The Hand of a Friend
A faithful friend is a strong defense; and he that hath found such a one hath found a treasure.
Apocrypha: Ecclesiasticus 6:14
Late March, 1944
He raced through the woods with speed born of desperation, shoving aside branches, hurdling fallen trees, and dodging boulders that loomed out of the darkness. A protruding root, unseen in the darkness, tripped him up and threw him to his hands and knees. With a snarl of frustration, he reached for the burning ache in his side with one hand and tightened his grip on his gun with the other. A few more panting breaths, then he scrambled to his feet and broke into a fast lope.
A wall of brush appeared ahead of him. He hesitated a split second, then bulldozed into it. Tangled branches snagged his clothing, clawed at his hair, threatened to knock the gun from his hand. He fought his way forward, determined to get to the river that he knew was close by. Between one step and the next, he was through the brush and skidding down a gravel slope. Though he couldn't hear the patrol any longer, he knew they had to still be there. The path he was leaving was so obvious a child would have no trouble following it.
His inelegant slide ended in a spray of loose rock just short of the river's edge. He eyed the water uneasily. The current gurgled and foamed around roots jutting out of the bank, while further out, miniature waves provided evidence of the swiftness of the river's flow. He glanced over his shoulder, seeing in the distance the first of the patrol's lights moving toward him. Without allowing himself a chance to change his mind, he stepped off the bank and into the water. The biting cold that attacked his feet and legs made him want to vault right back out again. Ruthlessly curbing the impulse, he lurched further into the current, laboring against it momentarily before turning downstream.
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"He's heading for the river," Wenzel commented aloud to his commanding officer.
Hauptmann Klaus Leidel nodded absently and continued his study of the broken twigs and other obvious signs marking the man's passing. Of course he's going for the river. He has no choice. This trail is much too easy to follow. Waving his remaining two men onward, he silently followed, considering the events of the past thirty minutes.
Their night patrol had been uneventful until in a rare moment of luck, they'd spotted two figures separating to either side of the road ahead of them. Shouting a warning to halt, he and his men had approached the two people. As they grew closer, the pair became recognizable in the moonlight as a man and woman. In response to their command to surrender, the man had slowly walked toward them from the trees; his hands held low and slightly away from his body. Leidel had felt a flare of alarm. No one voluntarily walked toward capture -- unless they were up to something. His instincts had been justified, for in the next instant, the man had snapped into a firing position and taken out two of Leidel's four men.
Respect and admiration manifested itself in a shake of his head. The shots had been placed to incapacitate, not to kill and within seconds had taken the odds from five to one down to three to one. Hilbrandt had been clipped in the fleshy part of his calf, while Elrich had taken a bullet to the arm. His gun arm, to be exact. And the distraction had worked. Their return fire had been concentrated on the man as he'd lunged into the woods, leaving his companion to flee unmolested in the opposite direction.
Leidel chuckled deep within his throat. The sound, so uncommon coming from him, startled his men. They turned their heads and stared curiously over their shoulders at him. He schooled his face into a formidable glare and snapped their heads forward again.
Leidel walked to the bush bathed in the beam of Wenzel's flashlight. Lifting one of the branches closer, he saw what had caught the other man's attention. Viscous liquid glistened on a few of the dead leaves. So, we managed to hit our target after all. Judging by the speed at which the man was moving, it wasn't a serious wound.
"He's reached the river by now," Leidel mused aloud, visualizing the man's progress. Upstream or down? Surely not across? What would I do? Without further hesitation, he pointed into the darkness to his left.
"Let's parallel it downstream. I believe he'll attempt to get around us that way."
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Thigh-deep in icy cold water, he could only watch while the lights closed in on him. The patrol had countered his move. His options were dwindling.
Staying in the water was out of the question; the cold was quickly sapping his strength and body heat. His feet were already numb and his teeth were on the verge of chattering. But if he got out of the river, they would hear him breaking through the dense undergrowth skirting the bank. He didn't have the strength left to fight his way back upstream to get around them. That meant crossing to the other side to find a place to wait them out.
Turning his back on the lights, he started across the river toward the bank that suddenly appeared a mile away. It was probably only his imagination, but the current felt as if it had gotten stronger. It pulled at his legs, threatening to knock him off his feet at any moment. He stumbled against a particularly strong wave, caught himself, and pushed his leg forward against the current.
What seemed an eternity later, he hoisted himself out of the water and onto the opposite bank, shuddering in misery. The river had deepened three-quarters of the way across, drenching him up to his neck. The once warm, black shirt and lined jacket now hung heavily from his shoulders and his trousers clung to his legs like a sodden, second skin.
Ingrained habit made him take a few precious moments to check the condition of his gun. He was about to move on when he noticed faint movement directly in front of his face. He blinked, then blinked again. Rising into the air from every part of his drenched clothing were smoky tendrils of escaping body heat.
Trembling violently from the cold, he entered the woods without a backward glance. Only one thought was uppermost in his mind now. If he didn't find shelter soon, the patrol would be the least of his problems.
Fifty feet later, he surrendered to his body's demands and paused, leaning forward to brace his hands on his knees and pull in deep, ragged breaths. He was in very serious trouble. He needed shelter, but there were few places nearby that he knew of and all were outside, with little or no means of providing warmth. The hand he'd been scrubbing across his face stopped mid-motion as he remembered another time when he'd needed shelter from the cold. It wasn't much, but it was the best possibility. He glanced around and found several familiar landmarks. The distance was farther than he would've liked, but he had to try for it.
The alternative was to simply lie down and die.
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Leidel stared across the water, at a complete loss to explain what he was feeling. By the time he'd arrived at the river, his quarry was already midway to the other side. For a very brief moment, he'd considered shooting. Training insisted upon it. Duty demanded it. But conscience forbade him from shooting any target in the back no matter what the circumstances.
Instead, he'd remained silent, his gun held loosely at his side, while the man struggled through the frigid water. His own body shook with shivers of sympathy as he watched the slow progress. At one point, the dark head came close to disappearing beneath the current. Leidel had grimaced, expecting the river to accomplish what he had not. But the man had slowly emerged from the water and onto the other bank. It briefly appeared that the crossing might have been too much. The man swayed, staggered and nearly fell, but managed to stay on his feet and moved out of sight.
Leidel stared across the river. He'd truly believed the man wouldn't cross, but would instead skirt the river's edge and attempt to slip past the patrol in the darkness. It was a cold night, just above freezing. The odds of survival were little to none for someone wounded and soaking wet. Yet, rather than risk capture, the man had chosen to cross.
He shook his head in wonder, struggling to wrap his mind around that fact. A smile slowly stole across his face.
Labored breathing signaled his men's arrival. Banishing all traces of the smile, he turned.
"I found no sign of him here. He must have doubled back and slipped by us somehow." He pointed past them in the direction of the road. "If we hurry, we may yet be able to catch up with him." Immediately, they spun and reentered the woods.
He looked across the river again. Despite the odds and all logic to the contrary, he felt certain that he and the man would one day meet again.
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Time passed in an ever-thickening fog of freezing exhaustion. His legs grew stiff and numb and his eyelids drooped from the overwhelming urge to lie down and sleep. The only part of his body that seemed to have retained any feeling at all was the ache in his side, which throbbed with every leaden step he took. Eventually, even that sensation faded. He fought against the deadly lethargy with every ounce of his will and stumbled onward, desperate to reach shelter. Finally, just when he thought he could go no further, he arrived at his destination. Leaning heavily against a tree to catch his breath and gather his strength, he blearily studied his surroundings.
The farm was exactly as he remembered it, right down to the battered old truck parked at an angle in front of the barn. The only difference he found after a few moments of study was the car parked alongside it. The rest of the scene looked like something out of a Christmas card. The modest but well-maintained house stood against a backdrop of trees. Golden light gleamed invitingly from windows evenly spaced beneath a wrap around porch, while smoke curled in lazy wisps from the stone chimney.
He rested his cheek against the tree and closed his eyes, a breath that was more of a sob escaping numb lips. What he wouldn't give at the moment for a blanket and fire.
He could break into the house. He had a gun. But in his condition, they still might be able to take him. The risk was too high.
Feeling himself drifting into oblivion, he pried his eyes open and pushed away from the tree. Forget the house. Get to the barn. Keeping his gaze locked on the barn's side door, he staggered across the barnyard, silently repeating with each step, One more. Just one more.
Somehow, he stayed on his feet and made it to the door. He collapsed against the barn and reached for the handle, muscles shaking with effort. The door opened with a grating squeal of its hinges. Apparently, the farmer still didn't believe in using oil.
His next obstacle was the ladder leading to his ultimate destination: a loft, where he could burrow deep beneath the fluffy straw he remembered. The climb looked insurmountable, but he had to make it. He'd come this far. He wasn't about to give up now.
His hand was reaching for the ladder when he heard the barn's front door open. Knowing he couldn't possibly reach the loft in time, he went for a corner as fast as his cold, leaden feet would carry him.
The farmer stepped into the barn, humming softly. The humming broke off and he stopped, lifting his lantern to avoid bumping the cat that had appeared to twine around his feet. He gave the yellow tomcat a gentle push with one foot, grinning at its plaintive meow of protest.
"You have had your milk, Oskar."
The rangy feline threw him a green-eyed look of displeasure, and with a switch of its bent tail, slunk back into the shadows.
Chuckling softly, the farmer took a firmer grip on his axe and continued across the barn floor toward the chickens' nesting boxes. He was nearly there when the lantern light touched upon an unfamiliar shape in one corner of the barn. Curious, he turned and walked toward it, lifting his lantern higher for a better view.
The distinctive sound of a handgun cocking froze the farmer in place. Now clearly illuminated by the lantern's light was the metallic shine of a gun aimed directly at his chest. Slowly, he looked beyond it. The face staring back at him was bisected by harsh shadows, leaving most of the man's darkened features hidden from view. For some reason, the effect made the man appear more menacing than the gun. Being very careful not to move, the farmer spoke soothingly to the eyes glittering at him from the shadows.
"I mean you no harm." The eyes flickered to his left hand, reminding him of what he held. "It is for the chicken," he explained with a smile. "She is no longer laying, so she is for the table tonight."
The gun remained trained on his chest, the eyes again unwavering.
The farmer swallowed. Mein Gott.
"Father, is she giving you trouble?" a voice called from just outside the barn door.
The man's head jerked upward and his eyes blinked and widened. A brief pause, then the hand holding the gun dropped, as though it had grown too heavy to hold up any longer. The farmer sighed in relief when he heard the gun's safety being engaged. Slowly leaning to one side, he placed the axe and lantern on a nearby barrel, hearing the door open behind him. Keeping his gaze upon the stranger, he called out to his son.
"We have a guest for supper." Cautiously, he moved closer when the man uttered a guttural moan and dropped to his knees.
"Robert!" Doktor Kurt Metzger leaped forward, catching Robert Hogan's limp body in his arms.
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Corporal Peter Newkirk, RAF, grumbled under his breath and brushed a drift of snow from his shoulders. Casting a beleaguered look at the heavy clouds obscuring the stars, he wrapped his arms about his shivering body.
This night just keeps getting better and better.
He'd hoped to make it back to camp before the snow started, but several patrols had kept that from happening. The first squad of Germans had quickly moved on, but the second had caused him considerable concern. He'd waited in the thick brush, hunkered in a tight ball, while they'd tramped back and forth between the river and the road he had to cross. By the time they'd finally moved off down the road toward Hammelburg, he was stiff and shivering from the forced inactivity.
A grin pulled at his chapped lips. Stiff and cold, but still free . . . and alive. He looked heavenward again, this time touching his woolen cap in salute.
Some of the snow sifted under the collar of his greatcoat and down his neck, making him squirm uncomfortably. As if that insult weren't enough, the wind suddenly rose, gusting through the trees, rattling the bare branches above his head. Snow swirled about him in growing density, almost obscuring the path he was following. Without warning, he sneezed, simultaneously grabbing his cap to keep from losing it in the process. He sniffled and wiped at tearing eyes.
This bleeding war is going to give me pneumonia!
London's call had not been welcome. Particularly to him, since he'd drawn the short straw for pick-up duty. The fact that his CO was also braving the elements for a last-minute meeting with one of their contacts didn't make him feel any better. At least Rapunzel was feminine and beautiful. Rumpelstiltskin, however, was the image of his codename: sixty-ish, gray-haired and gnarled.
Ruddy officers get all the perks! Newkirk silently groused, brushing another layer of snow from his shoulders.
The patrols hadn't been the only unpleasant surprise of the night. He'd expected to rendezvous with Schnitzer at a small pull-off from the main road for a ride back to camp in the relative comfort of the German's dog truck. For once, he'd actually been looking forward to sharing his ride with a pack of drooling, friendly dogs. In his opinion, being covered in hair and sticky dog kisses was more attractive than a long hike in cold weather. But upon arriving at the appointed spot, the truck and Schnitzer had been mysteriously absent and he'd ended up with the hike after all.
Newkirk sighed and tugged his collar tighter around his neck, images of steaming hot tea and his bed filling his head. If his luck improved, he'd be allowed to go straight to bed once he'd given his report delivered the package into Hogan's hands. That thought alone was enough to make him pick up speed.
He felt like cheering when he finally arrived at the squat tree stump concealing the entrance to their tunnel system. He gave the area a quick check, relieved to find the wind-driven snow had drifted in a manner that left the ground around the entrance clear. Tracks disappearing at the base of the stump would attract unwelcome attention.
He timed the rhythm of the searchlight's sweep and once it had passed, lifted the stump lid and descended into the tunnel.
He jumped off the ladder two rungs from the bottom, twisting in mid-air to avoid landing on top of Sergeant Andrew Carter.
"Bloody hell, Andrew! I could've done myself a mischief!"
"Did you see the colonel? Was he out there?"
"Eh? What are you on about?" Newkirk asked, looking up from shaking the last of the snow from his coat. Carter hovered in front of him, fidgeting from foot to foot.
"The colonel! He's way overdue!"
"Rapunzel's a beautiful bird, Andrew," Newkirk said with a leer and suggestive wiggle of his eyebrows. "Maybe they're keeping each other warm."
Carter's blue eyes rolled and his voice rose in outrage. "There was trouble tonight, Newkirk! Rapunzel radioed she and the colonel met up with a patrol. He drew their fire while she got away. That was hours ago!"
Newkirk briefly locked eyes with him, then shouldered past and headed straight for their radio room. Kinch and LeBeau were keeping vigil at the radio set and looked up at his entrance. The bleakness in their faces sent his heart plummeting into his stomach.
"Any word on the guv'nor?"
"No," sighed Kinch, pulling off his headphones.
LeBeau's face brightened as he thought of a possible explanation. "Maybe he's waiting until it's safe to go back to Schnizter's truck."
Carter dropped heavily onto a nearby stool and shook his head. "He wouldn't do that. He wouldn't risk leading them to Schnitzer."
Kinch wrapped his arms around himself and stared down at the table, seeing not its wooden top, but an image of Hogan lying dead or dying somewhere in the woods. Previous experience made the vision much too vivid and he mentally cringed away from the memory. "Carter's right. If anything, he'd take off in the opposite direction. And besides, Schnizter's long gone by now. He knows not to stay that long and risk drawing suspicion."
Newkirk leaned back against one of the tunnel's brace beams, one hand creeping to his ever-present pack of cigarettes. "Kinch is right about Schnitzer. He was long gone and it wasn't because I was late to the rendezvous. That's why it took me so long to get back. I had to hoof it the whole way." He pulled out a cigarette, then tucked the pack back into his pocket. "I think I might have run into that same patrol, mates. They were pretty close to where the guv'nor and Rapunzel would've had their meeting."
Carter paled even more. "Do you suppose they got him?"
Newkirk absently played with the unlit cigarette as he reviewed the patrol's movements. "No. They were beatin' the brush. Lookin'. And not findin'. Whatever happened, they hadn't caught the guv'nor."
Kinch's expression was somber when he looked up. "Then where is he?"
