they flew open again and he struggled to sit up. "My crew! Rob, my crew!" Ignoring his pounding headache, Chris squirmed against Hogan's hands and tried to look around for his men. He remembered bailing out of his wounded plane and the glowing tracers angling up out of the darkness. He remembered the tops of his crew's parachutes floating below him. And then nothing.
"Stay still, Chris!" Hogan leaned over and held him down. "Chris!" Chris finally stopped struggling and looked up with stricken eyes. Hogan pulled in a deep breath. "I'm sorry. They didn't make it."
Chris blinked. The words echoed in his mind, causing more pain than his wounds. They didn't make it? But we were all supposed to go out Tuesday night to celebrate Trev's birthday! His best friend's party was supposed to have been a surprise. But of course, Trev had found out about it. The one thing that Trev hadn't been able to discover was that Chris had even been able to coax Biscuit into making the chocolate fudge cake Trev was so fond of. Chris' eyes squeezed shut as grief ripped through him.
No! Dammit, NO! Chris jerked out of his brother's hands and rolled over to face the wall
Hogan frowned helplessly. He barely felt Metzger take him by the arm and gently pull him across the room.
"Let him rest, Colonel," Metzger said softly. He considered Hogan's pale appearance and the dark circles of fatigue and worry beneath his eyes. He guided the officer further away from the cot and pushed him into a chair against the wall. Hogan looked up in bewilderment.
Metzger sat in front of him, but at an angle so that he didn't block Hogan's view of his brother. Placing his hands on his knees, he leaned forward and stared into the deep brown eyes. "What is it that troubles you so much, Robert?"
Hogan stared at him in surprise. In all the time they'd known each other, Metzger had called him by his given name only once. Shortly after awaking from a near-coma, Hogan had struggled out of a particularly vicious nightmare, only to be sent back into a dreamless sleep by the doctor's reassurances and comforting voice.
A finger tapping him on the knee pulled him back to the present. "I'm just a little on edge."
Metzger was quiet for a moment, then said softly, "I realize that you are concerned for Christopher, but you could see for yourself that his injuries are not serious. Yet you called me here anyway. As you said, Robert, you over-reacted. And that is not like you at all. There must be something else that brought on this reaction; something perhaps you'd like to talk about?"
Hogan's gaze dropped to the floor and one shoulder lifted in a weak shrug.
Metzger frowned, taken aback by the uncharacteristic reticence and vulnerability. He reached out and covered Hogan's hand with his own. "You are my friend, Robert." He smiled when Hogan looked up. "I also consider your men my friends. But you are someone I believe will remain a close friend no matter where life might take us." He stared into Hogan eyes. "Am I wrong in feeling this way?"
Hogan mutely shook his head.
Metzger nodded. "If I were to have something weighing heavily on my mind, Robert, I would come to you to share it. For I know that you would listen and not judge. Just by listening, you would help me to feel better." The corner of Hogan's mouth lifted into a small smile. "I would do the same for you, if you would allow me."
Hogan's smile grew for a moment, but faded again when he looked across the room at Chris. He felt Metzger's hand briefly tighten on his own.
"I . . ." Hogan's voice cracked. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "I received a letter a few days ago from our brother, Ted. He told me . . . Jim . . ." he broke off, unable to go any further.
Metzger waited patiently. Hogan wasn't a man to be pushed into anything, especially something so personal and painful.
When Hogan finally looked back, his eyes were shimmering with unshed tears. "Our brother Jim was an engineer on an aircraft carrier. Ted wrote that he went down with his ship."
Metzger closed his eyes in empathetic pain. Rising out of his chair, he gently enfolded Hogan into his arms; something he'd once wished a friend would have done for him under similar circumstances. Hogan stiffened at the unexpected familiarity, then gradually relaxed into the embrace. Metzger whispered, "I am sorry, Robert."
Hogan nodded against Metzger's shoulder; his eyes fixed on his brother's sleeping form. After a moment, he pulled away and still staring at Chris, spoke in a voice tight with pain. "Jim was married . . .and had four kids." He winced. "Five. The baby would've just been born."
Metzger bowed his head, his heart aching for the newly widowed young mother and her children.
Hogan watched the easy rise and fall of his brother's chest beneath the blanket. "I always thought . . ." his voice trailed off when Chris shifted and sighed in his sleep. Seeing that Chris wasn't going to wake, he continued, in a voice grown soft and wistful. "I always thought that our family would somehow make it through the war untouched."
"You had faith, Robert."
Hogan's head whipped toward him. "Yeah? Well, a fat lot of good my faith did Jim!" He leaned closer, his gaze now black with anger. "What was my reward for all my faithfulness, huh? A dead brother, lying under the ocean with a bunch of other guys whose families probably also had faith!"
Metzger wisely remained silent. Hogan looked away, straightening abruptly as he shoved one hand through his air. "I'm sorry, Kurt," he murmured, closing his eyes. "I didn't mean to make you a target for everything I'm feeling right now."
Metzger grasped his friend's shoulder. "I don't mind, Robert." His blue eyes crinkled with amusement as he added, "My father often tells me that I should have become a bartender rather than a doctor." Hogan chuckled, picturing Metzger in the unlikely setting.
Metzger got to his feet, at the same time tugging Hogan out of his chair. "And now, I want you to go up to your quarters and rest." He held up his hand when Hogan began to protest. "I will stay with your brother." Seeing Hogan's reluctance, he sighed and waggled his finger. "Doctor's orders! And I believe that even a colonel must answer to the Chief Medical Officer, yes?"
Hogan's eyebrows shot upward. "Who said you were CMO?"
"And just what other doctor spends so much time here? I feel I am a member of your unit now!"
Hogan shook his head in surrender and walked toward the barracks.
Metzger watched him go and then crossed the room to Chris' bedside. "Christopher," he said smugly, "this date shall go
down in history as one of the few times your brother actually obeyed my orders!"
When Chris opened his eyes, he briefly believed he was in his bunk at the 305th. But then he realized that the scarred wood just inches from his face didn't belong in his quarters. He shifted on the cot and felt his stomach do a slow roll in reaction to the spinning sensation he'd set off in his head. He held his breath and waited, hoping his stomach would stay where it belonged. The nausea eventually ebbed, and he sighed softly in relief.
An instant later, his memory returned with brutal clarity.
His plane and crew were gone. The plane, with all of her individual quirks, could be replaced. His friends, however, could never be replaced, nor forgotten. In just moments, five men --- five friends --- were lost.
The piece of shrapnel that easily could have killed him, took Chad Wilkins' life instead. Trevor Adamson would never see his twenty-second birthday, nor enjoy another chocolate fudge birthday cake. Thomas Beauringer, Jr., just two months old, would never have the chance to know his father. Marc Douglas' startlingly deep voice would never be heard again. And Dennis Griswold's parents would soon learn that their only child was gone forever.
Chris felt a sob building in his throat. Pulling in a shaky breath, he focused his attention onto safer matters.
Where am I, anyway? Not ready to move and risk setting off a repeat of the queasiness, he settled for taking an experimental sniff. Judging by the mustiness of the air, he was probably in a tunnel, root cellar or cave of some sort. Only one thing was certain: wherever he was, Rob was with him. And this was where matters really got confused.
Rob was supposed to be a prisoner of war in LuftStalag 13 outside of Hammelburg. That part kind of fit. Their bombing raid had been on a component factory near Hammelburg, and he'd been shot down before reaching it. He wondered if the remainder of the squadron had been successful in taking out the target. That thought, unfortunately, led him right back to the loss of his crewmates.
He tensed when someone moved in the chair next to the cot.
"Rob?" He turned over and looked up into a pair of vivid blue eyes beneath a thick thatch of ice-blond hair. Oh. You again.
"I am afraid you'll have to settle for me, young Hogan." Metzger grinned down at Chris and reached to take his pulse. He didn't miss Chris' wary twitch, or the suspicion in his eyes as he stared back.
"You're that doctor, right? Mercer?"
Metzger grimaced and dropped Chris' hand back onto the bed. "Metzger."
An impudent grin appeared on Chris' face. "Oh, yeah; Metzger. Listen, would you please stop calling me 'young Hogan'?"
"Isn't that who you are?" Metzger teased.
"My name is Chris, or Christopher, or Lieutenant Hogan. Take your pick of those three."
Metzger was seriously tempted to continue with the teasing, but decided to have mercy --- for the moment. "Very well."
Chris pulled himself into a sitting position and gulped when the room spun wildly around him. He swallowed against the nausea rising in his throat, vaguely aware of Metzger's supporting hand at his shoulder. The room gradually settled. Feeling better now that he could tell which way was up; he shook off the doctor's hand and leaned back against the wall.
"You said earlier that you're Rob's friend. How did you two meet up?"
"Well, now. That is a long story."
"I'm not going anywhere for awhile."
"That is correct," Metzger admitted with a shrug. "By the way, the colonel is sleeping, but will return soon, I'm certain."
"Quit changing the subject!" Chris snapped, immediately regretting it as his head thundered in protest.
Metzger swore beneath his breath. The Hogan brothers apparently shared a mulish nature as well as a dislike of needles. "Very well. I first met your brother when I was brought here to treat his injuries less than a year ago." He leaned forward in concern when Chris lost what little color he had regained.
"His injuries?" Chris whispered in a stricken tone. "What injuries? How was he hurt? What ---- "
"This is something you can discuss with your brother, yes?" Metzger waved away any protest as Chris' green eyes flashed with anger. "No. He will tell you if you ask. But just remember; he is quite healthy now."
"'Allo, 'allo, 'allo! 'E's awake gents!" Newkirk bounced into the room, LeBeau, Carter and Kinch right on his heels. The Englishman prodded Carter in the ribs and tipped his head toward Chris. "Look at 'im, Carter, me lad! Didn't I tell you?"
Carter nodded. He was no expert on what women liked, but even he realized they'd be drawn to the young man's dark good looks and unusual emerald green eyes. Despite his bedraggled condition, Chris was as handsome as his eldest brother.
Chris shifted uneasily when he found himself suddenly surrounded. He glanced over at Metzger and received an impish wink. No help from that quarter. He looked back up at the men, feeling distinctly uncomfortable at being in the disadvantage of a sitting position. With Metzger's help, he struggled to his feet.
Kinch took a step forward. "I'm Sergeant Kinchloe, but you can call me Kinch. We don't stand on formality around here." Chris shook his hand and then pointedly stared down at where Metzger's hand still gripped his arm. The doctor rolled his eye, but released him. Kinch continued with the introductions, all the while taking note of Chris' reactions. Poor kid's totally overwhelmed!
"Pleased to meet you." Chris told them with a tentative smile. "I'm Lt. Christopher Hogan, but Rob's . . . uh . . whoops. Colonel Hogan's probably already told you that, right?"
Kinch smiled. "Yeah."
"Listen, fellas," Chris gingerly touched the bandage on his head. "Could someone please tell me where the hell I'm at?"
"You're at Stalag 13," came the answer from the doorway.
"Rob!" Chris hurled himself across the room and pulled his brother into a fierce hug.
Hogan grunted at the impact, but blocked out the presence of the other men and tightened his arms around his brother's lanky frame. At Chris' gasp of pain, he quickly broke the embrace.
"Okay, that's enough. Sit down." Hogan guided Chris back to the cot.
Metzger stepped aside; content to let Hogan get Chris settled. Turning to the men, he placed his hands on his hips and said in tone laced with mock indignance, "Come now, I've not had any breakfast and I expect to be fed! A doctor does not make barracks calls without payment, remember!" He shooed them toward the door.
"It doesn't take all of us to feed you!" Newkirk protested.
"I wish to be waited on hand and foot!" Metzger rasped from between clenched teeth.
"Gee, Doc, that sounds pretty unsanitary to me."
Metzger let out a strangled cry and shoved the entire group out of the room, finally leaving the two brothers alone.
"C'mon, Rob, it's been three years since we've seen each other!" Chris cried plaintively, resisting Hogan's efforts to get him to lie down. "I want to talk with you!"
"I promise we'll talk after you get some rest, Chris," Hogan firmly pressed him down onto the cot. The stubborn light in his eyes warned Chris he wasn't going to win this skirmish.
Chris surrendered and gave him a lop-sided grin. "After all this time, you're still trying to make deals to get me to go to
Metzger pinned Hogan with a questioning gaze when the officer climbed out of the tunnel entrance a short time later. "It took some doing, but he finally gave in. He's down for the count."
"Very good." Metzger patted his stomach and pushed back from the table with a satisfied grunt. "Thank you for the delicious meal, LeBeau. It was one of the most delicious payments I've received."
"Merci, Kurt. You are most kind." LeBeau's eyes danced at the compliment.
Hogan circled the table, studying the remains of the doctor's meal. "You wouldn't perhaps have anything left for a starving colonel, would you?"
"Mais oui, mon colonel." LeBeau ladled up a plate of steaming eggs, liberally mixed with mushrooms and bits of sausage. Placing it on the table, he asked, "Would Christophe be hungry, Colonel?"
Hogan raised a spoonful of eggs. "Oh, I'm sure he'll be hungry when he wakes up, LeBeau." You'll soon find out just how hungry!
"He doin' okay?" Kinch asked, watching Hogan take another bite.
"Yeah." Hogan frowned and idly pushed some of the food around on his plate. "But he's not giving himself enough time to recover." Metzger got up from the table and poked Hogan's shoulder in passing.
"He sounds like another Hogan brother that I know," he commented, enjoying the expression of disgust on Hogan's face. He walked over to the tunnel entrance and rapped on the bunk frame.
"You leavin' now, Doc?"
"Yes, Carter. I have the next three days off duty from the hospital and I intend to enjoy them thoroughly!" He paused and locked eyes with Hogan. "I will check on Christopher before I leave, Colonel." Acknowledging Hogan's smile with a nod, he waved and descended into the tunnel.
"How did the meeting with Tiger go?" Kinch asked. In all of the activity since Chris' arrival, they hadn't had time to hear about Tiger's mysterious call.
Hogan pushed away his half-full plate and rested his chin on one palm. "Fine. She had a few things she wanted to run by
me." At their puzzled looks, his eyes crinkled in amusement. "Some things just need to be taken care of in person, fellas."
Chris woke with a lazy yawn. His head felt like his brains had been replaced with pillow stuffing, and his mouth tasted like he'd eaten a piece of tarmac. Grimacing at the taste, he rubbed a hand over his face and found the beginnings of a good beard. He'd have to see about borrowing someone's kit. Speaking of five o'clock shadows… He glanced down at his watch and felt his jaw drop. I've been asleep for over twelve hours?!
He swung his legs off the cot just as Hogan and Carter entered. Chris smiled inwardly. The sergeant reminded him of the 305th's mascot, a lively Jack Russell terrier with big eyes and lots of heart. All he needs is a wagging tail. Chris mused, watching Carter's energetic steps.
"How ya feeling, Lieutenant?"
Chris shared an amused glance with his brother. "I'm feeling okay, Carter. And it's Chris, remember?"
"Oh, yeah." Carter's expression turned serious. "I'm really sorry about your friends."
Chris' heart lurched at the reminder. "Thanks." He straightened his shoulders and turned to Hogan. "I need to get back to the 305th, Rob." Grimacing, he amended, "I mean, Colonel."
"We'll see that you get back as soon as possible. In the meantime, I want you to take it easy and let your wounds heal."
Chris' temper flared. "I said I was fine! I can travel right now!"
Carter shifted uncomfortably. A shave-tail didn't yell at a full-bird colonel, even if he were a brother! He glanced between the two men, wincing at Hogan's equally stormy expression.
Ohmigosh! Chris' stomach dropped somewhere near the vicinity of his feet. What have I done? And in front of Carter?! He stiffened to attention. "I apologize for running off at the mouth, Colonel Hogan. I promise to rest, sir."
Hogan relaxed at the remorse in his brother's eyes. "Apology accepted." Chris relaxed marginally, but remained at attention. "Kinch will set up the arrangements tonight. I'll fill you in on the details later." Hogan paused, taking note of Chris' appearance. "I'll bring down a kit so you can shave and clean up. And we'll get you a new shirt." With a nod to Carter, Hogan led the way out of the room.
"Thank you, sir." Chris fell into step with them and glanced curiously at the tunnel construction. "This is quite a set-up."
"Well, it won't win any awards for beauty, but we call it 'home'." Hogan said, watching Carter start up the ladder to the barracks. Chris followed Carter's progress. His eyes widened when the tunnel entrance opened. Hogan could almost hear his brother's mind turning, noting every detail. "No, Lieutenant," he admonished, his tone adamant.
"Aw, come on, Rob!" Chris blushed right down to his collar. "Colonel!"
Hogan suppressed his laughter. Giving Chris orders felt as unnatural as Chris addressing him by his rank. Hopefully, they'd soon find a comfortable balance between their personal and professional relationships.
"I said no," Hogan repeated sternly. "You stay in the tunnel. It's too risky for you to come top-side." Chris' shoulders
drooped and he slowly turned and started back down the tunnel. Hogan sighed. It's no picnic for me, either, kid!
Hours later, Chris was back at the ladder and staring up at the entrance. His nose twitched at the enticing aromas drifting down into the tunnel. Glancing down at his watch, he noted it was well past time for evening meal back at the 305th. He took a deep, appreciative sniff and licked his lips. They'd bring him something to eat; soon, he hoped. He just had to be patient. His stomach growled. He looked down and rubbed a hand across his belly. Yeah, I hear ya, already! Taking a firm grip on his slipping control, he turned away from the ladder and temptation and walked back to "his room". Maybe a nap would help.
Finding a comfortable position on the low cot was nigh on impossible. He hated lying on his back. His favorite position was on his right side, but his wound prevented that. Lying on his left side was uncomfortable as lying on his back, and he wouldn't even consider lying on his stomach. Growling in frustration, he sat up and stared around the room. His gaze wandered aimlessly over the sparse furnishings before drifting back to the tunnel.
Somewhere above his head, Stalag 13 was nearing the end of the day. Somewhere up there, were Rob and his men and a place that had only been hinted about in letters. Chris gazed wistfully at the rough-hewn boards above his head. And let's not forget food! Blowing out a deep sigh, he contemplated the room again.
It was definitely not the cheeriest of places. The light from the single overhead bulb cast deep shadows, filling the corners
of the room. Distorted images appeared to waver on the walls. Creepy. Chris held his breath and listened. Nothing. Not a
sound. He suddenly realized how very isolated he was tucked away below ground in the small room. Like being in a tomb.
A head to toe shudder passed through him. He considered the misshapen shadows again, then jumped to his feet and
headed back to the ladder.
Kinch's head jerked toward the bunk entrance when it opened with a muted bang. Uh, oh. He exchanged amused glances with the others when Chris appeared, his lanky body climbing the ladder with ease.
"Well now, it looks like lit'l brother got restless." Newkirk swaggered over to Chris, watching the young man close the entrance with a single, smack of his palm to the bunk frame. The Englishman slanted a look at Kinch, who'd also noted the action. This boy's a quick learner, 'e is!
Chris' gaze was riveted on the table loaded with the leftovers. His mouth literally flooded in anticipation.
LeBeau laughed and strode over to Chris. "Voulez-vous manger mon petit frére?"
"Huh?" Chris blinked down at him.
"That means do you want to eat?" Carter chuckled, slapping him on the back.
"Close enough," LeBeau muttered with a shrug. He patted Chris' flat stomach. "You are much too thin! You need to eat!"
Chris rolled his eyes, recognizing a mother hen when he heard one. "Do you mind if we stop talking about it and let me get to it? Please?" He looked around the barracks as LeBeau led him to the table. "Uh . . . where's Ro. . .Colonel Hogan?"
Kinch snickered. "He's in the kommandant's office, but he should be back soon." He hoped Chris would pick up on the hint to grab some food and retreat back into the tunnel. Hogan wouldn't be happy if he found his brother sitting in the barracks.
Chris caught the hint, but couldn't resist sitting down to the full plate LeBeau placed before him. His first bite was halfway to his mouth when the barracks door opened and Schultz walked in.
Whoops! Chris shoved the bite into his mouth and hunched his shoulders in an effort to make himself as small as possible. Schultz walked behind him. Chris lowered his head and brought his hand up alongside his face. Oh, wonderful.
"Will there be a poker game tonight?" Schultz inquired, stopping near Chris' side and giving Newkirk a hopeful glance.
"A poker game, Schultzie?" Newkirk answered with a sly wink. "Now weren't you just telling us the other day, that poker isn't allowed?"
"Who, me?" Schultz's eyes widened with mock innocence.
"Come on then, mate!" Newkirk rose from the table and casually placed himself between Schultz and Chris. "Why don't you just tell us what's really goin' on, eh?"
Schultz grimaced. "I need money to buy Greta a present. It is her birthday Thursday."
"Why didn't you say so, Schultz? We can float you a loan, can't we fellas?" Kinch pointedly ignored the parade of expressions marching across Chris' face.
"A loan?" Chris mouthed. He was beginning to think he'd been right. Maybe he was in Wonderland. He resisted taking a peek to see if the big German had fuzzy white ears.
"Would you? Oh, that would be wonderful! Such nice boys!" Schultz's beatific smile faded into a suspicious squint. "What kind of interest?"
LeBeau clapped Schultz on the shoulder and tried to help Newkirk prod him to the door. "No interest, Schultzie."
Schultz's smile returned and he headed to the door. Hogan entered the barracks at that moment, looked beyond Schultz, and spotted his errant brother. Chris glanced up, met his brother's frosty glare and gave serious thought to crawling under the table. Oh, boy. Just bury me now.
Schultz suddenly braced himself against LeBeau and Newkirk's prodding and stopped at the end of the table. He took several slow steps backward, then leaned down and peered into Chris' round eyes.
"Who are you?" Schultz 's head whipped toward Hogan. "Who is he?"
"Who, him?" countered Hogan, strolling over to the table and stopping beside Chris.
Hogan pointed to Chris. "You mean this guy?"
"JA!" Schultz thundered.
"Oh, he's just my brother."
"Oh, that is all right, then." Schultz made a half-bow and tipped his head in a polite nod. "Very pleased to meet you."
Chris cracked a weak smile, then peered up at his brother in disbelief. You've got to be kidding!
Hogan's answer finally sank in, making Schultz weak in the knees. "YOUR BROTHER?? Colonel Hogan, what . . . how . . . he . . . "
"Don't worry about it, Schultz." Hogan wrapped an arm around him and led him to the barracks door. "He just dropped in for a visit. He won't be staying long." He shoved Schultz out the door, slammed it closed and then slowly turned toward Chris. His voice held a wealth of anger.
"My quarters, Lieutenant."
Chris winced. Taking a deep breath, he rose from the table and meekly followed Hogan into his quarters.
Hogan kept his back to Chris until the door had closed behind them. "Do you want to explain to me why you disobeyed my orders to stay in the tunnel, Lieutenant?"
Chris snapped to attention and his eyes fastened on a point somewhere in the middle of Hogan's forehead. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
Oh, I hate this. "Permission granted," Hogan sighed, slumping into his chair.
"May I sit, sir?" Chris' tone remained formal as he relaxed into parade rest.
Hogan wearily waved a hand in the direction of his bunk.
Chris sat and braced his elbows on his knees. He couldn't bring himself to meet his brother's gaze. "I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't have come up. But I just couldn't stand it down there any longer."
"You haven't gotten claustrophobic on me, have you?"
Chris' head jerked up. "Hell, no! Be a heck of thing for a pilot, wouldn't it?"
"Then what?" Hogan frowned when Chris seemed to draw in on himself.
"I was hungry . . . and . . ."
"And there was too much time to think," Chris mumbled.
Hogan's expression softened. Chris' cocky attitude and boundless energy were nowhere to be seen. He appeared to be what he was: a very young man reeling from too many personal losses in too short a time. Hogan crossed the room to sit beside Chris. He braced his elbows on his knees, mirroring Chris' position, and listened while Chris continued in a quiet voice.
"It was supposed to be a milk run. Fly in, drop our bombs on the component factory and fly back to base. Instead, we flew smack into that anti-aircraft artillery. The flak was so heavy, we could've walked on it." Chris ran a hand through his hair and grimaced when his fingers brushed across the cut on his head. "A piece of shrapnel came right through the cockpit; missed me by inches. Chad Wilkins, my co-pilot, wasn't so lucky. It damned near took his head off." His throat tightened. He could practically smell the sickening stench of blood that had filled the cockpit when Chad had jerked back in his seat and gone silent.
Hogan remained silent, willing to listen as long as it took.