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Hogan slowly drifted awake to blessed warmth. With a sigh of contentment, he burrowed deeper into the soft duvet wrapped about him and let himself float in pleasant drowsiness. Gradually, he became aware of the crackle and snap of a fire burning nearby. He turned his head toward the sound and felt the flame's heat fall directly upon his face, warming his cheeks even more. His nostrils twitched at the pungent tang of wood smoke before he buried it beneath the duvet.
A hand gently touched the crown of his head, then stroked lightly back over his hair. Still fuzzy from the effects of bone-chilling cold giving way to heat, he lay still, pondering the touch. The hand stroked over his hair again, drifting past his ear to his cheek -- a whisper soft caress that spoke of care.
His senses finally woke up. Tilting his head back, he looked directly into the bluest pair of eyes he'd ever seen. They widened, then turned away.
"Kurt? Josef? He is awake."
He glimpsed two people rushing toward him from the corner of his slightly blurred vision. The surprise that had initially held him immobile gave way to full-fledged alarm. Perceiving a threat, he tried to get up and protect himself. Unfortunately, his body wouldn't cooperate. He flailed clumsily within the duvet, but only managed a sitting position.
"Robert, calm down! You are safe!" Kurt dropped to his knees beside the mattress positioned in front of the fire. He latched onto his friend's shoulders, noting with concern how little effort it took to hold the normally robust American down.
His reassurances finally penetrated Hogan through his panic. He stopped struggling and looked up in surprise.
"Ja, Robert," Kurt soothed. Hogan shivered and clutched at the duvet that had fallen to his waist. Kurt frowned, worried. "Lie back down," he urged, gently pushing against Hogan's shoulders.
Too disoriented to object, Hogan sank back onto the mattress and Kurt rearranged the duvet around him. The disorientation cleared enough that several pieces of information filtered through the fog in Hogan's brain: he was completely naked beneath the duvet and somewhere close by was a woman he didn't know.
Sensing his discomfort, Kurt patted him on the shoulder before taking a seat on the floor beside him. "Your clothing was completely soaked and your temperature was dangerously low. We removed your clothing so that we could warm you back up." He watched Hogan's gaze travel slowly around the room. "You are in my parents' home."
Hogan flicked a sharp glance toward him. "The barn."
"Ja," Kurt nodded gravely. "Your infamous luck held once again. If Father had not gone out to the barn when he did, we would not have found you, and no amount of straw would have kept you from dying of exposure." He looked away, horrified at the possibility of one day discovering his friend's corpse in the loft.
Hogan shifted beneath the duvet and discovered a warm, yielding object that sloshed when prodded with his foot. Hot water bottle. No wonder my feet are so warm. Refocusing his wandering thoughts, he looked toward the kitchen.
"You said this is your parents' home?"
"Ja." Kurt turned toward the kitchen, calling out, "Mutter? Vater?" The couple immediately appeared carrying a loaded tray. Hogan rose into a sitting position and looked again into the brilliant cerulean blue eyes that he'd awakened to.
"Robert, this is Romie, my mother." A petite woman with delicate features and wavy, dove-gray hair smiled down at Hogan. He nodded, feeling a twinge of guilt.
"My father, Josef." Herr Metzger leaned forward, tipped his head in greeting. Hogan stared; remembering him from the time he and Carter had spent hiding out in the Metzger barn. Herr Metzger appeared much the same as he had then: slightly stooped from age, but still bearing a head full of silver-blond hair. His pale blue eyes held an inner youthfulness.
"Herr Metzger, Frau Metzger, I'm honored to finally have the chance to meet you both face to face. But I have a confession to make."
The couple shared a puzzled look with their son. Kurt's head tilted quizzically. "We don't understand, Robert. What do you mean?"
Hogan shifted to a more comfortable position. The wound in his side sent out a minor spasm of pain, reminding him of its presence. "One of my men and I once hid out in your barn. I entered your home and stole some food." Their faces immediately lit with understanding.
"Ah, the cheese and bread!" Romie nodded. She reached out and squeezed one duvet-covered shoulder. "So that was you, then?" She chuckled when he confirmed it with a dip of his head. "Colonel, we did not suffer from the loss. We had assumed that some poor soul needed it more than we. Besides, you really did not take much at all."
"Romie is right, Colonel," Josef agreed, pulling his pipe from one pocket. "We found later where you had been sleeping in the loft, as well. We understood that our guests had obviously meant us no harm, but had only needed food and shelter for a short time." He struck a match and held it to the bowl of the pipe, puffing away until it lit with a soft sputter. The rich scent of tobacco wafted into the air.
"But didn't the Gestapo come here looking for us?" Hogan remembered Schiller commenting that their temporary shelter in the loft had been discovered during a search of the farm. He sank lower in the duvet, swamped with guilt at the thought of the couple being harassed due to evidence of their presence. He glanced at Kurt, berating himself for putting his friend's parents in danger.
"They had no reason to suspect us of any involvement, Colonel," Josef replied evenly. He avoided looking at his wife or son, knowing that they had caught the lie. The Gestapo had left them alone . . . eventually.
"The soup!" Romie cried, reaching for the long-forgotten tray. "Colonel, you must eat before it becomes cold! You need the warmth." She started to hand him the bowl, but paused when Kurt put a hand on Hogan's chest and held him down.
"Stay completely within the duvet, Robert. Not even your arms are to come out." Kurt laughed at Hogan's look outrage. "Your temperature was still a degree less than normal the last time I checked, which was just before you awoke. And I have not missed the shivers you have been trying so hard to hide from me. I will help you sit up, but you are to stay completely covered. As much as it may bruise your pride, one of us will feed the soup to you."
Josef leaned forward, his pipe in hand. "It is chicken soup, Colonel." As he'd hoped, Hogan snickered and relaxed, allowing Kurt to help him sit up. Romie lifted a spoonful of the warm broth to his mouth, and after a moment's hesitation, he accepted it.
Kurt sat back and watched his mother happily fuss over his friend. He smiled, enjoying her quiet laughter over Hogan's praises for her cooking and the now-deceased chicken that had indirectly saved his life.
It was good to hear her laugh again and to see the animation lighting her face as she kept up a running commentary with Hogan to keep his mind off his discomfort. That soft lilting laughter, once a daily part of the Metzger household, had been rare treasure over the past twelve months. But it flowed freely now and the haunted, withdrawn expression was nowhere to be seen.
He hid a chuckle behind the shelter of his hand, knowing how much his friend hated to be coddled and fussed over by anyone. But Hogan endured the loving treatment and warmly thanked Romie after finishing the soup. Josef helped Romie to her feet, then took up the tray and dishes and accompanied her into the kitchen.
Kurt studied Hogan's appearance with a critical eye. His friend's face had regained a healthy flush of color and the intermittent shivering was finally abating. The brown eyes were bright and clear and Hogan appeared relatively alert. Kurt relaxed, sighing in relief.
Hogan had been frighteningly white when they'd found him, his condition rapidly deteriorating. By the time they'd gotten him into the house and wrestled him out of his wet clothing, he'd stopped shivering and had become completely unresponsive. The most disconcerting aspect of his condition had been his eyes. They'd remained slitted open, dull and fixed throughout their urgent attempts to warm him.
Kurt blew out a harsh breath, reliving the helpless rage and fear he'd felt watching his friend hover between life and death. They'd worked over him for more than forty-five minutes before seeing the first indication that they were pulling him back. A small tremor had run the length of his body and then he'd slowly blinked. Just a single blink, but Kurt had felt the first leap of hope. Soon, his friend's eyes had squeezed shut, his teeth had started chattering, and rapid, violent shivers had started the lean frame shaking. Hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, they'd quietly rejoiced when Hogan had finally lapsed into natural sleep with an audible sigh.
A foot connected solidly against Kurt's leg, jostling him back to the present. Inwardly, he was pleased by the pain-free action. Frostbite had been another very real concern. He looked up, meeting the alert brown eyes with a bemused smirk.
" I see that your reflexes have returned to normal, Robert."
"Oh, very funny." Hogan rose onto one elbow, then sat bolt upright when the mantle clock caught his attention. "Where are my clothes?" He swore beneath his breath when he received only a blank look in answer. "I've got to get back to camp! By that clock over there," he hitched his head toward the mantle, "Roll call's in less than ninety minutes!"
"Tell me, Robert," Kurt sighed, lazily rubbing one finger back and forth beneath his chin. "How do you propose to travel twelve miles in less than ninety minutes in your condition?"
Hogan glared at him. "That must be your car out front. You can give me a ride back to camp." He started gathering the duvet around him.
Kurt jumped to his feet. "Stay by the fire! I'll find clothes for you. Yours are still damp and I'll not have you putting them back on and sending yourself right back into another chill!" He stomped out of the room, muttering beneath his breath about stubborn jackasses.
Hogan was on his feet by the time he returned and held out a hand for the clothing, only to yelp in alarm when the duvet took a sudden slide to the floor. He grabbed at the folds of fabric, yanking them back up a scant second before Josef and Romie returned from the kitchen.
"Kurt?" Romie's gentle voice held a definite note of censure. "Should the colonel be up so soon?"
Kurt snorted. "Absolutely not, Mutter. However, Robert has always had his own ideas concerning his health, haven't you, Robert?" Hogan shot him another dark glare, then carefully let go of the duvet with one hand and reached again for the clothing. Kurt stepped back, yanking them beyond his reach
"Come on, Kurt!" He took a step forward, reached out again. Kurt thrust out his free hand, blocking the attempt.
"Nein. Either you sit on the couch and allow me to check your wound, or you will continue to wear that duvet." Hogan's head lowered in stubborn determination. Kurt frowned. "Give in, Robert, and I'll have you back at camp that much faster." He folded his arms, prepared to be as just stubborn.
Hogan rolled his eyes, shuffled over to the couch and gingerly sat down. Kurt sat beside him and lowered the duvet just far enough to check the wound. He couldn't hold back a tiny grin when he noted the position of the graze.
"It seems you will have a scar to match Christopher's. The wound is just below your ribs, in nearly the exact same spot."
"Great. I can't tell you how excited I am," Hogan growled. Next time he saw his youngest brother, they could compare war wounds. He consulted the clock again. "Are you done?" He shivered, clutched the duvet closer.
Kurt noticed the reaction and his reply died on his lips. He looked up to find his ever-observant mother had noticed it as well. She glanced at him and concern, then started forward. Kurt pursed his lips, waving her back as Hogan twisted on the cushion to face him.
"Kurt? As much as I appreciate this duvet, there's a lot to be said for clothes."
Throwing a look heavenward, Kurt surrendered the clothing with ill grace. Hogan's hand darted out from the duvet and grabbed them. He started to dress, only to suddenly remember Romie's presence. Blushing, he looked at Kurt, then hitched his eyes in her direction. Kurt sputtered with laughter.
It is much too late for modesty, my friend!
Hogan glared at him, unamused. "Kurt . . ." he warned.
"Oh, very well, Robert," Kurt chuckled, looking to his father for help. Josef smiled in understanding and led Romie from the room with a murmured explanation. Her soft laughter floated back to them from the kitchen.
Without warning, a wave of weakness hit Hogan. He slumped, his eyes slamming shut.
"What?" His brown eyes snapped open again, showing definite signs of renewed exhaustion.
"You almost fell asleep just now." Kurt put out one hand, propping the sagging body upright. "I am not happy about this." Hogan ignored him and started pulling on the trousers. Kurt bit back a curse. I should have kept my mouth shut and allowed you to fall completely asleep!
"You should not be going back out into the cold so soon."
Hogan pulled the thick, woolen sweater over his head, the material muffling his response. "I won't be soaking wet this time and I won't be out that long." Brushing the thick fall of hair out of his eyes with a sweep of his hand, he allowed the duvet to fall to the floor and quickly pulled on the socks and boots.
Kurt felt his heart clench in pain. The clothing fit Hogan as though they'd been made for him. Reality blurred, superimposing his brother Philipp's face over Hogan's familiar features. His temper flared; his voice lowered to a snarl. "You are the most mulish, thick-headed, stubborn, insufferable . . ." Anger contorted Kurt's face, his diatribe not slowing even when Hogan went still in surprise. "You were this close to death! And now you want to waltz right back out into the cold before your body has fully recovered from the severe shock!"
Without warning, he seized Hogan by the arms and hauled him to his feet, then immediately withdrew his support. Hogan staggered, struggling to regain his balance. Taking Hogan's jaw in one hand, Kurt snarled, "You see?! You are still very groggy and weak. You will feel chilled for quite sometime and you are trembling in my hands at this very moment! Verdamnt, Robert! We did not save your life just to have you so cavalierly risk it again! When did you decide you were indestructible?" Hogan's reply was lost as Kurt shook him hard again. "When did you decide that your body could take any amount of punishment and bounce right back without repercussions? You are A FOOL, Robert Edward Hogan!" he spun away, retreating.
Hogan felt like he'd been caught in a whirlwind. He studied Kurt's rigid back, Carter's favorite phrase of "Holy cow," echoing through his mind. He looked toward the kitchen, finding Josef and Romie watching from the doorway, Romie wrapped in her husband's arms. Hogan swore there were tears in their eyes.
Absently, he fingered the borrowed clothing, then looked down at the sweater and trousers, noticing only then that they fit perfectly. They were too large to have come from Kurt's closet. Nor could they be Josef's. Slowly, his eyes went to the small table near the fireplace. The picture of the young Luftwaffe officer was still there, the frame still wrapped in black crepe. He winced, suddenly understanding Kurt's pain and anger.
Their son. Kurt's brother.
Taking a deep breath, Hogan carefully went to Kurt. "I'm sorry about your brother."
"His name was Philipp," Kurt offered, swinging around to face him. "And he was just as stubborn as you."
"And seeing me in his clothes just brought back all of the pain."
"Ja," Kurt murmured, lips twisting in a weak smile. "But do not misunderstand, Robert. I was speaking to you, not Phillip, and I meant every word."
Josef approached them, his gray brows drawn together by a frown. "Colonel, we do not begrudge you the clothing. After all, Philipp has need of it no longer." Romie nodded her agreement from the doorway, sniffling softly and wiping her eyes.
Hogan didn't know what to say, torn between duty and the desire to stay with them. His eyes returned to the mantle clock. Sixty minutes until roll call.
Kurt noticed him looking and moved toward the door, his voice low in resignation. "Come, Robert. I'll take you back."
"Wait." Hogan quickly shrugged into the jacket Kurt had provided, then went to Romie. Taking her hand, he bent over it and placed a light kiss on her palm. Her cheeks pinked with a girlish blush and she pressed her other hand to her lips. "Danke, danke vielmaus, Frau Metzger," Hogan said softly, bowing his head over her hand.
Her blue eyes blazed with pleasure and she reached up and cupped his cheek with her free hand. "I wish you well, Colonel, and hope that we will have the chance to see you again. Until then, I will pray for your safety and that of your men."
He gave her his brightest smile, and releasing her hand, turned and bowed in respect to Josef. "Herr Metzger, you saved my life. I will never forget that nor your gracious hospitality."
Josef took his hand in a firm grip. "You are welcome in our home . . . or our barn," he chuckled, "anytime, Colonel." He produced Hogan's gun and damp clothing.
"Thank you, sir." Hogan accepted them and started for the door, throwing a glance at them over his shoulder. Romie looked up at her husband and made a soft comment. Josef put a fist to his mouth and choked back a laugh. Shaking his head in amusement, Kurt followed Hogan out.
Outside, Hogan holstered his gun and turned to Kurt, his expression quizzical. "I realize this is really none of my business, but what was it she said to your father just now?"
Kurt laughed softly and stepped off the porch. "She said that you are much too charming for your own good and that she hopes you don't one day find yourself in trouble because of it."
Hogan laughed all the way to the car.
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"Roll call in twenty-five minutes."
LeBeau, Newkirk and Carter glanced up at Kinch's flat announcement. He stiffly rose from his chair and headed into the tunnel leading to their barracks. They watched him go, making no move to follow. He paused and looked back at them, weariness and worry bowing his shoulders.