Chris' gaze moved to the far wall. "My friends . . . my entire flight crew . . . all dead. Beuringer, my tailgunner, opened his chute too soon when we bailed out. He got hung up on the stabilizer." He shuddered, unable to block the memory of his friend plummeting helplessly to his death behind the plane. "Beau never did have any patience," he said in a shaky whisper. He shook himself, blinking hard. "Douglas, Adamson and Griswold must have been killed by flak or died on impact."
Emerald-green eyes brilliant with pain and tears rose to meet Hogan's. "I'm the only one to survive, Rob. Why? Why am I still walking around breathin' while they're dead?" Chris squeezed his eyes shut, spilling the tears. "I keep seein' their faces . . . hearing their voices . . . and Jim . . ." He buried his face in his hands, his voice breaking on a ragged sob.
Hogan swallowed his own tears and pulled Chris into his arms; holding him as he finally gave into his grief with wrenching sobs. He was actually surprised that Chris had managed to hold out as long as he had.
It wasn't long before Chris' sobs slowed. His breath hitched in his throat as he tried to draw a full breath. His heart still had a gaping hole in it, but it felt a little easier to bear. Talking things out with Rob had always helped. He relaxed against his brother, savoring the moment of closeness after their three-year separation. After a few moments, Chris gently pulled away and wiped at his face, darting an embarrassed glance from beneath wet lashes.
"I don't remember the last time I cried like that."
"The day Dad died," Hogan replied without thinking, then trembled involuntarily, instantly reliving the horror of walking onto their front porch and finding their father dead from a massive heart attack. Closing his eyes, he shoved the painful memory as far away as possible, back into the deepest recesses of his mind. With his mental balance regained, he glanced over at Chris.
"I try not to remember it, either," whispered Chris, looking back with haunted eyes. Almost in betrayal, his memory threw out the stark image of their father's contorted face and awkwardly sprawled body. He choked back another sob and stared at the floor as an uncomfortable silence fell between them. Several minutes passed, then his brother's hand began rubbing his back. He focused on the soothing motion, leaving the disturbing vision behind.
"For depressing you even more?"
"For listening." Chris gave him a faint lop-sided smile. "I've really missed being able to talk with you. Writing a letter just isn't the same, you know?"
A bittersweet pang shot through Hogan at the echo of Jim's long-ago complaint.
"How did you get hurt last year?" Chris stared searchingly at him. Hogan's hand halted on his back.
"How did you find out about that?" An instant later, everything fell into place. "Metzger told you." Hogan removed his hand and his posture went rigid.
"Leave Metzger out of this," growled Chris. "Metzger isn't the subject here. Tell me how you got hurt."
"I'm all right."
Chris' jaw clenched. He hated his brother's penchant for deflecting personal questions. Gripping the edge of the bed with both hands, he rasped out, "Dammit, Rob, will you just answer the question!?"
Hogan had forgotten how much of a bulldog Chris could be when he latched onto something. "I'm in command of an underground unit operating out of Stalag 13. I was hurt during one of our missions."
"I got hit by shrapnel." Hogan wiped a hand across his face.
"Left shoulder, right side, left leg," Hogan bit out. Reluctantly, he admitted, "I also hit my head and lost about three weeks, but most of my memory's returned."
"I don't like the sound of this," Chris whispered. His eyes had taken on enormous proportions.
"Do I look like I'm at death's door? I'm okay!"
"Were you ever going to tell us?" Hogan's face took on a closed expression. "You weren't, were you!?" Chris jumped to his feet, aching to smash something. His voice lowered, raw with anger. "You almost get yourself killed, and you don't think it's important enough to tell your family about it?"
"Use your head, Chris! How the hell was I supposed to tell you, huh?" Hogan stood and faced his brother. "All of our letters are censored; a fact which seems to have slipped your mind. And don't you think the Krauts might have gotten just a teensy bit curious as to how I managed to nearly die from injuries that couldn't possibly have happened in a P.O.W. camp?" He leaned forward, crossing his arms tightly across his chest and added in a mocking tone, "The last time I checked, the enemy didn't take kindly to sabotage activities."
"DAMMIT!!" Chris exploded, pressing his fists against his forehead. He paced away, the pounding in his head threatening to drown out his thoughts. He whirled and stalked back, his voice rising. "You tell me, Rob! How the hell am I supposed to feel? Jim's dead, I find out you almost die, and I'm just supposed to say, 'Oh, well, I've still got Ted and Mags, so NO BIG DEAL?!?" He threw his hands into the air, shaking with anger, frustration and fear. Hogan said nothing, momentarily stricken into silence by the mention of Jim's death. "My brothers and people I care about are dying and getting hurt all around me, and I'm just supposed to pretend as if nothing's happened?!"
"Of course not!" Hogan ducked his head, feeling his hard fought control slipping. His eyes snapped up and he pinned Chris with his own stare. "What do you expect from me, Chris?! Despite what you might want, you and the rest of our family are no longer my main concern, nor does my world revolve around all of you anymore!" Ignoring Chris' growing pallor, he snarled, "If I get a hangnail, I'm not about to stop everything and put the war on hold just because YOU feel you have a RIGHT to know about it!"
"That's not what I . . ." sputtered Chris, lifting a shaking hand to his forehead.
"And when I'm given a dangerous mission," Hogan leaned closer, "what do you want me to do? Tell High Command, 'SORRY! Can't do it! I MIGHT GET HURT?!' "
Chris stumbled back from the shouted tirade. Never in his life had he seen his brother so utterly furious.
Hogan's head lowered and cocked as he continued in a voice gone silky with menace. "Or would you rather I just tell them they have to clear everything with you first?"
Chris gulped, unable to even draw enough breath to reply. The man before him bore little resemblance to his brother, and wore an expression so dangerous he felt physically threatened.
"Or better yet," Hogan added in the same menacing tone, "how about I just stay in my quarters?" He advanced on Chris, clamping an iron grip on his brother's trembling shoulder. "Yeah! That's it! I'll just stay nice and safe and let the other guys take all the chances!"
The pounding in Chris' ears grew to a deafening roar. He swayed, blinking, as Rob's face wavered in and out of focus. Then his vision went completely black. His eyes rolled in his head and he fell forward.
Hogan went cold "Chris!" Catching the limp weight, he carried his brother the few steps to the bunk and gently lowered him onto it. Jerking the spare blanket off the top bunk, he tucked it around Chris and then sat on a nearby chair and covered his face with his hands. Shame and remorse swept over him.
What the hell did you do? Some brother you are!
He'd only wanted Chris to understand his position. But somewhere along the way, he'd lost sight of that and had blown an emotional fuse.
The all-consuming fury was gone. Chris had borne the brunt of it and had collapsed beneath the force of it. Hogan groaned behind the shelter of his hands, remembering the fear in Chris' emerald eyes as he'd backed away. Hogan dropped his hands and looked over at his brother.
Chris was still unconscious, his face pale beneath his black hair. Hogan placed his hand on his brother's chest and gave him a gentle nudge. "Chris?" He slumped in relief when Chris shifted and his eyes fluttered open.
"Sorry 'bout that," Chris said in a slurred whisper.
"You have nothing to be sorry about. I'm the one who needs to apologize." He took Chris' hand, dredging up a faint grin when it wrapped around his own. "You didn't deserve to be bullied; especially when you're not up to defending yourself."
"How long have you been carrying all that around?"
"Since Ted's letter." Hogan's gaze fell away. "Metzger put a crack in the wall earlier, I guess. And then you --- "
"Blew it wide open."
Hogan looked up. A weak grin flitted across his face. "Yeah, you sure did."
"Well, I'm not going to say it was a pleasant experience, Rob, but I'm glad you finally got it all out . . ." Chris gave his brother a narrow look. "You did get it all out, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I'd say you got the full load," Hogan chuckled.
"Good." Chris fell silent for a moment, and then added softly, "You were right, by the way. I was way out of line."
"You were concerned and afraid and I wasn't considerate of what you've been through, yourself." He squeezed Chris' hand. "Look, we were both right and wrong at the same time, okay? Now let's drop it."
Chris nodded and sat up and reeled with dizziness when his aching head protested the sudden movement. Hogan flushed with guilt and reached out to support him.
"I'm fine," Chris muttered, tugging his hands away. He swung his legs off the bunk. "I'll go back down now, Rob. And I promise to stay there this time."
"I thought you were hungry?"
Chris brightened at the reminder. "Hey, yeah! Food!"
For the first time in LeBeau's life, he was tired of cooking. He wiped a hand over his forehead and grimaced at the sticky sweat coating his skin. Trying to fill up Chris' seemingly bottomless stomach was proving to be a challenge, one he was starting to believe he was incapable of meeting. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Chris place the last bite of food from his plate into his mouth. LeBeau moaned, resigning himself to the inevitable call for more food.
"You gonna eat that?" Chris pointed his fork at a piece of meat still on his brother's plate.
"Oh, by all means, please take it off my hands." Hogan obligingly shoved his plate in front of him. Chris gave him a grin by way of thanks, then tore into the meat as if he hadn't just finished three plates heaping with food.
Carter gaped in amazement. "Holy cow, Chris, where do you put it?"
"I do believe 'e's part camel, Andrew!" Newkirk offered, leaning companionably against Chris' shoulder.
"Camels store up water, Newkirk, not food." Kinch pointed out in a vague tone, watching the meat disappear. The young man's appetite would put a boxer in training to shame.
Newkirk tipped his head and thought for a moment. "Well, maybe 'e's part chipmunk, then? You know, stuffing the food into 'is cheeks, or some such place?"
Chris choked. Carter reached over and helpfully thumped him on the back. Chris winced at the pummeling and heard his brother's laughter in the background. He squinted balefully through watering eyes in Hogan's direction.
"Mon colonel," LeBeau tore off his apron and sat down at the table. "we will have to re-stock our pantry soon if he continues to eat like this! I do not understand how one can eat so much and yet stay so thin!" His earlier concern for Chris' starving waif look was completely forgotten in light of their rapidly diminishing food supply.
"Aw, c'mon, fellas!" Chris thumped his fork down on the table. "What I put away doesn't even compare to what the colonel, here, used to manage!" Chris grinned and his eyes took on a wicked gleam.
Hogan sensed impending doom. Uh, oh.
"What do you mean, Chris?" Carter glanced between the brothers, anxious to hear the bit of personal history.
"He was kind of like a baby bird, you know?" Chris leaned an elbow on the table and lazily waved a hand in the air. "All mouth, with Mom just shoveling food in, and it never seemed to show up anywhere on him! You'd swear by looking at him that Mom was starving him!"
Hogan's eyes narrowed in suspicion. In his mind, a drum roll was building.
"Don't just leave us 'anging, 'ere, mate!" Newkirk placed an arm around Chris' shoulders and gave him a gentle shake.
Chris took his time wiping crumbs from his fingers. With exaggerated movements, he reached into his hip pocket, pulled out his wallet, opened it and with a dramatic flourish extracted a photo. He set it in the middle of the table and shot a triumphant smile in his brother's direction.
"See what I mean?"
Hogan groaned. It was the picture taken by their mother after his West Point graduation ceremony. Having Chris standing just in front of his left side didn't disguise the fact that he had been even thinner than Chris. His uniform hung on his narrow shoulders, despite having been taken in as much as possible by the academy's tailor. It was years later before he'd actually filled out, losing the painful thinness of his youth.
He hung his head, laughter and good-natured ribbing coming at him from all directions. Score one for baby brother! He glared at Chris from beneath lowered brows. Chris laughed gleefully, far from intimidated.
"Oh, guv'nor!" gasped Newkirk, "You were as thin as a ruddy Maypole!"
"I've seen wider swizzle sticks!" Kinch laughed, getting in his own shot
"All right, all right!" Hogan waved to get their attention and pointed at the picture. "But have you noticed the little twerp beside me, huh?"
Chris dove for the photo, but missed by scant inches as Newkirk deftly yanked it beyond his reach. The men took another look at the picture and erupted into laughter all over again. Chris threw back his head and braced his hands on his hips.
"Would you 'ave a gander at our little Christopher, mates?" Newkirk crowed while dancing around the table flashing the picture.
"Oh, my, Christophe," LeBeau gasped in between chortles, "I don't think you've put on any weight since this picture was taken!"
"My stick pony was wider than you!" Carter sang out as he fell onto his bunk. He started to get up, but fell back again with a whoop of laughter
"You'd have disappeared if you turned sideways!" Newkirk giggled helplessly.