"Come on. There's no use waiting around here any longer. London doesn't know any more than we do. He'll either show or he won't."
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They were as close to Stalag 13 as they could get without being seen. Kurt brought the car to a stop, and after setting the brake, glanced around, noting with satisfaction that they were fairly close to the tunnel entrance. As Hogan had predicted, he wouldn't be outside for long.
Kurt looked across the seat at his passenger and gritted his teeth in renewed frustration. Pale and trembling, Hogan was slumped against the door in uneasy sleep. Kurt reached across the car and shook his friend by the shoulder.
Hogan jerked awake and levered himself away from the door, blinking owlishly at Kurt. "We're at Stalag 13?"
Kurt nodded, making note of the slurred speech and bleary eyes. He briefly debated the merits of another lecture, but abandoned the idea as a waste of breath.
"Thanks for saving my life, Kurt, and for getting me back here, even though it is against your better judgment."
Kurt's expression grew stormier. "I want your word that you will immediately go to bed and sleep, and that you will stay inside for the next few days. No running around outside. Stay out of the cold." He waited, but Hogan refused to look at him.
"Your word Robert!"
Hogan grimaced. His friend rarely raised his voice, but when he did, it was with considerable volume. "All right! You have my word." He opened the door and had one foot on the ground when Kurt leaned over and grabbed him by the arm.
"I'll return this evening to check on you."
Hogan knew better than to argue at this point. Giving Kurt a quick nod, he jumped out of the car and turned to leave, inadvertently brushing against a low-hanging evergreen branch. Snow cascaded over his back like a heavy, wet blanket. He hunched his shoulders against the downfall, shot a rueful grin back at Kurt.
Muttering in disgust, Kurt watched his friend disappear into the brush and then threw the car into gear and drove away.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Feeling a strange sense of deja vu, Hogan sped through the tunnels, shedding clothing right and left. The sweater gave him some difficulty, but he finally managed to wrestle it off by the time he reached the radio room. He tossed it without aim, vaguely noticing it land in a heap against the radio set. Kinch wouldn't be pleased at the disrespect to his equipment, but Hogan couldn't spare the time to remove the evidence.
Reaching his locker, he grabbed his uniform and started yanking it on in a frenzy of motion. His hand caught against the bandage on his side. Clenching his teeth, he ripped it off, ignoring both the sting of pain and the renewed trickle of blood.
Less than two minutes until roll call. Swearing softly, he stuffed his shirttail into his trousers, zipped and buttoned, then grabbed his shoes. Trying to put them on while hopping to the ladder was too much to ask of his already shaky equilibrium. He knelt and tied them in record time, then leaped for the ladder, only to bounce right back off again to retrieve his cap and bomber jacket. He scaled the ladder to the barracks, jacket drooped mid-way down his shoulders, cap precariously perched on his head.
The burst of energy was completely gone by the time he hoisted himself out of the tunnel. He reeled drunkenly next to the bunk, only his grip on the frame keeping him from pitching face forward onto the floor. After a few seconds, the wooziness subsided enough that he felt it safe to move. He closed the entrance and slowly walked to the door, fumbling with the jacket's zipper.
His men were already assembled in front of the barracks for morning roll call, stamping and muttering to each other while Schultz called their names. Hogan hung back, waiting for an opportunity to get into line unnoticed.
"Colonel Hogan?" Schultz stared at the empty space in the front rank, as though expecting Hogan to materialize out of thin air. When he didn't, Schultz sidled closer to Kinch, nervously asked out of the side of his mouth, "Where is Colonel Hogan?"
Hogan figured that this was as good a time as any. He slipped between Carter and Newkirk and stepped into rank.
"Right here, Schultz."
"Colonel Hogan!" Schultz hurried to his side. "Puh-leeze, Colonel Hogan! I'm up for another three-day pass. Please NO monkey-business!"
Hogan shook his head to clear the whine from his ears. "Don't wuh-worry, Schultz. I've pruh-promised to be a guh-good boy and behuh- have myself."
Hogan gritted his teeth, annoyed beyond words at the stuttering. The last thing he wanted was to draw even more attention to himself. Unable to stop shivering, he jammed his hands beneath his arms and watched without interest as Kommandant Wilhelm Klink approached from his quarters for morning report. Klink came to rest in front of them, one hand twisting and tugging at the riding crop tucked beneath his arm. Hogan groaned inwardly. A lecture was coming. And Klink's lectures tended to be lengthy.
"I've just received a report from our last inspection," Klink barked, his pale blue eyes darting over the length of their ranks. "We received another below average rating. Below average!" He petulantly stamped his foot and clenched one fist at his side. "This is a disgrace and will not be tolerated! The inspector will return in one week and at that time, I expect this camp to receive the highest rating possible! You will work each day until I'm satisfied that the inspector will be impressed by Stalag 13's . . . "
Hogan tuned out at that point, concentrating instead on staying awake and on his feet. He huddled in on himself, trying to imagine hot desert sands and cactus. For some reason, all the images he came up with were tinted blue.
"Hogan! Are you listening to me?"
The bellow jerked him out of his blue-tinged world and he looked up, surprised to find Klink directly in front of him. "Yuh-yes, s-s-sir."
Klink peered at him closely, taking in the pallid face and chattering teeth. Simultaneously, his head shot up and he took a hasty hop-step backward. "Hogan, are you ill?"
"Then why are you shivering, with your arms wrapped around yourself and your teeth chattering while the rest of us are fine?"
Klink's head tilted in thought. "My grandfather had thin blood . . ." he shook himself, his gaze returning to Hogan and going flinty hard. "Get inside, Hogan! I'm getting cold from just looking at you! The rest of you are dismissed, also!"
Hogan didn't need to be told twice. He spun toward the barracks, making a quick course adjustment when his traitorous balance deserted him again. He still ended up running smack into Kinch. The sergeant grunted in surprise and quickly reached out to steady him. Hogan gave him a grateful look, pointed himself toward the door, and set out again. His men trailed after him, peppering him with questions. He ignored them and made tracks for his bed.
Refusing to give up, they crowded into his quarters and gathered around him as he dropped into a seat on the bunk. Newkirk elbowed a path through the crowd.
"Let's get you comfortable, Guv'nor." Without waiting for an answer, he plucked the cap from Hogan's head and handed it to Carter, then took the leather bomber jacket. His gaze immediately fell upon the blood staining the shirt beneath it. "Colonel Hogan . . ."
"It's nuh-nothing!" Hogan snapped, wrapping his arms back around himself. He was cold and miserable again and in absolutely no mood for any more mothering. With an awkward twist of his body, he lay down on the bunk and burrowed deep beneath his thin blanket until only his face showed.
Kinch didn't like the way Hogan was shivering. "Louis, get some more blankets."
Hogan blinked up at Kinch, fighting to keep his eyes open. "Rapunzel?"
"She's fine, Colonel. She radioed us about your run-in with the patrol. I don't mind telling you, we were really worried when you didn't show last night." Kinch took the blankets from LeBeau and started layering them over Hogan. "Where have you been, Colonel?" Receiving no answer, he bent down and peered into Hogan's face. The officer had fallen asleep, despite the tremors still shaking him.
"What do you suppose happened to him?" Carter stared at Hogan, surprised at how quickly he'd gone under.
Kinch studied Hogan. "Well, we know one thing for sure. He got clipped when he drew their fire."
"Oui." LeBeau nudged him aside and crouched beside the bunk. After a brief hesitation, he moved closer until his face was only inches from Hogan's.
"Whaddaya doing, Louis?" Carter shifted nervously, expecting the brown eyes to fly open at any second.
LeBeau waved a hand over his shoulder in Carter's direction. In a low and tentative voice, he called, "Colonel?" Hogan slept on. Raising his voice slightly, he called again. "Colonel Hogan?" Still no response.
LeBeau shared a look of amazement with his friends. Steeling himself, he ever so slowly peeled the layers of blankets back to Hogan's waist. Hogan twitched and curled further in on himself as the warmth was removed. LeBeau grimaced. He didn't want to cause his CO more distress, but Hogan was notorious for underplaying his own injuries and illnesses. LeBeau would make his own assessment.
With a touch light enough to make Newkirk proud, he carefully eased the officer's shirttail out of his belted trousers, revealing the wound. The other men crowded closer. What they saw was a mere crease that had already stopped bleeding. They glanced at each other, exchanging smiles of relief. Satisfied, LeBeau lowered the shirt and tucked the blankets back around Hogan.
"You deserve a medal of bravery for that, Louis," Kinch teased when LeBeau had finished.
"I think one of my bombs could go off in here and he wouldn't even know it!" Carter shook his head in wonderment that the feat had been accomplished without Hogan awakening. He knew for a fact that the officer was normally a light sleeper.
"Where was he all night?" Newkirk muttered to himself; thinking again of the patrol and how cold he'd gotten in the short time he'd waited in the brush for them to leave.
LeBeau leaned over the bunk and placed the back of his hand on Hogan's cheek. "He's warmer." He straightened, then turned and tapped Newkirk on the chest.
"Do you still have those two chocolate bars from your last Red Cross package?"
"Le colonel hates warm milk, but he does like hot chocolate." LeBeau flashed a wide smile and held out his hand.
Newkirk huffed with exasperation, but retrieved the chocolates from his stash and grudgingly handed them over.
"Coffee or hot tea would work just as well, mate."
LeBeau ignored the complaint and bustled away with the coveted chocolate.
Beaming ear to ear, Carter bounced over and bumped shoulders with Newkirk. "Nothing hits the spot like hot chocolate after being out in the snow, Newkirk"
"No one bloody well offered to make me any hot cocoa after nearly freezing me vital parts off last night!"
They continued bantering back and forth, never stopping even when Kinch gathered them up and herded them from the room. Kinch paused at the door, checked Hogan with a glance, then left him to rest undisturbed.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
"Still asleep?" Kinch asked, when LeBeau tiptoed out of Hogan's quarters that evening.
"Oui." The little Frenchman shrugged, just as surprised as Kinch.
The bunk entrance shot open, distracting them from their concern. Kurt appeared, ice-blond hair askew, his fair cheeks reddened from the cold.
"Doc! What are you doing here?" Carter jumped up from the table and took Kurt's coat and scarf from him.
Kurt frowned in mock annoyance and ran a hand through his hair, brushing it off his forehead. "It is good to see you, also, Carter." He ambled to the table, medical bag in hand. "I am here to see a certain mule-headed officer, and he had better be in."
"Now, I wonder who that would be?" Kinch muttered mildly, setting down at the table with a cup of coffee. Kurt ignored the aside and reached over his shoulder to pluck a cookie from a platter. "He's not only in, Doc, he's been asleep the whole day."
Kurt stopped mid-chew, a look of disbelief crossing his face. "The whole day?"
"Yeah." Putting two and two together, Kinch stood, causing Kurt to quickly back-pedal to avoid a collision. "Wait. This isn't just a friendly visit, is it?"
Newkirk dropped down from his bunk, skillfully landing between them.
"You know what happened to him last night, don't you, Doc?"
Kurt started to reply, but Hogan appeared in the doorway to his quarters at that moment, looking like a little boy just awakened from a nap. His jet-black hair was tousled from sleep and his eyes were heavy-lidded as he glanced around the room. Yawning, he slowly crossed the room and dropped into a seat at the head of the table.
"How are you feeling Colonel?" LeBeau hovered at his elbow, making another quick evaluation.
"Like Rip Van Winkle. I figured that when I opened my door, I'd find that the war had ended and all that was out here were rats and cobwebs." He yawned again, then looked over at Kurt. "I'm glad you're here. We need to talk."
Kurt stuffed the last bite of cookie into his mouth and brushed his fingers against his sweater. "Very well. Your quarters." He strode briskly for the other room, leaving them staring after him.
"Okay," Hogan breathed, standing to follow. A thought caused him to hesitate mid-step. "Carter, there should be some clothes lying --"
"Already got 'em, boy! Sir!" Carter went to his bunk and returned bearing Philipp's clothes. "It was kind of like following a trail of breadcrumbs, only with clothes instead of crumbs."
Hogan took the clothing and turned once more to leave, but had to pull up to keep from running over LeBeau. A steaming mug rose into view. Shifting the clothing to one arm, he took the cup, one eyebrow raised in question.
"Hot cocoa, Colonel."
Hogan nodded his thanks and shuffled off to his quarters.
Newkirk jammed his fists into his trouser pockets and swept the group with a glare of disgust. "Well, how do you like that? Neither one of them talked. This is as bad as someone telling a joke and leaving out the flippin' punch line!"
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
"So, Robert. I am pleased that you used good sense for once and followed my instructions."
Hogan sipped the rich cocoa, using the time to carefully assess his friend's mood. After setting the cup and clothes on the desk, he by-passed the chair Kurt indicated and went to his bunk.
"I did give you my word."
The trace of hurt in his voice tweaked Kurt's conscience. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "Not to make excuses, but I am still a bit rattled by last night's experience. It is not every day that I have a friend almost die in my arms." At Hogan's questioning look, he explained, "I spent most of the night wrapped around you like an octopus. There were several times I believed you weren't going to draw another breath." He sighed and dropped into a chair beside the bunk. It had been one of his worst fears brought to life. One day, no matter what he did, no matter how expert his skills, he'd be unable to save someone he cared about. He'd been lucky this time. But that day was coming, just as surely as the sun rose and set.
Hogan blinked several times at the picture that had popped into his mind. "You were under the duvet with me?" At Kurt's nod, his voice thinned to a squeak. "Were you . . .?"
Blue eyes sparkling with mirth, Kurt nodded again. "You know that it is the best way to share body heat, Robert. After all, you did the same for Carter when he had been shot, remember?"
"We weren't both buck-naked at the time!"
"And neither were we," Kurt returned evenly. His devilish smile did nothing to ease Hogan's discomfort. "You were buck-naked. I was still in underwear."
Completely mortified, Hogan lowered his head and covered his face with one hand. "Let's just keep that between you, me and your parents, okay?"
"As you wish," came the chuckled reply. Though I may use it occasionally to keep you in line! "Now, what was it you wanted to talk with me about?"
Hogan looked up, immensely relieved that the subject had been dropped. "General Ryker got banged up when his staff car took a near miss during an air raid a couple of nights ago in Mannheim. There's a very good chance he'll be transferred to your hospital in the next few days so that he can be near his staff and headquarters."
"He's agreed to pass some vital information to us. We were supposed to meet, but this changes everything. I'll need your help to get in to see him if he does end up in your hospital."
"I see." Kurt thought for a moment. "I suppose you could be passed as another doctor, come to consult."
"No. They'd make it their business to know all the doctors, and have their names on record. And I don't want you anywhere nearby when I contact him. If I get caught, I don't want any suspicion to fall on you."
"Then how do you expect me to help?"
"Sketch out the hospital's floor plan, along with anything else you think might be important. And if he does get checked in, I'll need the room number and details of their security."
Kurt glanced around the room, then went to Hogan's desk and pulled out a sheet of paper. Shortly afterward, he presented Hogan with a detailed floor plan, complete with several places that would do for short-term concealment, along with a rough description of the hospital's daily schedule.
Hogan quickly looked the information over before tucking it behind his pull-down map of the camp. Returning to the desk, he picked up the pile of clothing and placed them on Kurt's lap. "Thanks again for lending me Philipp's clothes," he murmured.
Face pale and immobile, Kurt stared down at the clothes, making no move to touch them. "Please take them, Robert. They fit you well and as Vater said, Philipp has need of them no longer."
Hogan returned the clothes to the desk, then seated himself on the bunk so that he faced his friend again. Quietly, knowing he was treading on familiar pain, he asked, "How did it happen?"
The sudden tightness in Kurt's throat momentarily kept him from speaking. Though his brother had been dead for over a year, it was still difficult to talk of his death. Philipp, with his love of life, his wise-cracking humor and gentle nature, was now buried in a stark grave miles from his family. Never again would he arrive home and wrap his arms around Kurt and laugh about how he had grown so much taller than his older brother.
Kurt cleared his throat. "Have you ever heard of Aplerbeck?"
Hogan shook his head.
"It is a children's institution, or hospital and I use these terms very loosely in describing it." Kurt shot to his feet and began pacing, feeling Hogan's gaze following him around the room. "In actuality, it is a place where unwanted children and children with disabilities, whether physical or mental, are sent to be murdered by the hundreds. All, of course, with the Third Reich's knowledge and approval." He spat out the words, his eyes blazing with hatred. "The men who dare call themselves doctors, put in the dead children's records that they died of measles, or the influenza, or some other nonsense, when in truth, they died from lethal injections of morphine!" The hatred abruptly died in his eyes, replaced by deep sorrow. "You see, Robert, infirmities of any kind are not allowed in Hitler's so-called glorious and perfect Third Reich."
His steps faltered to a stop. "Philipp learned of Aplerbeck and its sinister function when he stopped there while on patrol. He was horrified and asked me of it when he saw me next." He stared blindly at a point just above Hogan's collarbone, seeing again the pain in Philipp's face as he described the slaughter of innocents. "I told him to leave it, to forget what he'd seen. What could we do?" His voice cracked, his face crumpling in anguish. "Philipp could be incredibly naive about some matters."
Hogan sighed. "He questioned his superiors." It was more statement than question.
"You can imagine their response. Shortly afterward, he was sent to the Russian Front, where he was conveniently killed in battle just one day after arriving there." Kurt's eyes sought Hogan's. "My parents and I know, of course, that he was murdered. We could no longer remain neutral in this damnable war. We joined the Resistance and have worked for it ever since. It will not bring back Philipp, but it is a small, personal way of striking back at Hitler and the monstrosity his insanity has created." He collapsed back onto the chair and scrubbed at his face, feeling the dampness on his cheeks. "If only I had not dismissed him so quickly. If only I had --"
"If you had tried, your parents would be mourning both their sons," Hogan interrupted. He leaned forward and gripped Kurt's shoulder. "Don't, do it, Kurt."
Kurt's eyes squeezed shut and slowly, his ragged breathing evened out. When he looked up, eyes soft with concern were gazing down at him. He grinned weakly and patted the hand still resting on his shoulder.
"Never would I have believed that I would ever have the good fortune to have a friend such as you, Robert. I can talk with you about things that I wouldn't dare to even hint at with my own people."
Hogan's dark eyes glinted with humor. "And you've literally lain with the enemy."
Kurt threw back his head, erupting into laughter.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Kinch's head whipped to his left when the door to Hogan's quarters opened and the two men stepped out. They seemed subdued, despite the laughter that had emanated from behind the closed door just thirty minutes earlier. He looked across the room to where Newkirk stood next to his bunk restlessly rolling an unlit cigarette back and forth between the fingers of one hand. Kinch smirked. The cigarette was bent and ragged from the mistreatment.
If there was one thing Newkirk hated, it was an unsolved mystery. It was driving him crazy that he didn't know what had happened the night before to Hogan. The rest of the men were certainly curious, but figured they would get the story eventually. Newkirk's patience didn't extend that far. Flipping the limp cigarette to the barracks floor, he resolutely strode over to Hogan and Metzger.
"Hey, Colonel. Just what did you get into last night?"
"He chose the wrong night to go swimming," Kurt answered. He looked Hogan squarely in the eye, smiling at the scandalized expression. Squirm, my friend. I will not let you off that easily.
"Swimming?" Carter yelped in disbelief, rushing over from his bunk. "It was barely above freezing last night, Colonel!" He'd known officers to do strange things before, but this was too much!
"Guv'nor, have you gone 'round the twist?"
"A very good question," Kurt quipped in a casual tone.
Hogan blew out a sigh of disgust and gave him a glare that promised reprisal. Thanks to Kurt, his men would mother-hen him into next week.
"I crossed the river to get away from the patrol."
"Wait-a-minute." Kinch shouldered into the group now gathered around the two men. "There's no possible way you could have survived the entire night outside in wet clothes. Where'd you stay?"
Hogan sighed to himself. "At the Metzger farm."
Carter perked up, way ahead of the others. "You mean the farm that you and I stayed at was really --"
"My parents' farm, yes," Kurt broke in. He caught the warning look Hogan aimed in his direction. "He got warmed up in front of our fire, and then I brought him back to camp this morning in my car." Satisfied, Robert?
The explanation was too pat. Carter called to mind several telling facts and carefully, he pieced everything together. He tossed a sharp glance at Hogan. His CO deliberately turned away and followed Kurt into the tunnel.
Carter's eyes narrowed, then slid to Kinch to check his reaction to the explanation. He wasn't surprised to find his fellow sergeant frowning at the closed entrance.
Kurt grinned broadly at Hogan after the officer had stepped off the ladder. "I believe the expression is, 'you owe me one.'"
Hogan ran a quick mental total. "Actually, I'm up to four." He started for the emergency exit, Kurt keeping pace at his side.
"You got off much too lightly," Kurt proclaimed, waggling a finger at him like a school marm. Hogan wrinkled his nose and bared his teeth as if to snap at the finger. Kurt hastily yanked the digit back. "I should have told them the complete story. You deserved having the entire group hovering around you like butterflies just as they did after your last idiotic stunt."
Hogan stopped dead in alarm. "You wouldn't!"
"Try me," countered Kurt with a feral smile. He sauntered past, forcing Hogan to take several long strides to catch up. "As it is, you may have to answer to Carter, since he knows exactly how far you would have had to travel soaking wet in last night's frigid weather. It appeared to me that he has already puzzled out your adventure."
"Yeah. He's a lot quicker than most would believe." They reached the ladder and Hogan leaned against it, blocking Kurt's way. "If Ryker shows, contact us and I'll meet you at the farm."
"At the farm? Why not here?"
"Because I like your mother's chicken soup," Hogan answered brightly, stepping aside.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Newkirk was muttering irritably atop his bunk when Hogan returned to the barracks. He gave the Englishman's bunk a double tap, drawing his attention from the game of solitaire he was clearly cheating at.
"Any trouble picking up those spare radio parts last night, Newkirk?"
"No trouble, Colonel, other than meeting up with that patrol looking for you and Rapunzel." And freezing me arse off! Newkirk scrubbed the game, then restlessly shuffled his deck of cards. "I sure miss having that arrangement with that bartender in town getting us parts."
Hogan grinned up at him. "We couldn't keep using the excuse of going to the dentist. Klink was getting suspicious of the abundance of bad teeth, especially when he had the bakers stop using sawdust in our bread." He looked down when rich aroma of chocolate reached his nose.
"More hot chocolate, Louis?"
"Oui, Colonel." The Frenchman placed the mug into Hogan's hands with a smile of satisfaction.
"No more after this, LeBeau, or I'll be visiting the dentist for real."
"Were you able to get the information from Rapunzel before the patrol found you?" Carter asked, stepping to Hogan's side.
"Yeah. Ryker won't be able to make the meet tonight. An air raid took out his staff car and he was in it at the time." Hogan took a sip of the cocoa, winced as the hot liquid burnt his tongue. "He's laid up with injuries. We're hoping he'll be transferred to Kurt's hospital -- "
"Where we'll be able to make contact." Kinch finished, his bushy mustache lifting in a grin.
"Right. The sooner we get that information for London, the better." Hogan sighed, thinking of the wasted time. If all had gone as originally planned, the information would've been on its way to London by morning. Taking his mug of cocoa with him, he returned to his quarters to study Kurt's map.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
A day passed. Then two, with still no word from Metzger as to whether the general had been transferred to his hospital.
Hogan grew snappish, his nerves fraying with impatience at the delay. Even Kinch's temper grew ragged from London's repeated calls demanding an up-date.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Feeling every bit of his thirty-four years, Kurt wearily climbed out of his car. He paused, one hand tightening on the car door's frame, when he saw the two men stationed on either side of the hospital's side entrance. Fully armed and imposing, the Gestapo guards stared back at him suspiciously. Kurt's jaw clenched. So, Ryker has arrived. Taking a deep breath to calm the rush of anger, he slammed the car door shut and walked toward the entrance.
As he'd expected, one of the guards stepped forward, lifting his rifle in challenge. "What is your business here?"
Kurt fought to keep from throwing back a sarcastic reply. Bringing his patience to bear, he answered, "I am Doktor Kurt Metzger. I work here." Trying to save the lives of those you're probably responsible for placing here! he added silently while pulling out his credentials. The guard inspected them, his eyes darting from the documents to Metzger repeatedly, giving Kurt the impression he was expected to change before their very eyes into some sort of deadly assassin. The papers were finally handed back with a quick snap of the guard's wrist.
"You may go, Herr Doktor."
"Danke," Kurt muttered, forcing a smile. He pocketed the papers and made straight for his office, just as he did each morning. He was a notorious creature of habit. Any change in his routine would instantly be noted by the staff and arouse suspicion. Though he'd worked side by side with most of them for the last five years, he trusted not a single one. Since Philipp's death and his entrance into the Resistance, he'd tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. He went to work, he did his job, he went home. Just quiet, unassuming, Doktor Metzger.
He reached the sanctuary of his office and let his eyes travel slowly over its interior while he shed his coat, hat and gloves. It was a practice he'd begun the year before, shortly after finding some of his charts had mysteriously vanished from his office. No amount of searching had ever located the missing medical histories of two men suffering from a sudden unknown malady. Brought to him with open running lesions, blindness, high fevers and severe abdominal pain, he'd placed the two men in the quarantine ward. Testing had barely begun when he'd been called away to an emergency in Düsseldorff.
The emergency had turned out to be a Gestapo officer with acute indigestion from eating too much Strammer Max. After treating him, Kurt had returned to the hospital, only to find that the two men had vanished without explanation from the ward and their charts and notes from his office. The nurses on duty had fearfully waved off his questions, indirectly confirming his unspoken suspicions.
His gaze settled upon his desk. Being a very orderly man, he kept everything arranged as neatly as a surgical tray. Each item had a specific location, so that he could quickly reach for it without having to look. So far as he could tell, nothing was out of place or missing. Relaxing slightly, he walked to the desk and sat, then pulled each drawer open to check its contents.
"Guten Morgen, Herr Doktor."
Frau Karla Frankel, thirty-nine years old, plump and garrulous, entered and dumped an armload of charts on his desk. She fluffed her hair back into place and plunked down in the chair across from his desk.
Kurt's face lit with a smile of genuine pleasure. Karla was the resident source of hospital news. Nothing passed by her notice. Getting information on Ryker might be easier than he first thought.
"Guten Morgen, Frau Frankel."
Once their usual amenities had been dispensed with, Kurt sat back in his chair, laced his fingers comfortably across his stomach, and waited.
True to habit, Karla launched into a running account of all that had transpired at the hospital since his last shift. Foremost in her dialogue were the general's arrival and the subsequent upheaval it had caused. He listened attentively, nodding and grunting in the appropriate places. Within ten minutes, he had most everything he needed to know, right down to what Ryker had eaten at Frühstuck. Her self-appointed report finished, they discussed the patients' charts as per their established routine. Thirty minutes later, he breathed a sigh of relief as he watched her bustle out of his office.
According to Karla, Ryker was comfortably ensconced on the second floor, west wing, corner room. The double-occupancy room had been reduced to a single bed, the previous patients having been moved unceremoniously into the hall by the Gestapo. There they remained, the two men crammed into the single bed, until the nursing staff had arrived and resettled them into another room. A single man guarded Ryker's door, with other guards stationed throughout the hospital. Kurt snorted softly.
You'd think Hitler, himself, were a patient!
He let out a short squeak of surprise when he noticed the time. He was five minutes overdue for morning rounds. He shot out of his chair, grabbed the charts and flew out the door, only to careen directly into a passing nurse. The impact drove the breath from him with a grunt and sent the young woman flying into the opposite wall. He dropped the charts and hurried over to her.
"I am terribly sorry! Please, let me help you," he murmured, taking her hands and helping her to her feet. She smiled up at him, her lustrous dark eyes brimming with amusement.
"Danke, Herr Doktor." She gently removed her hands from his grasp, then ran them down the skirt of her uniform, smoothing it back into place.
He gave her a sheepish smile. "I apologize most sincerely for my clumsiness. I don't usually run down nurses in the halls. We are short-handed enough." His smile broadened at her soft chuckle. "Are you unhurt? That was quite a fall."
Taking a closer look at her, he realized that he'd just made the acquaintance of the new nurse Karlal had described somewhere between Ryker's arrival and room 23's gout. Petit, with a dancer's lithe figure and sleek black hair trimmed into a simple short style, she was an attractive change from the stolid, matronly women he usually worked with. Not even the drab nursing uniform detracted from her beauty.
"No damage, I assure you, Herr Doktor." He reached out as she started to move away, his hand hovering hesitantly in mid-air. Noticing the gesture, she turned back, one elegant brow lifting. "Yes, Herr Doktor?"
"Metzger," Kurt blurted. "Kurt Metzger. You are new here, yes?"
Her dark eyes twinkled. "Yes." She held out her hand. "Katrina Bach. I started two days ago, but only just today made my escape from records."
"Ah, the crypt." That would explain why I haven't seen you before. He followed her gaze when she looked down at her hand, still held firmly within his own. Releasing it, he cleared his throat and glanced down at the floor, only then noticing the charts scattered from one side of the hall to the other. He dropped to one knee and started gathering them, then looked up in surprise when she knelt beside him and quickly took over. Within seconds, the charts were once more neat and tidy. He smiled appreciatively as they were placed in his hands. She smiled back, one shoulder sketching a shrug.
"After two days in records, I can do this in my sleep." Rising gracefully to her feet, she waved and walked away. Kurt watched her until she turned the corner, then brought himself out of his reverie with a brisk shake of his head. Ach, get your mind on business, Kurt!
He set off down the hall, determinedly shoving all thoughts of beautiful nurses, generals and subterfuge out of his mind.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
The bunk entrance opened and Kinch bounded out, barely pausing long enough to close it behind him. His sudden appearance and broad smile prompted a spate of questions, which he answered by waving the sheet of paper in his hand. He walked to Hogan's door and rapped on the doorframe.
"Good news, Colonel! The Doc wants to meet tonight."
Hogan's face broke into a smile as he took the paper. Finally! "I was beginning to think this whole thing was going to be a bust. I'm going to need a truck from the motor pool, Kinch."
Hogan headed into the other room and went straight for LeBeau, who was seated at the table, peeling a pile of potatoes. Hogan stopped beside him and rested a hand on his shoulder. "LeBeau, do you have those items I asked you to get?"
"Oui, Colonel." Wiping his hands on a towel, LeBeau rose and went to the locker. When he returned, he held a large sack, which he placed on the table in front of Hogan. "Everything you asked for," he winked, leaning closer to add sotto voce, "with a few extras."
Hogan peered inside the sack, uttering a low whistle at the contents. "This is great, LeBeau. Thank you."
"What do you have there, Guv'nor?" Newkirk tugged at the side of the bag with the tip of one finger, attempting a peek inside.
Hogan pulled out the items so all could see. A large loaf of brown bread appeared first, followed by a round of rich, yellow cheese, several chocolate candy bars, a foot-long piece of knackwurst, and lastly, a bottle of wine. Carter took in the spread, then smiled up Hogan.
"Tell 'em thanks for me, too, colonel."
"I'll do that, Carter," Hogan chuckled.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Hogan parked the truck out of sight a safe distance away from the Metzger homestead, then traveled on foot to the edge of the woods bordering the house and barnyard. Taking a moment to look around, he noticed Kurt's car, already parked beside the truck. He walked to the car and brushed a hand across the hood. Warmth still lingered in the metal. Kurt hadn't arrived too far ahead of him.
Tucking the paper bag closer against his side, Hogan climbed the steps to the porch and knocked on the door. It squealed open and Josef stepped into view. His wary expression relaxed into a smile.