Chris knew he was beaten. Giving in to a sudden playful urge, he looked over at his brother, crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. It was something he hadn't done since he was seven, but then he never was one to give in to defeat gracefully. The familiar childish insult only caused Hogan to laugh harder.
Newkirk staggered past, his giggles growing louder by the second. Chris took the opportunity to snatch the picture away from him, then glanced around in disgust. LeBeau was face down at the table, one fist weakly thumping an accent to his muffled laughter. Kinch sat beside him, wiping at the tears rolling down his face. He looked up at Chris and broke up all over again. Carter, meanwhile, was painfully gasping for breath and rolling in his bunk holding his ribs. The only one who had managed to regain some control was Hogan. Chris waved the photo at him before placing it back into the safety of his wallet.
Deciding that he'd provided enough entertainment for the time being, Chris turned his back on them and opened the tunnel
entrance. "I believe I'll go below now," he announced over his shoulder in a voice layered with injured dignity. He turned
back long enough to give his brother a mischievous wink and crisp salute, then disappeared into the tunnel.
Newkirk shook his head in mild amusement as he descended into the tunnel system the next day. Never been on a mission like this before! His orders were to locate and retrieve one Lt. Christopher Hogan. The young pilot had taken to prowling the tunnels, showing up in the most out of the way places. His wandering had soon revealed that he shared his brother's uncanny ability for silence when he moved.
The most harrowing example had occurred just hours before. Carter had been hard at work in his small laboratory secreted away in their tunnel system. Suddenly and without warning, Chris had materialized at his side. Normally, this wouldn't have been a problem, but Carter had been working on a particularly delicate arrangement of explosives at the time. Chris' sudden appearance at his elbow startled Carter so badly, he'd almost blown them both to smithereens. Carter's nerves still hadn't recovered from the trauma.
Ought to take Christopher under me wing. 'E shows great potential, 'e does. Newkirk chuckled softly. He reached the radio room and peered inside. No one there but Kinch. Newkirk gave him a cavalier wave and moved on in his search.
He sauntered down the tunnel until he reached the ladder leading to Barracks Three. He stared thoughtfully overhead for a few moments and then dismissed the possibility. Chris had kept his promise to remain in the tunnel system. Newkirk scratched his head and sighed.
Now where could that green-eyed golliwog 'ave got to?
He went a little further until he came to several branches in the system. He glanced to the left. That way led to the emergency tunnel. He considered it, and then glanced to the right. The cooler lay in that direction.
Maybe . . .
A finger tapped him on the back. Newkirk yelped and spun around to discover Chris less than two feet away.
"What's up, Newkirk?" The Englishman pressed one hand over his heart and slumped against the tunnel wall.
"You ruddy well gave me 'eart failure!" Newkirk's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Just 'ow long 'ave you been behind me?"
"Not long," Chris shrugged. "Just since you left the radio room."
"The radio room?!" Newkirk sputtered, outraged and embarrassed at not noticing his shadow. "Bloody 'ell!"
"What?" Chris casually leaned one leather-coated shoulder against the tunnel wall. Newkirk glared at him, noticing that while Chris' expression was innocent, unrepentant mischief gleamed in his green eyes. "Oh, never mind, " Newkirk sighed. "Come on then, ya cheeky devil, you've been given a reprieve. The guv'nor wants to see you topside."
"I do believe I'm being punished," Newkirk grumbled, shoving Chris ahead of him.
Hogan swiveled toward the tunnel entrance, one eyebrow climbing. Chris' raised voice preceded him as he shot out of the tunnel and whirled around to skewer Newkirk with a murderous glare.
"That's the fastest I've seen you move since that time Mom discovered you'd used her best silk scarf as a bandage for the dog!" snickered Hogan.
Chris, intent upon keeping Newkirk in view, barely spared Hogan a glance. "Yeah, well I had a little help this time." Newkirk's eyes widened with innocence. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he ambled past Chris and took a seat at the table.
After pointing Chris to the table, Hogan laid out the plan to return him to the 305th.
The simple, straightforward briefing took just a matter of minutes to complete. Hogan wrapped it up by flicking a finger at the Englishman. "Newkirk, you'll take Chris out tomorrow night." He reached over and patted Chris on the shoulder. "We'll have you back at the 305th before you know it."
"Great!" Chris plunged his fork into the piece of freshly baked strudel that LeBeau had just placed before him.
Hogan cocked his head. "'Great', as in you're going back, or 'great' as in thanks for the food?"
"Both!" Chris mumbled around a mouthful of pastry.
The rumbling growl of a heavy truck's engine ended their conversation. Chris shoved another bite of warm strudel into his mouth and joined Hogan and the others at the door. A cargo truck had pulled up in front of the Klink's headquarters and a Gestapo officer was climbing out the truck's cab. Klink bustled outside to meet him.
"Who's the prancing Kraut?" murmured Chris.
Hogan chuckled, his eyes never leaving the scene. "That's our kommandant, Colonel Wilhelm Klink." He studied the Gestapo officer as the two men walked to the back of the truck. "I wonder what this is all about?" The officer gestured to his guards, who immediately opened the truck's tailgate. Three battered American airmen jumped out and formed a line. Hogan heard a loud gasp and turned to find his brother's eyes riveted to the new arrivals.
"They're from the 305th. That's Parelli, Masters, and the little guy is Moran. Their plane was point in our flight on the component factory." Chris' jaw clenched when Schultz led the men away. "Damn. I don't see Major Thornton, Gallagher or Bishop."
Hogan shared a sober glance with Kinch. The men were now official prisoners of Stalag 13. Hogan thought for a moment. They could be sent back to the 305th with Chris. But it had to be done without tarnishing Klink's sterling record of no escapes. He snapped his fingers.
Chris' head jerked toward him. "I know that look!" He relaxed against the doorframe and smiled with anticipation. "You got that same look the time you were home on leave and you had to juggle two girls in the same night!"
Hogan scowled. "You weren't supposed to know about that, big-mouth!"
"The things you got away with," Chris laughed, shaking his head. His smile faded and his eyes lost all traces of humor when he glanced back out the door. "What's the plan, sir?"
"It's very simple. You're going to drop by Stalag 13 and pick them up before you leave."
Chris' gaze slowly returned to him. "The Krauts are just going to let me take them out of here? I'm just going to walk right up to Klink and tell him to hand them over?"
Chris grimaced and pivoted to face Kinch. "I understand his brains got scrambled last year. You think maybe he's delusional or something?"
Kinch's mustache twitched. "Oh, he's in his right mind." He angled an eyebrow at Hogan, his expression deadpan. "Most of
the time, anyway."
Once back in his quarters, Hogan sat down at his desk and outlined the revised plan again. Chris and several members of the underground would arrive with a truck at Stalag 13 shortly after morning roll call. They would be dressed as Gestapo and Chris, as a captain, would inform Klink that he was to take the three new prisoners to Berlin for further questioning. Newkirk's forged papers would back up the story. Klink would release the men into Chris' hands and the entire bunch would leave Stalag 13 to begin their trip to the 305th. Klink's record would remain intact, Chris and his friends would return to their base and everyone would be happy.
Chris listened to the briefing with one ear as most of his attention was on what Newkirk was doing. He couldn't help squirming when the measuring tape wrapped around his waist.
"Hey, watch it!"
Hogan looked up from the paper on his desk when his brother's voice jumped a full octave. Newkirk's hand skimmed down Chris' side, checking the fit of the German uniform. Chris twitched nervously on the wooden box. Hogan tilted his head for a better view and immediately saw the problem. Setting the paper aside, he settled into a comfortable position to watch.
"Blimey, mate!" Newkirk groused when Chris flinched and wiggled again, "you move around more than a bug on a 'ot platter, you do!" He grabbed Chris by the shoulders. "I'll get done a lot quicker if you'd just 'old fast, Christopher!"
"I can't help it!" yelped Chris before he could stop himself. His eyes rolled and he uttered a low groan as he threw a warning look across the room at his brother. Keep it buttoned, Rob!
Newkirk stopped fussing and stared up at him. "Wot do ya mean, you can't 'elp it?"
"He can't help it that he's ticklish." Hogan explained with a mischievous smile. Chris growled in disgust at the betrayal.
Newkirk's eyebrows went straight up. "Ticklish, you say?" He ran his eyes over Chris' lanky body, plotting out possible attack sites. He started advancing, arms outstretched, fingers wiggling in anticipation. Chris went on high alert.
"Oh, great, thanks a lot, Rob! Colonel! Don't even THINK about it, Newkirk!" Chris jumped off the box and keeping it between them, gauged the distance to the door.
Hogan's eyes rolled heavenward. With a weary sigh, he pushed out of his chair, separated the would-be opponents and prodded Chris back onto the box. He gave Newkirk a firm tap on the chest. "Behave yourself and finish the job." He looked up at Chris and pointed a finger, warning, "And you, lieutenant, hold still and let him finish."
"Yes, sir." Chris became as motionless as a statue, but his eyes warily followed Newkirk's every move as he resumed fitting the uniform.
"No offense, Colonel," Newkirk mumbled around the pencil in his mouth, "but do you really think 'e's going to be able to pull this off?"
Chris smacked him on the top of his head. "Thanks for the vote of confidence!"
"I'm going to report you to the tailor's union, ya ruddy blighter!" Newkirk snapped, retaliating with a slap to Chris' stomach. Within seconds, a minor battle was in full swing. Hogan squeezed his eyes shut and wearily massaged his temple with the tips of two fingers.
"Knock it off! And that's an order!" They promptly froze in place, looking like deer caught in headlights. Hogan crossed his arms and gave them a frigid stare. "He'll be fine, Newkirk."
"Thank you," Chris shot back, slightly mollified from the earlier betrayal.
"After all," Hogan amended with a devilish grin, "he'll be dealing with Klink."
The fitting session eventually adjourned without any bodily injuries and with Hogan's sanity still intact. Newkirk, uniform in hand, left mumbling under his breath about a raid on Klink's schnapps cabinet. When pressed, Hogan allowed Chris to stay, with the stipulation that he remained out of sight in his quarters. Not wanting to waste a moment of the time he had left to be with his brother, Chris readily agreed. Though neither man mentioned it, both were aware that there were no guarantees they'd ever see each other again once Chris left for the 305th.
The next few hours were spent catching up and trading stories until they finally grew tired and a comfortable silence settled upon the room.
"Hey, Chris!" Hogan called after half an hour of quiet. When he didn't receive an answer, he lifted one foot and gave the bunk above him a hard push.
Chris jerked out of a light doze, grunting as his body arched up with the mattress. With a growl, he rolled onto his side and peered over the edge of the bunk. "WHAT?!"
"Was this the first time you've been injured?"
"Yeah." He started to roll back from the edge, but paused mid-motion. "Well, there was that one time . . ." his voice trailed off in a lazy drawl.
"Go on!" Hogan gave the bunk another kick. Emerald green eyes appeared above him once again, bright with irritation.
" Willya cut that out?!"
"Christopher Aidan . . ."
"Damn, I hate that!" Chris groaned, rolling his eyes. "Oh, all right! Beau tried once to teach me a new dance he'd learned. I wrenched my back so bad, I had to be helped in and out of my cockpit for a week!"
Hogan managed to keep a straight face for all of three seconds.
Chris looked up from his hand of cards when Kinch entered Hogan's quarters later that afternoon. The black man's eyes were somber, his expression carefully neutral. Chris laid down his cards, his winning hand of poker forgotten.
"Colonel," Kinch glanced uneasily at Chris. "Tiger radioed that she's set up a meeting with that new unit." He handed Hogan a slip of paper and pointed at his scribbled notes. "These are the coordinates and time."
Hogan felt his brother's eyes on him as he read. "Okay. Confirm the meeting for tonight." He heard Chris shift in his chair, and without looking, waggled a finger at him. "Forget it, lieutenant." Chris closed his mouth and huffed in disgust.
"Could I talk with you?" Kinch tilted his head toward the other side of the room. Hogan lifted an eyebrow in silent question, but followed.
"What is it?"
Kinch leaned close and kept his voice low. "I've got a really bad feeling about this. Remember, we nearly lost Newkirk the last time we had a meeting with a new unit."
"Yeah, I remember. But Tiger knows this group, Kinch. She's checked them inside and out and met with them before. She's satisfied they're for real. No reason not to meet them. Tell the guys to be ready to go out tonight."
"What about Chris?"
Hogan glanced across the room to find Kinch's worry reflected back at him from his brother's eyes.
"I'll talk to him."