"Welcome, Colonel!" Josef cried warmly. Reaching out, he rested one hand upon the officer's shoulder and ushered him into the gathering room. Kurt waved from one of the chairs, a cup of steaming tea balanced upon one knee. Romie scurried out of the kitchen, absently patting her hair into place. As soon as she saw Hogan, she rushed forward and took his face between her hands.
"Ah, Colonel! It is good to see you again. And looking so much better!" Hogan blushed as his head was pulled down, and a quick peck was planted on each cheek. Setting the cup of tea next to his chair, Kurt went to his friend's rescue.
"Abend, Robert," he nodded, a half-smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "Please don't tell me you came here on foot."
Hogan scowled. "I drove, courtesy of our local motor club."
Kurt's blue eyes moved curiously to the sack. Hogan turned to Romie and placed it into her hands. She peeked inside and let out a gasp. Quickly, she shoved the bag into Josef's arms and gathered Hogan into a tight embrace. Blue eyes awash with tears, she whispered in a voice thick with emotion, "Danke, Colonel, but it was not necessary to repay us."
He leaned down and gently pressed a kiss to her forehead. "Not repayment. An overdue thank you from Carter and myself." He gently disentangled himself from her arms and shifted to include Josef in his gaze. "I think it's high time you started calling me Robert, don't you? After all, you've both seen me stark naked."
After a moment of shared laughter, they moved into the kitchen, where Romie insisted they sample the gifts of food. They tasted, nibbled and sipped until Hogan finally cleared his throat and glanced meaningfully in Kurt's direction. With a nod of understanding, Kurt rose from the table and gently directed his parents into the gathering room. Returning to the kitchen, he seated himself close to Hogan so that they might talk without being overheard. It would be safer for Josef and Romie not to have any knowledge of what they were planning.
Quickly, he gave Hogan the details he'd learned from Karla and his own careful scouting. He concluded the briefing by saying, "It will not be easy, Robert. The entire hospital is under guard, not just Ryker himself."
"It won't be that difficult." Hogan leaned back and crossed his legs. "I go in as another Gestapo general. I tell the guards I'm there to give Ryker my best wishes for a speedy recovery. They let me in, Ryker gives me the information. I leave the way I arrived." He shrugged carelessly. "What's so difficult?"
Kurt grew absolutely still. "There are times you scare me with your reckless attitude toward danger."
Hogan studied the concern and fear clouding the blue eyes. He leaned forward over the table, closing the distance between them, his voice low and measured. "I am never reckless. Not with my life, nor those of my men. When I'm given an assignment, I get it done any way that I can, the best that I can, with as little risk as possible to all involved. You can bet I'll be careful, Kurt."
Kurt nodded, but couldn't shake the stifling apprehension that had descended upon his mood. Reaching across the table, he dug his fingers into the muscles of Hogan's arm. "Listen well, Robert, and remember. You will be in a hospital when you go to see Ryker, not some woods, open field or deserted building. There will be other people there, men, women and children who are patients, and doctors and nurses going about their duties. I am a doctor, first and foremost. If something goes wrong, there will be no gunfire. I do not want you shot and I want no innocent victims."
"Understood," Hogan acknowledged, gently pulling his arm free.
Kurt sighed and with both hands, rubbed at the ache building at the base of his skull. "When do you plan on meeting with Ryker?"
"Tomorrow afternoon, right after lunch. Klink has an appointment in town. I'll ride in and back in the trunk of his car." He pulled the cuff of his sleeve back and grimaced at his watch. "Correction. I'll meet Ryker today, after lunch. But right now, I've got to get back to camp." He smoothly unfolded from the chair, stretching and yawning in an attempt to ease the tension knotting his muscles.
Kurt followed him into the other room and waited while Hogan made his good-byes to Josef and Romie. Together, they escorted him onto the porch and watched as he crossed the barnyard and disappeared into the woods. Intent upon sleep, Josef and Romie wished their son good evening and re-entered the house.
Kurt remained on the porch long afterward, staring into the darkness until the cold finally drove him inside.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Hogan stood ramrod straight, eyes lifted to the ceiling with ill-concealed impatience. LeBeau and Newkirk fussed about him adjusting medals, straightening his collar, tugging on the hem of the tailored uniform. He allowed it to continue a few minutes longer, and then, patience completely at an end, snatched the cap from Newkirk's hand and tugged it into place. "Enough, you two. If I don't get goin', my taxi will leave without me." He marched out of his quarters with the two of them hustling to keep up.
Despite the warning, LeBeau couldn't resist a last smoothing brush of his hand across the shoulders of the black uniform. Hogan turned his head and growled out a warning. LeBeau shrugged, smiled apologetically and snuck in a final tweak to one of the medals. Newkirk nimbly sidestepped around him, and with a grand flourish, held out a heavy caped overcoat. Hogan pulled it on over the Gestapo uniform -- overly decorated in his opinion -- and waited for his men to encircle him like a human screen. From his position at the door, Kinch cleared his throat and tapped the top of his head. Hogan's eyes rolled upward to the black cap that he'd forgotten. With a sigh of disgust, he yanked it from his head and nodded to the group. Moving as one, they slipped outside and made for the motor pool.
While his men stood watch and provided cover, Hogan folded his tall frame into the cramped trunk of Klink's staff car. He started to close the hood, then reached behind him, yanked out the jack digging into his back and thrust it into Kinch's hand. "Get rid of this somewhere."
"What if you have a flat?" Kinch absently glanced around for somewhere to stash the tool.
"We'll call the motor club."
Breathing much easier with the slight addition of room, Hogan closed and re-latched the trunk lid. Seconds later, he heard Newkirk cheekily greet Schultz. He listened while the men teased the staff sergeant mercilessly until a bellowed warning sent them scurrying from the motor pool. The car shifted and groaned beneath Schultz's bulk, the motor roared into life, and the car began to move.
Hammelburg, here I come.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Kurt walked the hospital's crowded halls, thankful that his rounds were finally complete. The pounding headache of the evening before was still with him, though sometime in the night, it had migrated, settling with a vengeance between his eyes. His nerves were stretched thin, brittle and ready to snap at the least provocation. His office door beckoned to him, offering the promise of solitude. Yanking the door open, he all but dove into the room.
He circled his desk and collapsed into his chair, one hand reaching to shield his eyes from the late morning sunlight streaming through the room's window. Normally, the warmth and light would have lifted his spirits, but not today. His rounds had felt never-ending and always in the back of his mind as he'd worked, was the Gestapo's hovering, malevolent presence. Closing his eyes and blowing out a sigh, he tipped his chair back and tried not to think about anything at all.
I will be happy when this entire affair is over!
His eyes snapped open and he stared at the cracked plaster ceiling above him. He'd managed an entire two seconds.
The strident warble of ambulance sirens catapulted him out of his chair. He rushed into the hallway and ran for the stairs, agilely dodging aides, linen carts and Gestapo. He took the steps at a rapid trot, foregoing the last two steps altogether, and arrived at the ambulance entrance just as the attendants brought in the last stretcher. It bore a man's badly burned body. Still conscious, the man moaned piteously and without interruption. Pressing his fist below his nose to try to block out the smell of roasted flesh, Kurt waved them into the treatment area and into the midst of the swarm of doctors and nurses already at work on the other victims. He pushed into the room behind the attendants, immersing himself in the controlled chaos.
Hours later, he all but crawled from the triage and surgical area, emotionally and physically spent. A family of six had been reduced to three by a rapid fire that had broken out in their squalid housing tenement. Packed into run-down buildings, sometimes two and three families to a floor, it was actually a miracle that only the three people had died.
The ambulance attendants had explained that the mother and father had gone out briefly to do some errands. Their building was ablaze when they returned. Not finding their children amongst the milling crowd, they'd dashed past restraining hands and into the building to search.
The father had managed to carry out three of their four children before finally collapsing on the street from burns and smoke inhalation. The mother and remaining child had never come out, and had eventually been found just fifteen feet from the building's main entrance. The mother died as she was being loaded into the ambulance. The daughter she'd died trying to save had succumbed to severe burns shortly after arriving at the hospital.
The father had lived a scant hour longer than his daughter before dying from the burns and smoke inhalation that were more than his body could fight. The three surviving children suffered mainly from smoke inhalation and minor burns. They would make a complete physical recovery.
Would that they could so easily recover from the emotional trauma!
Kurt covered his face with his hands and slumped against the wall, trying to banish the memory of the last few hours. A ragged sigh escaped his control and he bit his lip hard. What is to become of the children? He uttered a moan of despair and rolled his head back and forth against the wall.
He already knew the answer.
A hand gently wrapped around his wrist. Feeling hollow to the core, he dropped his hands and looked up. Katrina Bach stood before him, silky, dark hair mussed, compassion softening her face.
"Come with me, Herr Doktor."
Kurt blinked. "What is wrong?" He jerked away from the wall and looked around, certain that another emergency had somehow broken out without his noticing. His gaze swung back to her, adrenaline rushing through him again. "The children?" Her firm grip held him back when he turned toward the doors.
"The children are resting as comfortably as we can make them." She tugged on his wrist, leading him down the hall to the stairs. He followed numbly, still not knowing where they were going and not caring. Without another emergency to battle, the adrenaline vanished, leaving him even shakier than before. He focused on walking, taking comfort in the warmth of the hand still wrapped about his wrist.
He came out of his daze when she gently pushed him into his chair. He stared blankly at his desk blotter, then looked up in time to see her vanish through the doorway. She returned moments later carrying two cups, one of which she set before him on the desk, before seating herself. He stared at the cup for a moment, then looked at her, seeing amusement in her eyes.
"Tea, Herr Doktor. It will help your headache."
"How did you know . . ."
She laughed softly, giving him a smile over the rim of her cup. "I noticed you kept rubbing your forehead, even while you were tending to our patients." Her head tipped toward his still untouched cup. "It is really much better hot, Herr Doktor."
He lifted the cup and drank, closing his eyes in gratitude when it immediately soothed his ragged nerves. Is it the tea -- or her? He opened his eyes and saluted her with the cup. "Danke, Fraulein Bach." The cup hesitated mid-way to his lips. "Am I correct in saying, Fraulein?"
She wiggled fingers bare of rings beside her cheek. "Quite correct. But please, call me Katrina, at least when we are not in the company of others on duty." She ducked her head and took another sip of tea.
He patted his chest. "Kurt."
They fell silent, appreciating the stillness after the clamor and tragedy of the trauma ward.
Kurt studied her while he drank his tea. Even with the horror and frenzy of trying to save the lives of the children and father, he'd noticed her calm efficiency and total concentration on her duties. When the dying man had lifted a peeling, charred hand, blindly searching for comfort, most of the nurses had turned away, too sickened to approach his bed. Katrina, though pale and visibly affected, had immediately gone to his side. Unable to hold the hand – for to do so would only cause more pain -- she'd simply remained with him, her voice providing a small measure of comfort in the last few moments of his life. It was an image Kurt was certain he would never forget.
She looked up from her cup and their eyes locked. It suddenly dawned on him how completely at ease he felt in her presence. When did this happen? He watched her place her cup on the desk and lean forward.
"Kurt, there is something I must speak with you about . . ."
"Get out of my way, sergeant, or I will have you sent to the Russian Front before nightfall."
The baritone outside his door brought them to their feet.
Shock crossed Katrina's face before being concealed by a carefully neutral expression. Kurt wondered at her strange reaction, but shelved it for later thought and stepped into the hall. Hogan, dressed in full Gestapo regalia, stood just twelve feet away, staring down a stiff-necked sergeant. Kurt cleared his throat, gaining their attention.
"May I remind you both that this is a hospital? Your presence alone has caused enough disruption. Keep your voices down." He joined them, his face set in a fierce glare.
"My apologies, Herr Doktor . . .?" Hogan waved his riding crop through the air in a wide arc, barely missing the end of Kurt's nose.
"Metzger," Kurt replied silkily, yanking his head out of striking range.
"Yes," harrumphed Hogan, tilting his hat back from his forehead with the tip of his riding crop. "I am here to see Herr General Ryker, and this sergeant -- who will very soon be in need of heavy woolen underwear -- will not let me pass despite assurances that I've already shown my papers to the guards at the front entrance."
"This is easily taken care of, yes?" Kurt pointed out with a sigh. "Just show him your papers, and I will take you to Herr General Ryker."
Hogan made a show of pulling the papers from his uniform, then slapped them into the guard's waiting hand.
The papers were quickly scanned and returned. "My apologies, Herr General. It is only a matter of procedure." The guard moved aside, allowing Kurt to fall into step with Hogan.
Kurt took several sidelong glances at Hogan while they walked to the stairs. After a time, he spoke, keeping his voice just above a whisper. "Honestly, Robert! Do you believe you have enough ribbons and medals? You are positively clanking with them all!"
Hogan's mouth twitched. "Can I help it the fellas want me to look good when I go out in public?"
Kurt choked back a laugh and refrained from taking another peek. When they arrived at the base of the central stairs leading to the second floor, Hogan stopped, turned and placed one hand firmly against Kurt's chest.
"This is as far as you go. The less we're seen together, the safer it is for you. Just tell me where he is."
Kurt sighed heavily, gave him the information, and walked away.
Hogan went up the stairs and turned to the left. The corridor was swarming with hospital personnel busy with assorted duties. It suited him fine that few glanced his way. That was one thing about impersonating Gestapo - everyone went out of their way to avoid them.
There was no one was in sight by the time he reached the end of the hall, save for the single guard stationed outside Ryker's door. Hogan performed a stiff-armed salute and barked "Heil Hitler," then stated his name and business. Moments later, he was standing in Ryker's room.
General Oswald Ryker, silver-haired, with a lined and weather-beaten face, stared dispassionately at him from the bed. Hogan felt the hawk-like gray eyes taking his measure as he marched forward, his boot heels clacking on the worn linoleum.
"Heil Hitler, Herr General!" Hogan snapped, loud enough to be heard by the guard. Lowering his voice, he added, "The snows are very heavy this year."
Ryker stared, finally replied, "Spring will be late arriving, I am told." His cold expression twisted with the mockery of a smile. "So. You are Papa Bear."
Ordinarily, Hogan tried not to make snap judgments based upon surface details and first impressions. Not only was it a dangerous practice, it went against everything he'd been taught as a child. But in this instance, he couldn't help himself. He didn't like this man. Not one bit.
"I must admit to being impressed," Ryker continued, looking Hogan up and down. "Not many would have the courage to walk into the middle of Hammelburg in broad daylight dressed as a Gestapo officer. Yet here you are."
"Listen, General, I'd love to stand around and chit-chat, but frankly, I don't want to overstay my welcome, if you know what I mean. So, if you'll just give me the information I've come for, I'll leave you to your rest."
Ryker's face smoothed over with steely resolve. "Nein."
"What?" Hogan snapped, taking a step closer. "You agreed to give us the information on those panzer divisions and I'm not leaving here without it."
Ryker gave him a smug grin and settled comfortably against the stack of pillows at his back. "Oh, but you will, Papa Bear, unless you are prepared to take me with you when you leave here today."
Hogan had a sneaking suspicion of what was coming next.
Ryker smirked, enjoying his stony expression. "I want out of Germany and you will get me out. Or I will tell you nothing."
"You have really lousy timing, Ryker. Why wait until now to mention this?"
"I was foolish to make that agreement without first providing for my own safety. My perspective has recently grown much clearer." Ryker lifted his head from the pillows, his eyes glittering like ice. "What is your answer?"
Hogan had a sudden urge to take him by the lapels of his silk dressing gown and shake him. After waiting so long, there was to be yet another delay in getting the information to London. Ryker had the advantage, leaving him no choice. He gave a single, hard nod and bristled when the general's expression grew smug once more. He glanced toward the door, then fixed the German with a cold stare.
"All right, we'll play this your way. How much longer have the doctors said you'll be here?"
"Three, possibly four days."
Hogan headed for the door.
"I did not give you leave to go!" Ryker snapped, rage sizzling through his voice.
Hogan spun back, one hand slicing sideways through the air at his side, motioning Ryker to lower his voice. He placed his ear to the door and listened. Hearing nothing, he stalked back to the bedside.
"I'll be back. Until then . . ." he smiled impudently, "enjoy the sponge baths." With another loud, "Heil Hitler!" he turned and left.
He strode past the guard and made quickly for the stairs. He was almost there when Major Wolfgang Hochstetter's strident bellow echoed up the stairway from the floor below. Kurt's challenge followed, once again demanding quiet. Hogan pulled up short.
Oh, this is just great!
He angled to the right and headed away from the stairs, this time aiming for the elevator on the east wing. Luckily, this wing seemed to be fairly deserted. Behind him, Hochstetter's voice grew louder as he ascended the stairs with Kurt trailing on his heels, still protesting. Hogan cursed. He wouldn't be able to reach the elevator before Hochstetter reached the upper floor and spotted him. Thinking fast, he looked for the linen closet Kurt had marked on the floor plan. He found it and slipped inside a split second before Hochstetter crested the stairs with Kurt still snapping at his side like an angry guard dog.
Hogan cracked the door open and peeked out. The two men were exchanging more heated words at the top of the stairs. He smiled at the scene. Far from being intimidated, Kurt stood toe to toe with the blustering Gestapo officer, not backing down in the least. The argument continued for several minutes, until Hochstetter finally ended it with a fisted gesture in Kurt's face. He turned on his heel and marched out of view, undoubtedly bound for Ryker's room.
Hogan was just about to step out when a nurse appeared on the stairs. She glanced in the direction Hochstetter had taken, then quickly went to Kurt. As they talked, she turned squarely in Hogan's direction, giving him an unobstructed view of her face.
Miriam Broadbent, an operative for the Royal Army intelligence, had once done an undercover stint in the Gestapo as Lt. Col. Elena Schmidl. Both Hochstetter and Maj. Dietrich Feldcamp had eventually seen through the masquerade to her true identity. If Hochstetter caught sight of her, she was as good as dead.
Damning the consequences, Hogan started out of the linen closet, bent on getting her safely out of Hochstetter's vicinity and preferably out of the hospital altogether. But just as he stepped out, Miri left Kurt's side and skipped lightly back down the stairs.
Hogan blew a low whistle. The sound carried in the empty hallway and jerked Kurt's head in his direction. Spotting him, Kurt lifted his hands, palms up, in a 'What now?' gesture.
With a snap of his arm, Hogan pointed to the floor at his side.
GET OVER HERE!
Kurt thrust his hands into his pockets and advanced on the closet.
When he was close enough, Hogan seized his arm and snatched him into the darkness of the room. Kurt sputtered in outrage and knocked his hand away.
"What is this about, Robert?!"
"What time does your shift end?"
After a lengthy pause, Kurt asked slowly and deliberately through clenched teeth, "You pull me into a closet to discuss my schedule?"
"Just answer the question!"
"Eight o'clock!" The darkness didn't conceal Kurt's exasperation.
"I'll be at your parents' house at nine. We have a lot to talk about."
Kurt rolled his eyes, wincing when the movement aggravated his headache. Gently massaging his forehead, he thought longingly of Katrina's tea and the full night of sleep he'd planned. "Oh, very well. I'll be there." He reached for the door handle, only to turn back when Hogan somehow managed to grab his arm again, despite the cloaking darkness.
"One more thing. Keep Hochstetter away from that nurse you were talking with just now."
Kurt's ill temper dropped away. "Why?" he asked in a hushed voice.
"I'll explain tonight. Just keep him away from her." Hogan moved Kurt aside and peeked out the door. The hall was still deserted, so they stepped out, and Hogan quickly walked away and entered the elevator. Just before the doors closed, he sent a jaunty wave back to his friend.
Kurt absently returned the gesture and ambled down the hall, head bent in thought, worriedly pondering Hogan's cryptic warning.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Ryker stared straight ahead while a nurse flitted about his room like a tall, awkward bird. He was peripherally aware of her furtive glances while she carried out her duties of checking blood pressure, temperature, clearing away trash from his nightstand and straightening his blankets. Growing tired of the nervous activity, he ordered her from the room, catching a flicker of fear in her eyes before she left. Fear, he was used to, and expected from any in his presence. The American's insolence and disrespect, however, were completely foreign, and made him angrier than he cared to admit.
He mentally reviewed the short conversation with the underground leader, cataloguing every detail and nuance of Papa Bear's tone and expression. An unpleasant noise escaped from between his clenched teeth, echoing off the bare floors and walls of the room. If he'd been twenty-five years younger and uninjured, he would have taken the encounter to a physical level and taught the upstart American exactly whom he was dealing with. Beating the younger officer until nothing but respect and fear shone from the other man's eyes would have given him great pleasure.
His gaze fell upon the ebony cane placed within easy reach of his bed, an unpleasant smile forming.
Perhaps he might yet have that pleasure.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Hogan spent the return trip to Stalag 13 mulling over Miri's presence at the hospital. By the time Klink's staff car pulled into the motor pool, his thoughts were on full boil. Being stuffed into a space better suited for a man of LeBeau's size hadn't improved his temper, either. Impatiently, he waited while his men diverted Schultz from the motor pool, then stiffly climbed out and slipped into their midst. Once again gathered into a tight unit, they quickly made their way across the prison yard and back to the barracks. Hogan remained tight-lipped en route, ignoring all attempts at conversation.
Only after changing back into his own uniform did he brief his men on the unexpected change in their plans. Getting Ryker out, he explained, wouldn't be that difficult, especially since he'd been able to check out the hospital's layout and security for himself. Sensing a "but" hanging in the air, they waited for the other shoe to drop. Hogan didn't make them wait long.
"I spotted Major Broadbent while I was there."
They glanced knowingly at each other, hearing the concern in his tone.
Kinch rested his elbows on the table and stroked one hand over his mustache. "Now why do you suppose she's in town?"
"That," Hogan muttered, meeting his gaze, "is what I intend to find out."
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
The Metzger family was seated at their kitchen table sharing a late evening snack when Hogan arrived back at the farm. Josef escorted him to the kitchen, all the while running a paternal eye over him. He noticed that Hogan smiled and walked with the same loose stride as before, but there was a tightness about his eyes that spoke of tension; the same tension that Kurt had shown when he'd arrived.
The four of them spent some time exchanging pleasantries at the table, before Hogan and Kurt excused themselves and moved into the gathering room. Kurt glanced around the room. The air suddenly felt stifling, the walls closing in on him. He took several deep breaths, snagged his coat from the couch and tipped his head toward the door.
"Come, Robert. I feel the need of some fresh air." He fled the house, still in the process of donning his coat.
The rapid retreat surprised Hogan, but it also got them outside, where they could speak freely. Once Kurt heard his news, there was a distinct possibility that their conversation would become quite animated.
The door's hinges squealed as he followed Kurt onto the porch. Catching his friend's eyes, he pointed to the hinges, stuck a finger in one ear and made a face. Kurt gave a bark of laughter and some of the stiffness left his posture. Side by side, they stepped off the porch and walked in silence to the barn.
Upon entering the darkened building, Kurt struck a match and carefully lit the lantern hanging from a nail just inside the door. The wick sizzled, the flame caught and a soft glow lit the immediate area around them, throwing the rest of the barn into deep shadows. Hogan took a deep breath, savoring the fresh, clean smell of dried hay that permeated the air. Then he glanced around at the border of darkness surrounding them and a thought came to him like a hard slap across the face.
A hell of a place to die.
Unaware of his morbid thoughts, Kurt ambled over to the cow's stall. Resting an arm on top of the partition, he leaned over and gently ran a hand down the animal's shoulder. The cow grunted at the touch and turned her head to peer at him with one liquid brown eye. With an air of 'oh, it's only you,' she grabbed another mouthful of hay and went back to the important business of eating.
Hogan leaned next to Kurt and scratched the cow's back, just above her hip. "Hello, old girl. Remember me? I'm the Amerikaner with the cold hands."
Kurt chuckled softly. "Another female you've charmed, Robert?"
The question reminded Hogan of Miri, erasing the smile from his face. "The nurse you were talking with in the hall --"
"How long has she worked at the hospital?"
Kurt crossed his arms atop the stall partition and gave the question some thought. "Only for a very short time. I just recently met her, myself. What --"
"Has she questioned you about anything or anyone in particular?"
Kurt frowned, wondering where the line of questioning was taking them. "Robert, but for a very few brief moments, I have had a day fit for hell itself and am in no temper to be interrogated." One eyebrow lifted into the blond hair draped over his forehead. "Why are you so interested in Katrina? If you are about to tell me that she is a Gestapo plant, I will not believe it. Not with her compassionate nature."
That brought a laugh totally lacking in humor. "Gestapo? Oh, far from it."
"Robert," Kurt groaned, dropping his forehead onto his arms. "Get to the point."
"Katrina Bach is really Major Miriam Broadbent, Royal Army. I know that for a fact because we've worked together before."
Kurt lifted his head and stared at him, stunned by the revelation. Royal Army? A nurse who is really a British officer. An American P.O.W. who is more in command of a German Stalag than its kommandant. And a doctor who is also a member of the Resistance. Is anyone truly who they appear to be anymore?
He studied Hogan, still waiting patiently at his side. The other man's expression was wavering between neutrality and expectancy, with a steely take-no-prisoners determination thrown in for good measure. Kurt hid a smile, easily identifying the emotion in the dark eyes. So, my friend, your heart has finally been claimed. Scratching at his chin, he voiced the thought aloud. "Miriam is more than a colleague to you."
Hogan smiled ruefully. "She might be." His expression settled, hardening into the steel Kurt had glimpsed. "As to why I'm so concerned about Hochstetter, other than the obvious, Miri was once undercover in the Gestapo. Hochstetter and Feldcamp eventually found out exactly who she is, and, as you can well imagine, would love to get their hands on her."
"I'm sorry, Robert," Kurt sighed, shifting his weight onto one foot. "but I cannot help you. Katrina -- " he interrupted himself with a tiny shake of his head, "Miriam, was busy with patients most of the day after you left. I saw her only from a distance and that was just as I was ending my shift. So you see, I have no idea what sort of spy business your lady is up to. However, you need not worry about Hochstetter. I overheard him telling one of the guards that he had pressing business in Berlin for the next week. So he is no longer a factor in this."
"You're sure he wasn't just saying that for your benefit?"
"Ach, Robert! Now, you are becoming paranoid. Why would he? The Gestapo have absolutely no reason to suspect me of anything and Hochstetter wasn't even aware I was nearby."
Hogan's expression turned sheepish and he wiped a hand across his face, as if trying to physically rid himself of tension. "Yeah, okay. I guess seeing Miri there threw me more than I thought." He felt his face warm when Kurt grinned. With a mental shrug, he moved on to the other reason for their conversation.
"There's been another change in plans." He paused at Kurt's groan. "I ran into a problem when I met with Ryker. I'll need your help again. He wants out of Germany before he'll disclose the information. So, we're going to have to get him out of there . . ." he held up his hand as Kurt opened his mouth. "and I'll make certain that it's done safely."
Kurt shoved away from the stall with a derisive noise and placed his hands on his hips. "How can you guarantee that? With the Gestapo involved, there is no safely!"
"Look, I'm no happier about this than you are, but I've got to get him out. London needs that information!"
Kurt tipped his head back and stared up into the barn rafters, wishing he were someone else, somewhere else. Myriad thoughts flew through his mind, until one of them leapt to the forefront. Perhaps this change is actually a blessing in disguise. Perhaps I can turn the circumstances to suit my own purposes. He immediately banished a stab of guilt at using his friend in such a way. This is for the best. Everyone will benefit.
"Very well. I will help you get Ryker out, but my agreement comes with a condition."
"Which is?" asked Hogan, warily eyeing him.
"In return for my help, you will help me get three children out of the hospital and you'll see that they're taken to London."
When Hogan was able to get his mouth working again, he croaked, "Getting a grown man out from under the Gestapo's noses is one thing, but three kids?"
"That is my condition." Kurt crossed his arms, blue eyes resolute. "You recently said that you owed me. Four, I seem to remember." His mouth twitched into a smirk when Hogan shifted and started studying the stitching in his gloves. "Do this for me and I will call us even." Another stab of guilt made him add, "I'll even forget that we shared a bed buck-naked."
Hogan's head shot up. An instant later, he burst into laughter. The cow tossed her head, bellowing protests at the rude disruption of her meal. Kurt glanced at her and shrugged an apology. Still chuckling and sputtering, Hogan offered his hand.
"You've got yourself a deal."
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Hogan dropped down the ladder from the emergency exit and landed with a soft thump on the hard-packed dirt floor. One hand still clasping the ladder, he rested his forehead against one of the rungs and thought of all the details that had to be arranged in a short amount of time. London, for one, would have to be contacted and told that Ryker wouldn't be making the trip alone. He grimaced, worry tightening his grip on the ladder. With children involved, anything could happen and most likely would.
He started to move, then froze as he noticed small and definitely feminine boot prints in the dirt at the base of the ladder. Without lifting his forehead from the rung, he twisted his head and traced the prints leading away from the ladder and further into the tunnel. His nostrils flared, detecting a faint scent of sandalwood in the air.
So, Miri, you've saved me the trouble.
He shoved away from the ladder and followed the trail. At its end, he found Miri seated primly next to Carter at a table in the nerve center of the tunnel system. Catching sight of him in the doorway, Carter jumped to his feet, his blue eyes widening with a nervous smile
"Hey, Colonel!" He waved one hand at waist level, then gestured to Miri. "We've got company."
Hogan rested a pointed look on Miri. She set down her cup of tea, amusement curling her full lips. "I see that, Carter." He swung his attention back to his sergeant and crooked one finger in the air. Carter sauntered over, expressive face alight with curiosity. Hogan took hold of the sheepskin collar and tugged him aside, safely out of Miri's earshot. After a brief conversation, he sent the younger man away with a pat to one shoulder.
He waited a few beats, then slowly turned in place and studied the petite Welshwoman. Their eyes met; her gaze steady and calm. Irritation flashed through him. How and when had this tiny bit of a woman taken such a grapple hold on his heart? By turns coquettish and commanding, Miriam Broadbent, RA, had somehow managed to turn his emotions into a veritable stew of confusion since their first meeting.
Caught between wanting to kiss her and wanting to throw her over his shoulder and bodily carry her back to London, he did neither. Instead, he crossed to her side and said in a voice low with concern. "You want to tell me just what the hell you're doing at the hospital, dressed as a nurse, with Gestapo hanging around like they're in town for a convention?"
Miri sighed in exasperation, then took a steadying breath, more than a little aware of his physical presence. Despite the distraction, her voice was carefully neutral. "I am here with four others, Robin, to establish a listening post and gather intelligence on scientific research that Hitler has ordered on jet propulsion."
Hogan frowned at both the explanation and the strange mangling of his name. "What does that have to do with you waltzing around under the Gestapo's noses as a nurse? You saw Hochstetter, Miri. I don't have to tell you what would happen if he were to see you."
Miri fought down the urge to glare at him. "Don't be impertinent, Robin, of course I know. But I wasn't expecting him to show up at the hospital. Our last report just two days ago, placed him in Dortmund." She reached for her cup of tea, wanting another sip before it grew tepid. "As for my being at the hospital, I have established myself as a nurse when we decided it likely that Ryker would be transferred. There is reason to believe he may have some knowledge of the jet research. So far, I have been kept so busy by activity at the hospital, I've been unable to make contact with him . . ." She frowned, seeing the muscles in his jaw bunch and his eyes darken in anger. "What is it now, Robin?"
Frustration set him pacing beside the table. Why is it that the left never knows what the right is doing? He turned to her, bracing his hands on his hips. "My assignment is to get information from Ryker regarding western panzer divisions, which he'd promised us before his accident. Only now, he wants out of Germany before he'll supply the information. I've agreed. He goes out tomorrow afternoon." What is with this 'Robin'?
Miri grimaced. "That does throw a spanner into the works."
"Oh, you haven't heard the best part yet," Deliberately putting the table's width between them, he rested one hip on its edge and crossed his arms. "Three kids have been thrown into the mix. We're taking them out with Ryker."