Hogan frowned, easily picking up on the tension in his brother's lanky frame. "The less you know, the better." A number of emotions flickered across the expressive face.
"Okay," Chris finally agreed, absently tapping his hand of cards on the table. "Then can you tell me why Kinch is spooked?"
Hogan gave him a sharp look. "What did you hear?"
"I didn't have to hear anything, Rob. It was pretty obvious that he's not happy with whatever this is all about."
"Just when did you get so observant?"
Chris shrugged, fanned the hand of cards, and returned them to the discarded deck. "About the time I put this uniform on." He shoved back from the desk and folded his arms. "Now, will you stop answering my questions with questions?"
Hogan sat on his bunk and regarded his brother with an amused smile. "You're going to make one hell of an officer one day."
Chris tilted his head and waved one hand in a gimmee gesture.
"Look, what we do always involves risk. But whenever there's a group involved, it just becomes a lot worse in terms of secrecy."
Chris said nothing for a few moments, deciding not to take offense at the oversimplified answer. "And it's tough for Kinch when he's got to stay behind," he mused, almost to himself.
Hogan nodded, surprised once again. "Yeah."
"I can understand that." Chris held up his hand. "I know, Rob; I have to stay here and I even understand that. But it doesn't mean I have to like it."
"Chris ---- "
"Do you have any close friends, Rob? Someone you can talk with about almost anything?"
Hogan did a mental double-take at the jump in subjects. After a moment, he answered in a tight voice, "No." Metzger's face flashed in his mind, but even the doctor didn't qualify, though he was close.
Chris sat up a little straighter and studied his brother's strained expression. He was moving into dangerous ground. "Not even Kinch?" He grimaced when Hogan remained silent. "Damn, Rob! No wonder you went off like a stick of dynamite on me earlier! How the hell you do you stand it?"
"How about you, Chris?" Hogan asked softly, deflecting the question back at him. Pain appeared in the emerald eyes before they lowered. When Chris spoke, it was so softly that Hogan could barely make out his words.
"Trev. Trevor Adamson. My bombardier and navigator. He would've been twenty-two . . . tomorrow."
Chris nodded without looking up. "Yeah, so am I." A pause, then in a husky voice, "Maybe your way is better after all,
Chris leaned against one of the tunnel's support beams and watched Hogan finish pulling on his jacket. A low chuckle rumbled out of him at his brother's appearance. Dressed head to toe in black, Rob looked even more rakish than usual. Across the room, Carter, Newkirk and LeBeau, also dressed in black, were smearing each other's faces with a greasy paste. Occasionally, they'd look his way, as if checking to see that he was still there. Chris snorted mildly under his breath.
As if I'd be anywhere else!
Being left behind stunk. He slid down the beam onto his heels and laced his fingers together. Earlier, he'd spied a spare set of black clothing in one of the lockers. At the moment, he wanted nothing more than to grab the clothing and join them. If it weren't for the promise his brother had dragged out of him, he'd go through with it in a second.
He checked Kinch, who was standing slightly off to one side. The black man wore a resigned expression and was idly fingering a pair of gloves while he watched the preparations. As Chris watched, Hogan went up to Kinch, told him something and then turned in Chris' direction. Chris rose to his feet and nervously raked a hand through his hair.
"We'll be back before you know it, Chris."
"Right." Chris replied, nodding firmly, wishing he could believe it. At one time, he wouldn't have worried much. But that was before Jim's death. And before he'd learned Rob had almost died last year. Chris wasn't about to take anything for granted anymore. He snuck a peek across the room and saw that the others were politely ignoring them. Ah, the hell with it! He reached out and pulled his brother into a rib-crushing hug.
I've lost track of the number of times I've been hugged this week! Hogan thought, gasping for breath from the force of the embrace. Tension and unspoken fear were obvious in the muscular arms wrapped around him. Bringing his own arms up, he gently ran one hand up Chris' back and cupped the back of his head. It was a gesture he'd used often to comfort a certain frightened three year-old who'd been convinced that trolls lived in his closet. Softly, he echoed the words he'd used then, knowing Chris would connect the reference and gesture.
"It'll be okay."
Chris tucked his face against his brother's neck and grinned at the memory. Getting a tight rein on his emotions, he stepped back and lifted his chin.
"Don't let me hold you up, Colonel."
Hogan stared at the meeting site while he listened to his men gather about him.
"What do you think, guv'nor?" Newkirk eyed the decrepit building with distaste. From ground to roof, it looked like a disaster waiting to happen.
Hogan chewed his lower lip thoughtfully. He was definitely going to have a talk with Tiger about her choices for meeting places. His head tilted and he studied the building's vine-covered walls and sagging roofline. "I think it's a place only pigeons would love."
Carter snickered beside him. "I had some pigeons once. Boy, were they ---- " A well-placed hand clamped over his mouth. He peered over the fingers at his C.O.'s long-suffering expression.
"Save it for another time, Carter." Hogan removed his hand and heaved a sigh. "Okay, let's not hold up the party any longer."
Hogan led the way to the door, jerking in surprise when the handle came off in his hand. Tossing it to the ground, he pulled the door open and rolled his eyes when it promptly lost a hinge. Shoving his gun into its holster, he grabbed the door with both hands and held it open so the others could pass, and then wrestled the door back into place. A loud crunch and startled yelp spun him around to the sight of Newkirk hip deep in rotten floor boards.
"The bloody place is booby-trapped!" cursed Newkirk. He twisted around and looked up at Hogan. LeBeau and Carter stepped forward and each took an arm and helped him back onto solid ground.
Hogan started to comment, but suddenly pulled his gun and spun around. Tiger stepped out of the shadows from another room, her face contrite.
"Tiger . . . " Hogan growled, drawing the name out.
"I know, Papa Bear and I apologize," she replied while more people stepped into view behind her. "But this was the only place that Felix could arrange for us to meet." She reached back and pulled one of the men forward. "This is Felix. This was his family's home."
Felix hesitantly stepped in front of him. "I am sorry, Papa Bear. This was once a fine home, but as you can see, time has not been kind to it. I should have had Tiger warn you of its hazards."
Hogan glanced over his shoulder at Newkirk; pleased to see he was uninjured, though plainly disgusted. "Well, no harm done." Shooting Tiger a meaningful look, he added, "The next site will be better, I'm sure." Tiger inclined her head in acknowledgment, a wry smile flashing across her face. She raised one hand and pointed over her shoulder.
"We're in the other room, where the floor is quite solid." She turned and led them to the larger room. Hogan took a quick head count and came up with fourteen, not counting Tiger, himself and his men. He tucked his gun into his coat and settled into a comfortable stance.
"Okay, let's get started." One eyebrow arched when Felix stepped forward again, his expression reflecting his agitation.
"Oh, but Mueller is not here yet!" Felix turned pleading eyes to Tiger. "Can't we wait for him? He should be here very soon."
Hogan bit back a curse. The evening was going from bad to worse in a hurry. "How soon is 'very soon'?" he asked in a dry tone.
Felix tilted his watch to the light. "I would say within the next thirty minutes."
This time he did curse, while behind him, his men groaned and rolled their eyes. Taking Tiger by the arm, he led her to a far corner that offered a small illusion of privacy. "Tiger, this whole meeting is turning into a circus!" He released her arm, but pinned her with a livid stare.
Her chin tilted up assertively. "Colonel, these people are not professionals such as you and I, or your men. That is why I brought you here; to teach them and to show them how best to organize themselves into a cohesive unit."
He closed his eyes, shaking his head in sudden weariness. After a short pause, he opened them and looked down at her. "It doesn't take a whole lot of professionalism to be prompt!"
Mueller chose that moment to appear, breathlessly rushing into the room spewing apologies to everyone in general. Hogan's mouth dropped open in frank amazement at the speed at which the German could babble. And I thought Carter could talk a blue streak! He waved a hand in the air. Mueller fell silent, much to Hogan's relief.
"You must be Mueller." Mueller nodded. "I'm so glad you could join us," said Hogan in a voice dripping with sarcasm. He turned to Felix. "Now, can we begin?"
Felix smiled. "Oh, yes!"
Hogan crossed his arms. "First thing: You don't have any look-outs." He glanced at Carter and LeBeau. They immediately took up sentry posts. He began the meeting, aware of a feeling of uneasiness creeping into his mind.
His uneasiness was explained less than ten minutes later when LeBeau and Carter spun away from their posts.
"Trouble, Colonel!" Carter jabbed a finger toward the door. "Gestapo are lining up outside!"
"Oui, mon colonel, they are everywhere!" LeBeau glanced at the people huddling together near the center of the room. They looked like a frightened herd of sheep.
"Great! Just great!" Hogan frowned down Tiger. "The final act just arrived at the big top!"
Felix bustled around Newkirk, his features pulled into a frightened grimace. "I don't understand! How could they have found us? We made certain to take precautions that the location be kept secret!"
Hogan's eyes narrowed as they swung from Felix to Mueller. He thought back to Mueller's arrival, remembering his appearance; disheveled, out-of-breath, like he'd been moving faster than normal. Fast enough, perhaps, to draw suspicious eyes.
Mueller cringed under the dark-eyed scrutiny. "I . . . I didn't tell anyone! I swear!" He wrung his hands, glancing from face to face.
"Mueller," sighed Hogan, "have you ever heard the saying, 'Actions speak louder than words'?"
Mueller never had the chance to answer, as an amplified voice hailed them from outside, and ordered them to surrender.
Kinch paused in the act of making a notation on his clipboard when a voice sounded in his ear. Pressing one finger to the right earpiece of his headphones, he listened carefully. A moment later, the hail came again and he promptly responded with their call sign. He listened in growing horror as the voice confirmed his premonition of disaster.
He acknowledged the message and cut transmission.
"Dammit, I hate it when I'm right!" He tore off his headphones and threw them down on the desk. Apparently, one of the members of the new unit had carelessly led the Gestapo right to the meeting. Hogan, Tiger, their men and every member of the unit had been captured.
He hung his head and rubbed at his forehead.
How do I break this to Chris?
Kinch hesitated at the door of Chris' room. The young pilot appeared to be asleep, slouched in a chair with his arms folded across his chest, his legs stretched out in front of him. Sensing he was no longer alone, the green eyes blinked open. Chris took one look at Kinch's expression and shot to his feet.
"London just radioed. Gestapo raided the meeting."
Chris' face drained of all color. "No."
Kinch remained silent, knowing it would be pointless to try and comfort the young man.
The early morning sun was warm upon Metzger's face as he walked slowly down the sidewalk, his hands swinging loosely at his sides. He smiled to himself, content for one of the first times in recent memory. For once, there was time to sleep, time to study a few medical papers he'd set aside for just such an occasion, and time to simply enjoy a leisurely stroll.
Doctors' hours were notorious, especially in wartime. And double-shifts were more the norm rather than the exception. His last "vacation" had been over three months ago and had been but for a single day. But for all his complaints about his lack of free time, he couldn't picture his life without his work. He could no more give up caring for people then he could forsake breathing.
He paused in his walk, the smell of bread fresh out of the oven luring him to the local bakery. He nodded politely to a passing couple before turning his attention to the display arranged in the bakery's window. Staring at the variety of breads, he tried to decide which he would take home to his parents when he visited them.
Movement in a reflection on the window's glass caught his attention. Shortening his focus, he stared curiously at the images, and then tensed when he made out Gestapo gathering across the street near a large truck. Can't a single day of my life pass without an encounter of some kind with this brutal force? He looked away and considered ignoring them and continuing into the bakery. The sound of barked orders pulled his gaze back to the reflection.
Guards were herding a large group of men and women out of a building toward the waiting truck. He squinted, noticing four men in solid black clothing walking slightly apart from the others. There was something familiar about them, particularly the tall man with the jet-black hair and long stride. He turned to face the street for a clearer view.
He gasped aloud, not caring when a young woman standing in the bakery doorway glanced curiously in his direction. Hogan climbed into the back of the truck, followed by LeBeau, Newkirk and Carter. Looking back at the prisoners waiting to board, Metzger caught a glimpse of Tiger, her eyes appearing huge in her small face.
He watched the truck slowly pull away from the curb. The Gestapo would question their prisoners until they were satisfied that they'd learned all they could from them. And then they would kill them. Gender mattered not a bit. The women would die right alongside the men.
Their lives could now be measured in hours.
Hogan looked up as a foot nudged his boot. Carter stared at him from across the truck, his blue eyes intent as one eyebrow twitched upward. At the very edge of his vision, Hogan saw LeBeau and Newkirk watching the exchange. He stared back at Carter, the corner of his mouth curling in disbelief when the sergeant darted a quick glance down at his right leg.
You've GOT to be kidding, Carter! His eyes carefully moved to touch upon each of the four guards before returning to
Carter. The sergeant's expression became even more somber as he got the silent message. There'd be no repeat of their
Chris bolted to his feet and looked to Kinch for orders when they heard someone running toward them through the tunnel. Kinch sharply motioned him out of sight against the wall. They'd just taken up positions near the doorway when a body hurtled into the room.
Metzger stumbled to a stop and collapsed onto a nearby chair. Gasping for breath, he turned, saw them, and waved them over.
I've lived this nightmare before! thought Kinch, stiffly walking across the room.
"Hey, Doc. You all right?" Metzger grimaced, his blue eyes blazing with irritation. Kinch gave him a faint smile. "Okay. We'll just give you a minute."
Chris crept forward. He cocked an eyebrow at Kinch, who answered with a tiny shrug. Pulling up another chair, Chris straddled it and waited for Metzger to get his breathing under control.
"They have been captured. The colonel, Carter, LeBeau and Newkirk. Tiger, also, as well as a large group." Metzger's face twisted. "The Gestapo have them!"
Kinch nodded. "We know. London radioed last night but didn't know where they were being taken."
"I saw them in Hammelburg this morning. They were loaded into a truck." Metzger grabbed Kinch's arm in a bruising grip. "I recognized the officer in charge. They will have been taken to Gestapo headquarters in Düsseldorf. We must find a way to help them!"
Chris forced himself to remain quiet, his eyes flickering from one man to the other as they considered plan after plan, abandoning each one. Ten minutes passed before he couldn't take it any longer. When clearing his throat failed to get their attention, he impatiently waved a hand between them. They finally fell silent and turned to stare at him.
"I have an idea."
Chris flinched at Kinch's bellow and involuntarily took a step backward. He raised his hands in a calming gesture. "Okay, let's go at it this way. Will you agree that it's a good plan?"
Kinch nodded grudgingly, knowing that he couldn't argue. Chris' plan was actually just a slight variation on Hogan's own.
"Okay." Chris straightened his shoulders, as if preparing for a physical battle rather than a verbal one. "Look, it's only logical that I go. I'm fitted for that captain's uniform and I have a talent that would provide an advantage!"
Kinch's left eyebrow canted upward and he took up a defensive stance, arms crossed. "And that is?"
Chris rattled off nearly fifteen seconds of fluent German before Kinch shook off his surprise and stopped him mid-sentence. The language had come out of the pilot's mouth so fast that he'd had difficulty following it. He stared at Chris, dimly hearing Metzger's deep-throated laughter coming from somewhere behind him. Without breaking his stare, Kinch asked, "What did he just say?"
Metzger managed to stammer the answer past his laughter. "The main theme of Christopher's little commentary was in regard to Hitler's ancestry and choice of mating habits!" He cleared his throat and wiped at his eyes. "His accent is actually quite passable."
"Would you like to hear the translation?" Chris leaned forward, eyebrows bouncing suggestively.
"Maybe another time."
"No. I'm sorry, Chris, but I just can't agree to it." Kinch felt like an ogre when Chris' head bowed. He looked back over his shoulder at Metzger and frowned. The doctor's expression was as rebellious as Chris' had been earlier. Kinch's attention returned to Chris when the young pilot's head lifted.
"I can pull this off." Chris kept his voice calm, his face composed. He bit back an oath when the sergeant hesitated. "We don't have time for this, Kinch." He pressed his argument, his voice still calm despite his urge to yell at the top of his lungs in anger and frustration. "You know as well as I do that for every minute we stand here arguing, Rob and our friends are one minute closer to death. I'm begging you, please don't order me to stay here."
Kinch swore softly at the unspoken threat, knowing the battle was already lost; the decision already made. Who do you think you're kidding, Kinch? Even if you knock him out, tie him up and have two men sit on him, he'd probably still find a way to get out of here! He studied Chris, seeing a younger version of his commander. The young pilot shared his brother's looks, intelligence, resourcefulness and determination. Dear Lord, I hope he can act as well!
"All right." Chris relaxed into a bright smile of relief. Kinch's eyes narrowed. He reached out and gave the pilot a hard poke in the chest. "LISTEN UP, Lieutenant!" Chris tensed at the barked order, his smile quickly disappearing. "I DO NOT want to have to break the news to the colonel that you got yourself killed! He's already lost one brother! Don't you dare make it two!"
Chris swallowed hard and snapped to attention. "Understood, sir."
Kinch nodded, his gaze losing none of its flintiness. It wouldn't do to let Chris know how rattled he was by agreeing to make him a part of the rescue operation. He could very well be sending him to his death. He'd grown very fond of the young pilot, partly because he was the colonel's brother. But mostly because of the fierce spirit he'd glimpsed behind the devil-may-care attitude. Lt. Christopher Hogan would undoubtedly be a major force to contend with once he gained some maturity and experience.
If he doesn't get himself killed first!
The next time Kinch tells me he's got a bad feeling, I'm sure as hell gonna listen to him!
Hogan slammed his hand against the cement wall, taking perverse satisfaction in the pain that shot up his arm. He gritted his teeth, aware that he needed to clamp down on the anger clouding his mind if he were to be of any good to them. It took some time, but his anger finally faded, leaving his thoughts clear. His fingers tapped against the wall as he concentrated, trying to find a solution to the mess he felt responsible for.
Twenty minutes later, he gave up and rested his forehead against the coolness of the wall. For one of the few times in his life, he didn't have the slightest glimmering of an idea. Twisting his head to his right, he met his men's calm stares from across the room. They were totally confident he would find a way out. He broke the stare and looked away, feeling his heart twist in despair. Aw, guys . . .
Turning his back to the wall, he slid into a sitting position and let his hands dangle limp between his knees.
Chris is going to kill me!
Chris shook himself out of his quiet introspection when they parked outside of Gestapo Headquarters. He leaned forward, tipping his head back so that he could get a better look out the windshield at the three-story building. This definitely wasn't going to be the same as one of his covert raids on the base mess hall. He flinched when an elbow dug painfully into his ribs.
"Get a move on, Chris!" Baldwin hissed, remembering his earlier protests when Kinch had informed them of the mission. He liked Hogan's kid brother, but heartily disagreed to his competence in leading, let alone taking part in a rescue. He glanced in the back of the truck at Parker, who raised an eyebrow, also questioning Chris' hesitation.
Chris had seen every bit of the silent interaction. Their doubt only served to make him angry and that much more determined to succeed. "Okay. Let's go." He got out of the truck and gave the gun at his hip a light pat, praying it would remain in its holster. I sure hope Rob is right about my mouth being my best weapon!
They walked boldly through the front door as if it were an everyday occurrence --- just three more Gestapo in a building full of Gestapo. Chris did a quick check of the map he'd memorized and turned to their right. They traveled a long corridor until they came to a stairway. They took the stairs down and found themselves in a hall lit by dingy bare bulbs. Ten more steps and they were outside the door they'd been searching for.
Chris shook the tension out of his shoulders, nodded to Parker and Baldwin, and opened the door to the cellblock. He noted the burly guards positioned on either side of a doorway across the room and then ignored them, confidently stepping forward to meet the major emerging from behind a metal desk. The German's gaze raked over him before returning to his face. His expression was skeptical as Chris saluted.
"Heil Hitler. I am Captain Franz Gelman, Herr Major. I am to collect the prisoners captured in last night's raid and deliver them to Berlin for questioning."
The German's face grew wary. "I know of no such orders. Where is your paperwork?"
Chris grinned insolently, though his heart was pounding. Taking two slow steps away from Parker and Baldwin, he deliberately invaded the other man's personal space. The major stiffened, but didn't step back. "Time is of the essence, Herr Major. These are very important prisoners and General Kinchmeyer didn't want their interrogations left in the hands of underlings. He will question them personally. The paperwork will arrive once it is completed."
The officer hesitated at the cold challenge in the deep green eyes. Still, protocol could not be ignored. "I am sorry, Captain, but I cannot release the prisoners without the proper paperwork." He swallowed nervously when the green eyes narrowed.
"May I use your telephone, Herr Major . . ." Chris used one finger to tilt the officer's insignia up to the light. ". . . Klein?"
"The telephone?" Klein blinked at the dangerous edge in the calm voice. After a moment, he nodded toward the phone.
Chris walked to the desk and made himself at home by perching one hip on its edge. Lifting the receiver from its cradle, he leisurely dialed the first digit of the number Kinch had given him in case it was needed. He angled a glance at Klein. "I do admire your courage, Herr Major."
"My . . . my courage?" Klein blanched at the compliment, feeling a trickle of sweat trail down the small of his back.
Chris dialed the second digit. "Yes. The last man to question General Kinchmeyer's orders . . . ." He shrugged and casually indicated his own uniform. "His uniform fits me rather well, wouldn't you say? Of course, the blood stains had to be removed first." As he dialed the third digit, he glanced up and confided, "The bullet holes were harder to fix." A flick of his finger dialed the fourth digit.
Klein gulped back a squeak of terror, leaped to the desk and slammed his hand down on the telephone cradle. "I certainly wouldn't want to interfere in the general's plans. I will release the prisoners to you, Captain. I'm sure all will be in perfect order."
Chris lifted Klein's sweaty hand and replaced the receiver. "Very good, Herr Major. I'm certain General Kinchmeyer will
reward your cooperation."
A familiar voice barking orders beyond the cell door pulled Hogan from his misery. His head snapped up and he shared a look of disbelief with his men. It couldn't be! He jumped to his feet and quickly moved to the door, straining to hear the conversation.
It damned well better NOT be!!
His brother's voice came from the other side of the door. Hogan swore beneath his breath. Christopher Aidan Hogan, when
I get my hands on you . . . !
Chris stood with Parker and Baldwin beside the truck, his hands clenched, one booted foot tapping in annoyance. "It's been ten minutes," he mused aloud. "Do you suppose something's gone wrong?"
"Don't get antsy now, Chris," Baldwin warned. He'd changed his opinion. The kid even had him shaking in his boots with his little performance.
"Yeah, Chris," Parker whispered, "they're probably just getting everyone together."
Chris sighed impatiently, then took a few steps forward as the prisoners were finally brought out from behind the building. He eagerly scanned their faces, searching for his brother in the crowd. He finally found him and cringed when Hogan glowered back at him. Damn, Rob! Here I am rescuing you and you want to toss me on my ass! He looked away as Klein hurried over.
"This is all of them, captain." Klein hoped Gelman would take his prisoners and leave. Despite being older and of a higher rank, he nonetheless felt miserably intimidated. He choked back a groan of dismay when the young captain casually tucked his hands behind his back and walked over to the prisoners.
Chris stopped in front of his brother. "They're quite a ragged bunch, aren't they?" He contained a smile when Hogan's eyes darkened. He was playing with fire, but he simply couldn't help himself. He moved on to Newkirk, Carter and LeBeau, tipping his head thoughtfully at their livid stares. "I can't understand why General Kinchmeyer thinks they're important," he shrugged, "but who are we to question?" He threw a devilish smile over his shoulder at Klein, who chuckled weakly in response.
Chris spun away from them, pointing toward the truck. "Load them. The general is waiting."
He stood to one side while Parker and Benson helped the Gestapo guards lead the prisoners forward. His brother jumped into the truck, then a beautiful blonde woman walked forward in line. Chris caught his breath when she looked up. Her smirk alerted him that his mouth was hanging open. He snapped his jaw shut, his ears burning with embarrassment. She lightly stepped past and grasped Hogan's hand as he leaned out to help her. He shot a pointed glance in Chris' direction. Don't blow it now!
Chris acknowledged the silent order with a faint nod. Seeing Klein approaching, he left and went to meet him. "Herr Major." He said gravely, snapping his heels together and bowing slightly. "I will be certain to inform General Kinchmeyer of your assistance. Heil Hitler." Chris turned his back on the relieved Germa, motioning Parker and Benson into the back of the truck with their prisoners. He waited until they had pulled the tailgate shut, then climbed into the truck's cab. Tipping his cap back on his head, he blew out a breath of relief and gave their driver a wide smile.
The truck finally rolled to a groaning stop on a deserted stretch of road not far from Hammelburg. Chris twisted in his seat and looked into the back of the truck. Bodies were crowded together, but he could just make out his brother, seated to the left of the beautiful blonde.