She thought quickly while finishing off the last of her tea. It stood to reason that the three children were the orphans from the housing fire. Regardless of how they came to be involved, she would happily do everything within her power to get them out while still accomplishing her own mission. Setting down the empty cup, she looked up at him from beneath thick lashes. "Robin, perhaps we may be able to help each other." He shifted uneasily, his expression growing guarded. "I will help you get Ryker out and go with him to London. That way, I will be able to question him about the research, and help with the children as well."
"London can get that information themselves once he reaches headquarters."
"Granted," she said, smoothly rising from her chair and strolling around the table. "But what of the three children? They have already been through a severe trauma, and will certainly be further frightened by this trip and being isolated with Ryker, a man they know not at all. And who will take care of the little ones during the trip, Robin? Surely not Ryker." She stopped in front of him and reached out to lay her hands on his chest. He tensed beneath the touch and shifted once again. "The children already know me and are quite comfortable with me. You should also understand that two of them are mentally quite slow for their ages. Liselotte, the youngest, is six years old, but her mental age is closer to three. And Erich, while eight years, acts closer to four. Maximillian is nine and the only one to have no handicaps of any sort. So you see, I can be of great help to you and also fulfill the reason why I was sent."
He lowered his head with a deep sigh and watched her hands rub gently back and forth across his chest. The soothing caress slowly drove away the tension that had been plaguing him. His thoughts drifted until it dawned on him that he'd relaxed to the point of bonelessness. With a tiny shake of his head, he forced himself upright again and focused on her suggestion. After coming at the problem from every angle he could think of, he grudgingly admitted that she was right.
"Okay. I'll go along with it if you follow our plans on this. No improvising, Miri. Agreed?"
"Our plans?" Her hands stilled on his chest. "Who else is involved, Robin?"
"Metzger." Cocking his head, he asked, "'Robin'?"
"My name for you. Doktor Kurt Metzger?"
He wasn't certain how he felt about the name. After a moment, he realized she was waiting for an answer.
"One and the same. He's with the underground. He insisted that the kids go out with Ryker. They're scheduled to be sent to Aplerbeck, where they'll probably be killed."
Her eyes filled with tears as she pictured the children's faces. "I agree to your conditions."
The sight of the moisture glimmering on her lashes temporarily banished his mental confusion. He gathered her close, wrapping his arms around her. She relaxed into the embrace, her voice slightly muffled against his chest.
"Oh, Robin, would that we could save them all."
His eyes closed in pain, both at the anguish in her voice and the sudden mental image of hundreds of dead children. His arms tightened around her. She looked up, tears glistening on her cheeks in the harsh light. He smiled gently and used one finger to wipe away the moisture. After a moment, she echoed his smile with a one of her own. Surrendering to his earlier desire, he leaned down and drew her into a deep kiss.
Newkirk walked into the room at that moment, looking to deliver a message to Hogan. Spotting them, he yanked off his cap and clutched it in front of his chest, then started backing out of the room, calling in a cheery voice, "Whoops! So sorry about that! Just forget I was here, and . . ." he waved the cap in their direction when he reached the doorway, "just keep on . . . going about . . . Right, then!" He did an about-face and headed back to the barracks, deciding the message could wait.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Josef lowered his pipe and shook his head in fond exasperation. Enough is enough! It is time to end this.
He glanced across the small kitchen table, meeting Romie's worried blue eyes. She reached over and grasped his hand and tilted her head toward the other room. Josef nodded and squeezed her hand in reassurance. Pushing his chair back from the table, he stood and moved into the gathering room.
Kurt glanced up at his approach, then quickly pretended to find something of interest on the floor.
Josef took his time placing one of their straight-backed chairs next to Kurt's, then lowered himself onto it with a quiet grunt. He studied his son by the light of the blazing fire stoked just minutes before. Kurt's face was strained, much as it appeared after a long shift at the hospital, fraught with horrors only hinted at in conversation. But it had been obvious to Josef and Romie that whatever was bothering their son this evening went far beyond any hospital occurrence.
Kurt's greeting to them when he'd arrived had been subdued, his mood distracted and listless. Evening meal, usually full of conversation when they were together, had instead, been an uncomfortable affair filled with lengthy silences. Their few attempts at conversation had been met with grunts and mumbled, monotone replies. Once Hogan had left, they'd thought that Kurt might finally get around to explaining the reason for his strange mood. But no explanation had been forthcoming, and their puzzlement had changed to concern.
Josef stifled a chuckle when he looked toward the kitchen. Romie was hovering near the doorway, trying to appear as though she weren't. He gave her a brief smile before turning his attention back to their son.
"Kurt, you have been sitting here ever since Robert left a few hours ago. Have you solved the problem yet? Have you reached a decision on whatever has been bothering you?"
Kurt remained silent, his eyes downcast.
Josef decided to try another approach and patted his son's knee. Kurt slowly looked up. Firelight flickered across his face, highlighting the tension tightening his features.
"Kurt, when you were but a child, your mother and I noticed that whenever you were upset or worried, you would go off by yourself for hours at a time. The first time you did this, you were but five years. You wandered away one afternoon and we could not find you. We searched and searched, and called and called, but without success. Your mother was beside herself, imagining all manner of things that only a mother can."
Kurt's face briefly relaxed with a faint smile. He glanced across the room at his mother, then back to his father when Josef chuckled.
"Scamp that you were, you'd climbed up that old tree behind the house . . . " Josef's eyebrows rose. " . . . you remember it?"
Kurt nodded. The gnarled tree had been his favorite sanctuary on the farm. Climbing had always been effortless for him, and height had never bothered him. He'd loved the quiet stillness and peace he'd found among the dense branches and leaves. Seated comfortably on a limb, back braced against the ancient trunk, he'd felt as though he were the only person on earth. One early morning following a violent storm, he'd rushed from the house, only to find that the tree had been felled by a lightning strike. He remembered crying as he stood beside the tree's shattered trunk, the once thick leaves now hanging limp and shredded on broken and scattered branches.
"Well," Josef continued, pulling Kurt from the memory, "unknown to us, you sat up there in that tree and watched and listened while we searched."
"How did you find me?" Kurt asked, intrigued by the mystery of the forgotten childhood incident.
"We didn't," Josef laughed. "You finally climbed down on your own." He attempted a stern look, one finger pointing in accusation at Kurt. "There we were, ready to gather the neighbors to help in our search, and you wandered into the house, announcing quite loudly that you are hungry! We couldn't decide whether to put you over our knees or hug you!"
Kurt laughed along with him, easily imagining the scene and his parents' reactions. Always openly affectionate, their discipline, when needed, had been well tempered with love. "Did you ever learn why I had gone up the tree?"
"Ja." Josef's expression softened. "We were finally able to get you to tell us, but only after we'd filled your stomach! You were upset that you had to share us with your new baby brother. You thought Philipp was taking up entirely too much of our time, and you wanted us to take him back to wherever we'd gotten him."
Kurt's face lost all animation and his gaze returned to the floor.
"After a time," Josef paused, swallowing down grief freshened by memory, "you decided that having a little brother was not such a bad thing after all. You took it upon yourself, quite seriously, to educate him to the ways of the world . . . as seen by a five year old."
"I miss him, Father." Kurt's voice cracked.
Josef ached to pull his only surviving child into his arms. But he sensed an invisible barrier between them. Something that had never been there before. "I know you do, Kurt," he whispered, tentatively placing a hand on his son's shoulder, trying to reach beyond that barrier. His finely wrinkled face twisted with concern when Kurt visibly trembled at the touch. What is causing this now? He glanced again toward the kitchen. Romie had given up all pretenses and now stood squarely in the kitchen doorway. Tears tracked down her cheeks, her hands clasped into a tight fist beneath her chin. Josef sighed, sharing in her sorrow for both their sons. He inched forward on his chair and rubbed Kurt's shoulder.
"Kurt, what is wrong? This is much more than just missing Philipp." When he received no answer, he prompted gently, "Does it have anything to do with what brought Robert here tonight?"
Kurt rubbed at his forehead, at the headache that had become his constant companion. He didn't want them to worry. But, he realized belatedly, they already were. He looked toward the kitchen and motioned his mother forward. She immediately crossed the room and seated herself in the chair Josef vacated for her. Kurt waited while his father pulled up another chair and re-seated himself. He struggled inwardly for a moment, trying to get his thoughts in order. They smiled patiently, their hands linked together across the small space separating their chairs. His throat tightened at the love and support shining from their eyes.
"Ja," he answered finally, then took a moment, choosing his words with care. "Robert has asked for my help in a mission, and I have agreed. In return, he will do something for me."
They glanced at each other. In the time that they had been in the Resistance, none of them had ever been directly involved in a mission of any sort. In the past, they had provided shelter, food, information, and other small but vital needs to support their allies' fight in the war. This was entirely different, and much, much more dangerous. Softly clearing his throat, Josef spoke first.
"This mission, Kurt. Exactly how are you to be involved? This is more than just drawing another map, isn't it?"
Kurt gave a firm shake of his head. "Father, you know that it is best that I not provide you any details. It is enough to say that I will take an active part."
Silence fraught with tension stretched between them. Finally, in a voice quavering slightly, Romie asked, "And what is it that Robert is doing for you in return?"
A chuckle rose in Kurt's throat. "Ah . . . well . . . he will play the part of the stork, in a manner of speaking."
They stared at him in confusion. Their eldest had always possessed a wicked and somewhat warped sense of humor, but it seemed to have worsened. Josef rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then chuckled, recognizing the change had begun shortly after Kurt had made the acquaintance of an American colonel and his men. He met Kurt's mischievous gaze and winked, sending them both into gales of laughter.
Romie looked from one to the other, enjoying the laughter, though not understanding the cause. When their mirth showed no sign of slowing, she sighed good-naturedly and rose from her seat to cradle Kurt's face between her hands. Instantly, he grew serious once more. She kissed him on the forehead, then spoke firmly as she stared into his eyes.
"We love you, Kurt. And we trust your judgment. But of course, we are parents and cannot help but worry." Pride and love shone from her brilliant blue eyes as she bestowed another light kiss upon him, as if in benediction.
Josef took a stand beside her, one hand coming to rest on Kurt's shoulder. He now believed he understood what was bothering his son. Not the danger to himself, but worry for them.
"Kurt, do not trouble yourself. We will be fine. Do what you feel you must."
Kurt nodded within his mother's grasp, feeling the burn of tears. He stood and gathered them into the circle of his arms, silently swearing he would do nothing to cause them harm.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Moonlight flooded through the hospital's windows, softly illuminating the children's ward. Miri slowly made her way between the two rows of narrow beds on either side of the room, the soft soles of her shoes barely marking her passing. The ward was largely silent, as the children had long since been settled for the evening. Only an occasional whimper or rustle of bedclothes could be heard as she paused mid-way through the ward to adjust a blanket at one bed and fill a glass of water at another. A few murmured words with another restless child, then she was free to continue to the far end of the room to the patients who had occupied her thoughts and kept her from her own bed.
Maximillian Fromm lay on his stomach in his bed, one bent leg thrust outside the cover of the blanket. Miri reached down and pulled the blanket from beneath the leg and tucked it around him. As she turned away, the blanket flew up in the air, the leg stretched out, then settled once more atop the blanket. She smiled and shook her head. You win, dear.
In the next bed, Maximillian's brother, Erich, lay curled facing their sister, Liselotte. Both children were small for their ages and fit easily within the one bed. Erich's arm was draped protectively around Liselotte, his fist clenched tightly in the blanket at her back. Miri studied them, noting the bandages on Erich's arm covering the minor burns there. A small, purpling bruise decorated his cheek, evidence of the fall he'd taken from the bed while in the throes of a nightmare. Security rails now protected against other falls. Liselotte's face, while unmarked still appeared reddened and was surrounded by dark hair singed a generous inch shorter than its previous length. Even her eyelashes had been shortened by the intense heat. Despite two lengthy washings, the unpleasant odor of burnt hair still clung to the little girl's skin.
Erich suddenly twisted in his sleep, battling yet another nightmare. Miri rushed forward, softly uttering words of comfort. The moment her hand touched his side, Erich bolted upright with a scream of terror. Liselotte jerked awake at the piercing sound and her blue eyes, brimming with fear, fixed upon her brother. The ward came alive around them with the other children's whimpers and cries, echoes of Erich's distress. As Miri tried to calm the little boy, Liselotte remained eerily silent and passive beside them.
"He dreams of the fire."
Miri turned toward the flat voice. Maximillian gazed at her from his bed, his face solemn in the moonlight. "It's the fire," he repeated matter-of-factly as he sat up, curling his legs beneath him. "He told me so."
Miri swallowed hard, imagining the terror the children must have felt while the rooms their family lived in burned around them. As though seeing her vision, Erich surged closer and locked his arms about her waist with surprising strength. She dropped into a seat on the edge of the bed and pulled him into her arms. He thrust his face tight against her neck, the warmth of his breath wafting against her skin. Cupping the back of his head, she whispered, "Hush, Erich. You're safe now."
Out of the corner of her eye, Miri noticed Maximillian studying her intently. She felt as though she were being measured, held up to a scale known only to him. Turning her head, she looked directly into eyes much too old for a nine-year old boy.
"I've been asking, but no one will talk to me," Maximillian murmured, emotion finally apparent in his voice. "Father and Mother and Sabine are dead, aren't they?"
Miri hesitated, then nodded once. There would be no platitudes with this boy. "Yes." Against her neck, Erich's crying faded into wet snuffling. One small fist rubbed at his swollen eyes, as he shifted on her lap. Miri murmured to him, still keeping one eye focused upon Maximillian.
The honesty of her answer appeared to satisfy him. He looked away to stare out one of the windows for several moments. When he glanced back at Erich and Liselotte, his voice was flat and lifeless once more. "They're going to come for them. They won't let them live."
A chill went up Miri's back. She grew suddenly and acutely aware of Erich's warmth against her and Liselotte's unwavering stare. Buying time, she settled Erich back into bed beside Liselotte, and tucked the blankets about them. Erich blinked up at her, his cheeks still wet with his tears, then rolled over to cuddle against his sister. His thin arm went about her shoulders once again. Within moments, their breathing deepened into sleep. With a last glance at them, Miri focused her full attention on Maximillian.
"Why do you think that, Maximillian?"
"I overheard Mother and Father speaking one night when I was supposed to be asleep. They were talking about how children like Erich and Liselotte always seem to disappear. They were afraid."
It was true. Their parents had tried not to show it, but they'd been very afraid for their two youngest children. But Maximillian and his older sister, Sabine, had been aware of their careful attempts to keep Erich and Liselotte hidden away from those in authority. Even contact with their neighbors had been discouraged and avoided whenever possible. And when it wasn't, they made certain that the two children's time in public was kept at a minimum. They'd lived in a perpetual state of fear that Erich and Liselotte's limitations would be noticed and reported.
Their mother and father were gone. Now it was up to Maximillian to protect his brother and sister. His chin lifted, his fists balled on his knees and his eyes grew fierce with defiance.
"Erich and Liselotte can't help it that they're the way they are! I won't let them take them! I won't!"
Miri placed one finger to her lips. "Shhh, Maximillian. You'll upset the other children!"
His eyes flew to his siblings, then moved on to the other children in the ward. When he finally turned back to her, tears had gathered at the corners of his eyes. She felt a surge of hope. The nine year-old boy had finally appeared.
"Please help us. Please don't let them take Erich and Liselotte." Her heart twisted at the despairing, choked voice. She seated herself on his bed and held out her arms. He went to her, burying his face against her shoulder to muffle the wrenching sobs he could no longer hold back. Miri rocked him gently, one hand smoothing repeatedly over his hair as she stared down at Erich and Liselotte.
They will not take any of you, Maximillian. I swear it!