"Ladies and gents, we have arrived." The truck bounced with the motion of everyone jostling to get out. Chris jumped out of the cab and walked to where the group was gathering at the back of the truck. His face lit with an appreciative smile when the blonde he'd met earlier walked out of the group to meet him.
"I must thank you for coming to our assistance. I am Tiger and you are . . .?" She looked up at him expectantly.
He touched the brim of his cap with two fingers. "Lt. Christopher Hogan, ma'am."
"Hogan?" Her eyes widened and she put one hand to her mouth. "Papa Bear's brother?"
Chris managed to restrain a gleeful laugh. Papa Bear?! "Yes, ma'am." His brother suddenly appeared beside her. Hogan tilted his head in warning; his expression clearly indicating the conversation was at an end. Taking Tiger by the arm, he led her back to the group.
"I'll be in contact with you later, Tiger. Right now, I think it'd be a good idea if we all make ourselves scarce." Hogan watched her lead the group into the woods. Once they were out of sight, he turned and came face to face with Chris, who had used to opportunity to approach unnoticed.
"That's some lady," Chris commented.
Hogan grunted, then marched back to the truck and clambered inside. The others piled in after him.
Chris looked heavenward. It was going to be a very long trip back to Stalag 13.
Kinch paced, one fist pressed tight against his upper lip. It was the only way he could think of to keep a scream from erupting. Sometimes, I swear it feels like all I do around here is wait and worry! He felt Metzger's weary gaze following his every step as he passed by. He made another sharp turn and paced back to the table.
"Stop! Please!" Metzger pleaded, grabbing Kinch's arm. "Watching you is almost as bad as any torture the Gestapo could possibly dream up!"
Kinch snorted. "All right, but I can't guarantee I won't start up again."
"Fair enough." Metzger jumped to his feet as Newkirk, Carter, Parker, Baldwin and LeBeau filed out of the tunnel into the room. "You're safe!" He rushed forward, then stopped in confusion when they kept right on walking through the room.
Kinch shot out in front of them and threw his arms wide, blocking their forward progress. "Hey, guys! Good to have you back!" Their eyes rolled toward the tunnel behind them. He frowned, a sinking feeling beginning in his stomach. "Uh, something went wrong in the rescue?"
"No," LeBeau answered, edging past him. "Nothing went wrong. There was no trouble." He almost jogged out of the room.
"Okay. Nothing went wrong." Kinch held out his hand, blocking Parker and Baldwin as they tried to pass. "How did Chris do?"
Baldwin insistently nudged Parker onward. "He did great, Kinch! We got everybody out. You should've seen him. The kid's a natural." Parker leaned back toward Kinch long enough to add, "We'd go out with him again, anytime." He darted a cautious glance beyond Baldwin to the tunnel, then hurried away with Baldwin on his heels.
Kinch threw up his arms in frustration. "Nothing went wrong, Chris did great, so what the hell's wrong with everybody??" His head whipped toward Metzger when the doctor slowly started backing away from the tunnel. "Now what's wrong with you?" Metzger spun and headed toward the barracks, warning over his shoulder as he barreled past, "Take cover!"
Kinch stared after him. "WHAT?"
Newkirk shoved Carter toward the barracks. "Incoming!" He grabbed Kinch and tried to pull him along. Kinch jerked out of his hands and glanced back toward the tunnel.
"Oh," he murmured, when Hogan stalked into sight, his dark eyes pinched with anger. Chris followed, head held high, emerald green eyes defiant in a pale face. Kinch swallowed nervously, imagining he could see an electric current sizzling between the two brothers. Oh, boy. He felt a wan smile form on his face as Hogan stopped in front of him.
"Welcome back, Colonel."
Hogan nodded, the motion barely moving his head. Their gazes locked, Hogan's containing a banked fury that made Kinch want to squirm. I've never seen him this angry. Kinch suddenly wished a hole would open up and swallow him. He's never been this angry with me before! Hogan finally looked away.
"We'll talk later. Right now, I want privacy." Hogan looked back, one eyebrow curling upward. "Don't worry if it gets a little . . . loud . . .down here."
Kinch nodded, remembering the brothers' earlier argument in Hogan's quarters. Must be all that Gaelic blood. "I'll see to it you're not disturbed, sir."
Once certain Kinch had cleared the area, Hogan slowly faced Chris.
"That was some rescue."
"I thought it went off well, don't you?"
Hogan remained silent, his stare smoldering. Chris shifted slightly.
"I didn't know you spoke German." Though Hogan's tone was calm, anger still burned in his eyes.
"I learned it a couple of years ago," Chris murmured with a one-shouldered shrug. "Thought it might come in handy."
"Guess you were right, huh?"
Chris' teeth ground together. "Look, why don't we just stop this dancing, all right?" Hogan's eyes narrowed as Chris marched forward until only a few feet separated them. "You're royally pissed off at me, so just get it out. Let me have it!"
Hogan took a step forward, closing the distance even further. "Pissed off doesn't begin to come close, little brother."
"That's it, isn't it?" Chris snapped. "Little brother!" Chris poked him hard in the shoulder. Hogan's lip curled in warning. "I'm not some little kid anymore, Rob! I'm almost twenty-one, I'm in the air corps, I fly a B-26 Martin Marauder, and I damn well can get along just fine now without big brother holding my hand!" He spun away. "Damn it, Rob, I grew up!"
"Oh, did you, now?" Hogan shot back sarcastically. "Then explain that little grandstand scene at the truck with Klein! Just what the hell was that all about?"
Chris ducked his head, shrugging uncomfortably. "I don't know. I just didn't think ---- "
"Exactly!" Hogan grabbed Chris' arm and pulled him around. "You didn't think! Hell, Chris, you don't know when to stop! One of these days you're going to just run off at the mouth and land in a pile so deep no one will be able to save you!"
Chris jerked backward, his face reddened with anger. "Oh, and I suppose you've never done anything like that, right?" He panted harshly, his fists clenched, ready to lash out. "You've never been wrong? Never been caught? Never had to be rescued?"
"Oh, never mind," Hogan sighed. He turned away, emotionally at the end of his rope.
Chris blinked at the sudden change in attitude. An instant later, the real cause of his brother's anger finally dawned on him. His fists uncurled and he walked back. "You can't protect me anymore, Rob, just like you couldn't save Jim." Hogan winced. "I'm sorry, Rob, but it's true. I couldn't save Jim either, but I had a chance to save you." Chris reached out and hesitantly touched Hogan's arm. "I couldn't just sit here and do nothing. I had to try."
Hogan shook his head. "How in the world did you ever get Kinch to agree to it, anyway?"
"I really put him on the spot. I guess I should apologize to him."
"Oh?" The answer intrigued Hogan even more. Kinch was no pushover.
Chris ran one hand back through his hair, ending the motion by rubbing the back of his neck. "I sort of backed him into a corner. He didn't have much of a choice." He looked up, frowning in concern. "Don't blame him, Rob."
"You really are something, you know that?"
"Why thank you, I owe it all to my family," replied Chris with a playful smile. He tapped Hogan on the chest. "You were a particular source of inspiration."
"Oh, ho, no you don't!" Hogan backed away, waving his hands in self-defense. "I want absolutely no credit for your attitude!"
Chris threw back his head and laughed. The emotional release felt good, all the worry and tension of the past hours draining away, leaving him slightly euphoric. His tired sigh of relief slid right into a huge yawn. His hands came up, sleepily rubbed at his face.
"Come on," Hogan told him, grabbing his arm and pulling toward the barracks. "Let's change out of this stuff and get some sleep. You still have another performance as Captain Gelman coming up and I don't want your stellar acting ruined by a horse yawn." He pulled Chris toward the barracks. "And I can hear my bunk calling my name."
Chris chuckled and reached over to touch the scattered silver hairs at his brother's temple. "Yeah, old man. I guess you do need your sleep, don't ya?"
"Watch it, Lieutenant."
"Hey, Rob. You awake yet?"
Hogan's eyes fluttered open. Even still half-asleep, he caught the edge in Chris' voice. "Yeah, I'm awake." He yawned and stretched until his feet bumped the end of the bunk and his hands extended beyond the headboard. Rolling onto his back, he waited, but nothing further came from the upper bunk. "Hey, up there."
Chris rolled onto his stomach and peered down at him. "Were you ordered to take this command?"
"No." He tucked one arm behind his head. "They laid everything out, and gave me some time to make my decision." It clearly wasn't the answer Chris had been expecting.
"You . . ." Chris paused, and rested his chin on one hand, trying to grasp the implications. "You chose to give up flying? You gave up the chance to be with your friends? To have a girl, or get married, have kids . . ."
"Whoa!" Hogan chuckled. "I'll still be able to do all that once the war is over, Chris. I don't intend to become a permanent resident here."
Chris' expression darkened, and he spoke in a voice rough with emotion. "Jim didn't intend to become a permanent resident of the Pacific Ocean, either."
Chris took a shuddering breath and shifted on the bunk. "I've seen for myself just how quick things can go wrong, Rob. One minute, my friends are alive and with me, and the next, they're dead. And you and everyone else could have just as easily been executed where you stood, rather than being taken in for questioning first." He heard his voice shake, and swallowed to regain control. "I prayed all the way to Düsseldorf. For all I knew, you were already dead."
Hogan couldn't look away from the pain in the emerald eyes, bright with unshed tears. His own grief suddenly rose up, sending him bolt upright on his bunk. Taking a deep breath, he swung his legs out of his bunk and waved one hand in Chris' direction. "Come down here."
Chris threw off his blanket and jumped down from the top bunk. Without a word, he sank onto the bed beside his brother. Hogan looked around the room. "I made the choice to be here. I won't go into all the reasons why, but I will say that it wasn't easy, for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. But I don't regret making the choice." He turned and met Chris' gaze as he took his hand in a firm grip. "I can't promise you that I'll make it out of here, Chris, but I can promise that I'm sure gonna do my best."
Chris stared at their joined hands. "I really hate this damned war."
Hogan walked through the quiet tunnels the next day, his head down, his thoughts drifting aimlessly. If all went according to plan, Chris would be gone within a few hours, and on his way back to the 305th with his friends. Hogan made a left turn, bumping his shoulder against one of the beams. Sighing, he absently rubbed at the shoulder and considered how quiet the barracks and tunnels would be without his brother's mischievous presence.
He entered the main area of their tunnel system, looking to his left when he detected slight movement. Newkirk met his gaze from his position beside the doorway and quickly put a finger to his lips in warning. To his right, Hogan saw Carter lean back against the wall while LeBeau peeked around him. Hogan shook his head and kept walking. Moments later, they heard someone approaching.
Chris ambled into the room, some instinct warning him at the last possible second of trouble, but he wasn't quite quick enough. His feet were suddenly knocked out from under him. He twisted in mid-air and landed on his back, a yell erupting from his throat. A split second later, three bodies pinned him to the floor, their hands attacking him from all directions. He let out a blood-curdling yell as his lower ribs were tickled mercilessly.
"That's for almost giving me a bloody 'eartattack, you ruddy blighter!" Newkirk's fingers danced across Chris' ribs, easily evading his defensive grabs. Chris' yells took on a desperate quality.
Kinch rushed into the room, fearing someone had been mortally wounded. He slid to a stop, breaking into laughter at the tangle of arms and legs writhing on the floor. Looking across the room at Hogan, he asked, "Is that Chris underneath all that?"
"I think he's learning that for every action there's a reaction." Hogan answered, his voice rising to be heard over the noise.
"Yeah! And this is for scaring me and for almost sending us to the Great Beyond!" Carter slipped under Chris' hands, running his fingers down the pilot's sides and back up to his armpits. Chris no longer had the breath to yell. He gasped helplessly, squirming from one set of fingers right into another. He groaned, seeking an escape from the sensory overload.
LeBeau launched his attack, helping Newkirk tickle Chris' heaving rib cage. "And this is for all the time I spent cooking!" Chris let out a yelp at the new onslaught, then gave up on any defensive struggles and concentrated solely on just trying to breathe.
"Don't forget the 'ragged bunch' remark," Hogan pointed out.
"Oh, yeah!" Carter renewed his attack, this time aiming for the heaving stomach beneath him. Chris' watering eyes rolled toward his brother, silently promising retribution.
Hogan allowed the fun for another few moments, then decided Chris was in danger of passing out from lack of air. He stepped forward and gently pulled Newkirk and Carter away. "Okay fellas, that's enough. Let him go." Hogan knelt brushed thick black hair out of Chris' eyes.
"You still with us, Lieutenant?"
Words were beyond Chris' grasp at the moment. All he could do was gasp for air and cradle his aching ribs. When he finally managed to take in a lungful of blessed oxygen, he fixed his brother with a smoldering stare of outrage.
"Thanks ever so much for the help, BROTHER, sir!"
Hogan shrugged. "You have to admit, you had it coming." He helped Chris into a sitting position, noting with some amusement that Newkirk, Carter and LeBeau had positioned themselves beyond Chris' reach.
"Traitor!" Chris slapped Hogan's hands away and jerkily scrabbled to his feet. His green eyes narrowed, daring his brother to try to defend himself against the charge. Hogan responded with a look of pure innocence. Chris folded his arms and snorted in derision. Ooh, if we were alone, Rob . . .!
Kinch shook his head at their antics and then glanced down at his watch. "Colonel, Tiger's men will be here in less than an hour. They'll be in full uniform, and they'll have a truck waiting."
"Good." Hogan patted Chris on the shoulder. "Get a move on, Captain Gelman; your public awaits."
Chris was suddenly at a loss for words. Now that the time to leave had come, he felt torn between wanting to return to duty
at the 305th and wanting to stay with his brother. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he turned and started for his room to
"Colonel?" Chris turned in his seat to look directly at Hogan. "Did you tell the guys about this so they won't give anything away when they see me?"
Hogan leaned forward from his seat in the back of the truck. "Yeah, Chris. They know all about the plan. I saw them last night, right after roll call."
Chris sighed in relief. The last thing he wanted was to have his own friends blow their escape by reacting to his presence.
He twisted back around in the seat, wanting to see as much of Stalag 13 and its surroundings as possible. He'd only had a glimpse of part of the camp from the barracks doorway. This would be his last opportunity to get a better view of the place his brother had lived in since being captured.
Chris sat forward slightly when the camp's mesh gates came into view. His eyes quickly swept over everything from the guard towers to all the buildings he could see. Quickly, he mentally drew a map of the camp, as it would be seen from the air. Barely listening while the driver gave their identification, Chris looked to his right and located Barracks 2 in relation to the other buildings. He pulled his attention back to the task at hand when the truck rolled to a stop inside the camp.
He climbed out and glanced toward the kommandant's headquarters as the door opened and Klink stepped onto the porch ahead of Schultz. Chris looked at his brother, tipping his head toward the portly sergeant. Hogan sent back a smile and flashed an okay sign. Chris nodded. Okay, if you're not worried, that's good enough for me. Squaring his shoulders, he assumed an authoritative expression and walked forward to meet Klink.
"Heil Hitler! I'm Kommandant Wilhelm Klink, and I'd like to personally welcome you to Stalag 13, Captain . . ."
"Gelman, Herr Kommandant." Chris returned the salute, quickly assessing the Luftwaffe officer. Oh, geez! Rob has to deal with this guy every day?
"What brings you to Stalag 13, Captain?" Klink asked. His solicitous smile changed into a hard squint. "Have we met before?"
Chris cleared his throat, trying to ignore the facial acrobatics going on behind Klink's back. Schultz had immediately recognized him and appeared ready for a nervous breakdown. Chris shot him a brief, meaningful frown.
"I don't believe that I would ever forget meeting you, Herr Kommandant," Chris responded in a tone laden with sarcasm. "I am here for two reasons. First, to transfer the three airmen recently brought to you by mistake. Berlin is most interested in gleaning information from these prisoners regarding their base." He pulled a folded set of orders from inside his jacket and handed them to Klink.
"I'll have them brought out right away, captain," Klink told him, after scanning the papers. He turned abruptly, causing Schultz, who was still making faces behind him, to jerk to attention. "Schultz! Bring the prisoners from the cooler!" Schultz saluted and hurried away. "You mentioned two reasons, Captain?" Klink prompted, facing Chris once more.
"Yes. My men and I captured four men yesterday while on our way here. They indicated they had escaped from Stalag 13, but I'm inclined not to believe them." Chris raised an eyebrow. "Would you be missing any prisoners, Herr Kommandant?"
Klink fidgeted, one hand twisting the riding crop beneath his arm. "Well, actually, captain, Stalag 13 is the toughest P.O.W. camp in all of Germany and . . ."
"Yes or no, Kommandant," Chris snapped, one gloved hand tapping his leg impatiently.
Klink's expression reflected pure misery as he replied with a weak, "Yes."
Chris gestured sharply to his men. "Bring them!" He moved to stand beside Klink while Hogan, Newkirk, LeBeau and Carter climbed out of the back of the truck. "Colonel Klink," Chris angled a narrow look at the kommandant, "I had heard that your camp was escape-proof. Yet these four men somehow managed it."
"Oh, I would have caught them, captain!" insisted Klink, eager to regain face in the Gestapo captain's eyes." I was merely toying with them. You see, I allow them to escape, then I round them up after giving them a small taste of freedom." He smiled brightly into Chris' blank expression." This way I show them that no matter how hard they try, they'll never escape my iron fist! It wears down their spirits! Just one of my many methods that has made Stalag 13 the most feared P.O.W. camp in all of Germany!"
Chris stared at him, speechless. This Kraut is a dozen cards short of a deck! Shaking his head, he trailed behind as Klink marched over to the men. The German shook his finger in Hogan's face, inches from the end of his nose.
"Hogan! When will you learn that you can never successfully escape from Stalag 13?"
Chris stepped forward, raising one hand in Hogan's direction to stop his answer. "Exactly how many times has this man escaped, Herr Kommandant?"
Realizing his error, Klink tensed, his eyes darting from Hogan to Chris. "Well . . . I haven't counted . . . but he's never been successful!" he declared, waving a finger in the air. Abruptly, he went still and squinted hard at Chris again. Chris stared back, wondering what kind of lunacy was coming next.
Klink glanced between Hogan and Chris several times. "This is truly amazing, Hogan!" he finally exclaimed. "The two of you resemble each other enough to be brothers!"
Chris bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, not daring to look at his brother.
"Really, kommandant!" Hogan yelped. "There's no reason to be insulting!"
Chris covered his strangled laugh with a cough. Damn it, Rob!! Too many more comments like that from either man, and he'd collapse into hysterics at their feet. Schultz saved him by bringing the men from the cooler, effectively distracting Klink, ending the little comedy. Chris looked over at his friends as they lined up. They stared back, their expressions revealing none of the amusement they felt at seeing their friend in full Gestapo uniform.
"Schultz! Take the prisoners to the truck."
"Yawhol, Herr Kommandant," Schultz replied with long-suffering patience. Hefting his gun back onto his shoulder, he directed another wide-eyed look at Chris, then led the three airmen away.
Chris pivoted slowly toward his brother. Hogan's expression gave nothing away. They'd said their good-byes earlier in private. All that was left was for Chris to leave. He turned to Klink and saluted. "I will take my leave of you now, Herr Kommandant. Heil Hitler."
Chris started for the truck, only to stop after a few steps as a staff car pulled through the gate. Unsure, he remained where he was. What now?
Hogan watched the car drive up and park nearby. Chris peeked toward him, making a show of adjusting his leather gloves. Hogan raised one hand at his side, palm down. Stay put!
Hogan's nerves stretched to their very limits when Major Wolfgang Hochstetter exited the staff car, took one look at Chris and then marched toward Klink. Damn! Of all the times for him to show up! What the hell is he doing here now? Hogan darted another look at his brother, then gave the Gestapo major his full attention. If Hochstetter had come from Dsseldorf, they might be in serious trouble. Correction, he thought anxiously, Captain Gelman will be in serious danger.
"Ah, Major Hochstetter, this is indeed a pleasant surprise!"
"Shut up, Klink!" Hochstetter raked him with a withering glance. "I have just spent two miserable days traveling dusty, pot-holed roads and I am in no mood to listen to your idiotic blathering!"
Klink face fell into a sympathetic expression. "Oh, I'm sorry, major. Travel can be so very trying. Are you here to rest?"
"No, I am not here to rest, kommandant!" Hochstetter snarled. "I was passing by on my way to Dsseldorf and thought to see what bubble-headed idiocy you might have going on here today!" He suddenly seemed to remember Chris, and stalked over to him. "Who iz zis man!?" he demanded, staring belligerently into Chris' eyes, his jaw thrust forward.
Hogan felt panic building behind his carefully schooled expression. Chris, on the other hand, looked as if he were out for a Sunday walk.
"This is Captain Franz Gelman, Major." Klink twisted his hands in nervous apprehension as the two men squared off. Hochstetter was bad enough, but two Gestapo officers at one time?
"Gelman . . . Gelman . . ." Hochstetter stroked his chin, quickly checking a list in his head. "I don't know of any Gelman." He put his hands on his hips, aggressively shoving his chest against Chris. "And aren't you very young to be a captain, Captain Gelman?" His eyes narrowed when Chris smiled down on him from his height of six feet.
"My superiors rewarded my keen intelligence and initiative with several quick promotions," Chris countered. Emerald eyes gleaming wickedly, he continued in a bland voice, "Might I most respectfully point out that the better question might be why are you still a major, Herr Major Hochstetter?"
Hochstetter's eyes bulged, his jaw clenched and his face turned scarlet. He stared into the brilliant green eyes above him and snarled in fury. Raising one fist, he waved it in front of Chris' nose. Chris blithely ignored the histrionics, never losing his smile. Having failed to intimidate the young officer, Hochstetter spat all of his fury into a single, bellowed, "BAH!"
Klink stuffed his fist into his mouth to stifle his laughter. He watched with watering eyes as the major spun on his heel and stalked to his car, his irate muttering drifting back to them.
Chris folded his hands behind his back and calmly watched the car leave the camp in a flurry of dust. As he'd hoped, the pointed insult had caused Hochstetter to completely forget to question his presence. "Do you suppose it was something I said?" He wondered aloud, looking puzzled.
Hogan closed his eyes, too relieved to even appreciate his brother's humor. Happy from seeing Hochstetter bested, Klink saluted Chris again and extended an invitation to the young captain for an evening of entertainment the next time that he was in the area. Chris returned the salute and started again for the truck. Just before climbing into the cab, he paused and turned in his brother's direction. Inclining his head, he lifted one hand to the brim of his cap. To the kommandant, it appeared the young captain was simply adjusting his cap. To Hogan, it was a salute and a final farewell. Aware of his men lending their silent support at his back, he breathed an audible sigh, and watched Chris drive away.
"Hogan!" Klink barked, coming to rest in front of him and stamping one foot. "This time, you've really done it!"
"Thirty days in the cooler, sir?" Hogan's voice was weary. He didn't feel like playing cat and mouse.
Klink gave him a shrewd stare. "No. I have the impression that at times, you feel it is almost a blessing to be in isolation." Hogan frowned, surprised at the insight. "This time, Hogan, the entire camp will bear the punishment for your actions. Perhaps then, you will stop these foolish escape attempts. The extra slice of white bread and extra shower for each prisoner that I agreed to last week?" He snapped his fingers in front of Hogan's face. "Gone! I take them back, Hogan! And there will also be extra duties for everyone for the next two weeks." He rocked on the balls of his feet, a pleased smile on his face. "How is that for punishment?"
"You're a cruel man, kommandant," sighed Hogan, not caring in the least.
Hogan wandered into his quarters, pulling the door closed behind him. He paused, leaning against the door, his gaze slowly traveling over the room. Memories of Chris' laughter, his tears and their quiet talks rushed through his mind, leaving him even more aware of his brother's absence. Unbidden, Jim's face appeared before him. Hogan closed his eyes, fighting down an intense feeling of loneliness. Finally, he went to his bunk and stretched out.
He stared upward for long moments, before idly looking across the room toward his desk, gazing at nothing in particular. He eventually focused on a small corner of paper sticking out of the pages of the book he'd been reading. He stared at it; positive that it hadn't been there when he'd left his quarters in the morning. Leaving his bunk, he crossed the room and picked the book up.
A gentle tug freed the paper from the pages. Putting the book aside, he unfolded the paper, revealing his West Point graduation picture: Chris' picture of the two of them. The one he always carried in his wallet.
Hogan gently trailed a finger over the surface of the picture, tracing his brother's small figure. Pulling his gaze from the
image, he read the message Chris had scrawled.
I thought you might like to have this for awhile. You can return it to me the next time we see each other.