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
A shuttered window in Barracks Two slowly opened and LeBeau peeked out. Tipping his head back, he smiled up at the morning sky of robin's egg blue and pulled in a breath of air that hinted of spring. The birds twittered in full song beyond the camp's fencing, joyously heralding a new day. Throwing the shutters completely open, he propped one hip on the window sill and gazed dreamily past the fence. For a moment, he was in Paris, in his grandpère's garden. A warning from a passing guard slapped him back to reality. Grieving the loss of the quiet moment, he hopped off the sill, stuck out his tongue at the guard and made as if to pull the shutters closed. The guard gave him a look of disdain and continued his patrol, confident that he'd cowed the prisoner into closing the window. LeBeau waited until the German had moved out of sight, then flung the shutters wide again and went back to enjoying the morning. He'd learned to indulge in quiet moments whenever possible. They did wonders in keeping his spirit alive. With the warmth of the morning sun upon his face, he silently raised the cheer, Vive la joie d'vie!
Minor pleasures were far from Hogan's thoughts as he sat alone in his office. He stared into space until a persistent noise intruded, drawing his gaze to his desk. He huffed impatiently, and with no small amount of effort, brought his drumming fingers to a stop and shook his shoulders several times for good measure. The tension he'd felt all night still refused to dissipate. He nearly jumped out of his skin when Kinch cleared his throat from the doorway.
The sergeant frowned as he sauntered inside. Hogan's face was drawn and his brown eyes appeared dull and haunted. Kinch had heard Hogan pacing after Major Broadbent's departure and knew it was a safe bet that his CO had barely slept.
"Roll call in ten minutes, Colonel."
Kinch's worry went up a notch when Hogan's hands bunched into white-knuckled fists upon the desktop. Coming to a decision, he reached back and pushed the door closed.
"You want to talk?"
For an instant, he wondered if he was about to be mowed down by an Army Air Corps colonel bolting for safety. Then, with a drawn out sigh, Hogan slumped on the wooden stool and raked a hand back through his hair.
"There's a lot I don't like about this one, Kinch."
"Such as?" Kinch prompted, already having a good idea of the answer.
"Kids are involved," Hogan replied in a clipped voice, crossing his arms tightly across his chest. "And Kurt's much too close to this one. I don't like risking his cover . . . not to mention his life." Closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose, he softly repeated, "He's too damned close." Josef and Romie's faces appeared before him, empty with loss. Oh, Lord, burying their other son would put them in their own graves!
Kinch thought again of the pacing into the wee hours of the morning. "And you're worried about Major Broadbent." It wasn't the first time Hogan had shown concern for a woman's safety. But it was easy to see, at least for Kinch, that Hogan's present behavior went far beyond his usual protective nature. Not even Tiger's imprisonment in Paris had evoked this kind of response.
Hogan's head jerked in Kinch's direction, sending a jet-black lock of hair tumbling over his forehead. Their eyes met in silent understanding. "Yeah. That, too," he admitted softly.
Kinch watched Hogan rise and stretch luxuriously, recognizing the action as a period on the subject. He shook his head fondly. It was never easy getting Hogan to discuss anything personal, let alone his feelings about a woman. Especially this woman. He couldn't help wondering if his CO's wandering days were over.
"Come on. Time for roll call." Hogan shrugged into his jacket, grabbed his cap from his bunk and started for the door.
"Colonel?" Kinch quickly stepped forward and planted a palm against the closed door. Hogan looked at him in surprise. "It'll come off without a hitch. You've covered all the bases."
Hogan studied the expression of calm assurance and support. He was grateful for the show of faith, but still couldn't dismiss the worry that had kept him awake and on his feet for most of the night. "I wish I could believe that Kinch. I really do." Removing the sergeant's hand from the door, he went out to set their plan in motion.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
"Didja hafta throw that last punch, Newkirk?" Carter winced when he ran his tongue gingerly over his teeth and discovered a few had acquired a definite wobble.
Newkirk wrapped an arm about his shoulders, giving him a smile of apology. "I'm really sorry about that, Andrew. I guess I lost myself in playing the part."
Carter plucked the arm from his shoulders. "Oh, yeah? Well that doesn't make my loose teeth feel any better!"
Hogan stepped between them, irritation hardening his features. "I've warned you about overacting, Newkirk. All we needed was two days in the cooler. Thanks to your ad-libbing, Klink threw a week at us."
He'd been surprised at how the carefully choreographed fight had escalated beyond what they'd planned. Not only had Newkirk decked Carter with a punch to the jaw, LeBeau had thrown himself into the melee, landing a solid kick to Klink's shin. The kommandant had still been limping and bellowing twenty minutes later. Schultz had ended up rolling in the prison compound's dirt, each beefy arm locked about a prisoner's neck while screaming for the other guards. Though Hogan hadn't actively taken part in the fight, he'd used a few well-chosen taunts with Klink afterward to make certain that he joined his men in the cooler.
"Sorry, Guv'nor." Newkirk mumbled, hunching his shoulders and peeking up into his CO's unhappy face.
"Ah, forget it." Hogan sighed. "Maybe it's for the best." He swung toward LeBeau, noticing for the first time that the little Frenchman was busily changing into street clothes. "And just what do you think you're doing?"
LeBeau's fingers faltered upon his shirt buttons. "I thought to go along . . . "
"That why you nailed Klink's shin?" Hogan asked, cocking his head. He frowned when he was answered with a sheepish grin. "Sorry, LeBeau, but you drew solitary for nothing."
"But, colonel . . . "
"No, Louis." Hogan moved closer, steeling himself against the smaller man's crestfallen expression. "I appreciate your willingness to help, but I want to keep our numbers as small as possible. There's less chance of drawing attention." Not to mention one less man for me to worry about. "Next time, okay?" Cupping the nape of LeBeau's neck, he gave it shake, drawing a weak smile from the Frenchman.
"D'accord, mon colonel." Sighing to himself, LeBeau started changing back.
Hogan turned in place and raked his eyes over Carter and Newkirk, making a final inspection of their appearance. They signaled their readiness with thumbs up. Satisfied that they were as prepared as possible, he turned his back to them and closed his eyes. Exhaling slowly, he tried again to release some of the tension making him feel as though he were literally vibrating. Being alert was one thing, hair-trigger nerves were something entirely different and very dangerous. Kurt's voice suddenly rang in his ears.
"If something goes wrong, there will be no gunfire. I do not want you shot, and I want no innocent victims."
Hogan's eyes flew open. Glancing back over his shoulder, he motioned his team toward the tunnel's emergency exit.
I promise, Kurt. No victims!
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Kurt shifted nervously on the seat and glanced over at the other man occupying the truck's cab. Marc Zoellner, local cobbler and fellow Resistance member, grinned back at him, teeth flashing brilliant white in the late-morning sunlight.
A veteran of many missions and a man of very few words, the soft-spoken Zoellner often served as a calming influence to other, less seasoned members. Kurt definitely fell into that category. Watching the younger man pluck nervously at his sweater sleeve, Zoellner said quietly, his deep voice filling the cab's interior, "Relax, Herr Doktor. They will be here."
Envious of Zoellner's serene attitude, Kurt answered with a single nod and went back to staring out the open window. Focusing once more on the thick undergrowth, he listened hard for any movement. Minutes passed, but all he heard were sounds one would normally hear while sitting on a back road in the midst of a forest. He was just about to turn back to Zoellner with a question when Hogan slid into view beside the window. Gasping in surprise, Kurt scooted backward across the seat until he came up hard against Zoellner's bulk.
"Whoops," Hogan muttered, contritely. "Sorry, Kurt."
Kurt fumed, vaguely hearing Zoellner's bass chuckle at his shoulder. "Verdammt, Robert! Do you always have to appear like some avenging ghost?!"
Hogan lowered his head, truly sorry to have inadvertently added to his friend's anxiety. The last thing he wanted was Kurt feeling even more out of his element.
"How did you do that, anyway?" Kurt scooted back to the window, his anger already forgotten. "I was watching the entire time, yet did not see you come up, nor did I hear you."
Hogan shrugged. "We weren't trying to sneak up on you. You were just so busy concentrating on the side of the road, you forgot to check behind the truck." Kurt groaned, slapping one hand to his forehead as he fell back against the seat.
"It's an easy mistake that you don't want to make a habit," Hogan said, patting his arm. Leaning through the open window, he greeted Zoellner with a casual salute, then offered his hand.
"Marc. Good to see you again. Thanks for helping with this one."
Zoellner's large, calloused hand swallowed Hogan's. "You are most welcome, Colonel Hogan."
Hogan turned his head and studied Kurt. "You don't have to be here, you know. If you want, it's not too late to pull out. We'll think no less of you if you do."
"Danke, but I am going, Robert. I will see this through to the end."
Hogan nodded. He'd expected no other response. "Okay. But just remember; you stay in the truck and out of sight. You're supposed to be off duty for the next few days. I don't want anyone seeing you and remembering later that you were at the hospital when those kids came up missing. The connection is just too easy in light of your family's history with Aplerbeck."
Kurt nodded unhappily. Though he understood the necessity, staying behind rankled nonetheless.
"Okay, then," Hogan said, clapping his hand on the base of the window frame. "Let's get this show on the road!"
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Miri took a quick peek at her watch before walking past the guards stationed in the hallway. They glanced her way, then returned to their blank study of the opposite wall. She felt a moment of derisive amusement. Bored out of their wits, they were less likely to react as quickly as they normally would, should something arise.
She continued on down the hall, mentally running through the plan Hogan had radioed to her the night before. The details were fairly simple. But no matter how simple, with any plan, there was always the chance of something going wrong. Hopefully, Miri thought, nodding to a passing doctor, all will go as planned, with no problems, no surprises.
She quietly greeted the lone nurse on duty in the children's ward, then walked the length of the room to the Fromm children.
Maximillian had abandoned his bed, joining Liselotte and Erich in theirs. Precariously perched at the foot of the bed, he was engrossed in fitting Liselotte's squirming foot back into her slipper. Each time he got the slipper onto her foot, Liselotte playfully sent it flying with a kick.
Enjoying the show, Erich clapped his hands together enthusiastically from his place against the pipe headboard. Miri smiled to herself. Erich wasn't being stingy with his applause. He remained neutral in the battle, applauding both of his sibs' efforts.
Maximillian finally won. He got the slipper on Liselotte's foot once more, then held foot and slipper down on the bed with both hands. Sensing she'd reached the limits of her brother's patience, Liselotte quit trying to free her foot and started playing with the length of red yarn that the ward nurse had given her.
"Guten Morgen, Liselotte, Erich, Maximillian."
Three small faces swung toward Miri. Their initial wariness disappeared when they recognized her. Momentarily abandoning her yarn, Liselotte pushed into a standing position on the mattress and lifted thin arms into the air. Her eyes held a silent plea to be held. Miri's heart twisted at the innocent gesture, and she gathered the little girl into her arms and kissed her on the cheek. Feeling left out, Erich cuddled close against Miri's side, his face up-turned to present a tremulous grin. Miri looked toward Maximillian. He remained seated at the foot of the bed, his gaze taking in everything. After a moment, he got to his feet on the bed and went to her, placing one hand on her shoulder to balance his stance.
"Where have you been?"
Miri caught the slight accusatory tone in his voice. She quickly glanced over her shoulder and checked the duty nurse. Frau Hahn was still seated at the ward desk, her head bent low over paperwork. Still holding Liselotte, Miri carefully sat on the bed. Erich settled at her right side and Maximillian on the other.
"I've been making arrangements to take you somewhere else. Somewhere you'll be safe." The boys leaned closer, their faces brightening with hope and curiosity. She checked again to see that the nurse hadn't moved, then asked in a hushed voice, "Would you like that?"
"Ja!" Erich hopped to his knees and clapped his hands together with a loud slap. Miri winced, her eyes darting up in time to see the nurse look in their direction. Seeing nothing unusual, the gray head bent over the desk once more. With an inward sigh of relief, Miri peered closely at Liselotte's face, less than a foot away from her own.
"Liselotte? Do you understand, dear?"
Liselotte's head tilted to one side, her expression one of blank innocence. Chirruping happily, she lifted the yarn in her hands higher for Miri to see.
"You're going to wait a long time for her answer," Maximillian quipped. "She's never talked. Mutter and Vater tried to teach her, but she just doesn't." His blue eyes slanted upward to Miri's face to check her reaction to this bit of news.
Miri smoothed her hand over Liselotte's dark hair. "Do you think she understands, even though she doesn't speak?"
He shrugged and reached over to tickle Liselotte's palm. The resultant giggle brought a fleeting smile to his face. Without looking up, he asked casually, "Where is this safe place? It cannot be in Germany. There are no safe places in Germany."
His perceptiveness momentarily shocked Miri into silence. She waited until he looked up, then whispered, "We cannot talk of this now, Maximillian, but I promise you that it will be safe -- and very far from here." By Dewi Sant, it would be Wales, with Angharad and Rhys...
She checked the time again. Hogan and his men would arrive in less than thirty minutes and she and the children had to be ready. She hurried to wrap the explanation up quickly, mindful that the instructions had to be kept simple.
"Listen to me, children." Erich and Maximillian quieted and stared up at her intently. Liselotte also grew quieter, her fingers slowing as she played with her yarn. "Very soon, two men in German uniform will come into the ward." She hurried to reassure them when the boys stiffened against her. "Don't be scared. These men are my friends, and they are only pretending, so that they can help me take you from here to the safe place."
"They can be shot for that." Maximillian proclaimed solemnly. "Vater told me that once."
She nodded. "He was right. That is why we must not do or say anything that might give them away." She looked each child in the eyes, including Liselotte, when the little girl finally looked up. "I will be with them, and you must do exactly as I say, without question. Do you understand?"
They nodded. Miri swallowed hard at the unquestioning trust in their eyes. Placing Liselotte on the bed with her brothers, she gave them each a quick hug, whispering in their ears, "Be ready."
She left them, resolve burning in her heart to see them safely to Wales.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Miri remained on the ward, occupying herself with busy work. She drew each duty out as long as possible, pretending not to notice the suspicious glances Frau Hahn, the ward nurse, kept throwing in her direction. Miri prayed their escort would arrive on schedule. She wouldn't be able to stay on the ward much longer without a confrontation of some sort.
She sighed in relief when Newkirk's voice sounded outside the ward. With casualness belying the tension she felt, she closed the chart she'd been writing in and replaced it in the basket on the ward nurse's desk. Newkirk and Carter entered the ward at that moment and made straight for her. Miri stepped aside, appearing as though she wanted no part of them.
Frau Hahn appeared much the same upon seeing the two Luftwaffe officers. Nervously smoothing her uniform, she stood to greet them.
"Heil Hitler." Carter's voice was pompous and nasally, at odds with his usual exuberance. His slicked back hair and monocle added to the severity of the look he cast upon the duty nurse as he marched up to her and presented her with a sheaf of papers. "There are three children here who are to be taken to Aplerbeck," Carter sniffed haughtily, clasping his hands behind his back. "You will bring them to me immediately."
Frau Hahn quickly scanned the papers, interested only in getting rid of the two men as soon as possible. "Right away, Herr Hauptmann." She placed the papers on the desk and turned to Miri, who'd purposely remained close. "Fraulein Bach! Bring the Fromm children."
Miri nodded and hurried to carry out the order. She'd breathe much easier once the children were safely out of the hospital and on their way to London with her.
They were still seated together on one bed, their hands intertwined. "Children," Miri said calmly, "it's time to go. Let's put your clothes and coats on." They obediently jumped down from the bed and took the clothing she'd brought. Maximillian quickly donned his, then started helping Erich while Miri helped Liselotte into her own. Maximillian's eyes darted to Carter and Newkirk, then back to Miri's face.
"Is that them?"
"Katrina! What is taking so long? Mach schnell!"
Miri gritted her teeth and plastered on a polite smile, though what she really wanted to do was march up to the woman and knock her teeth down her throat. These were innocent children, not garbage to be tossed out the door. She turned to face the nurse. "It is chilly outside. The children cannot possibly go out without clothes and coats, Frau Hahn." Miri glanced down, seeing Liselotte finish with the last button on her coat. "They're ready now."
Frau Hahn grabbed Erich's hand and started dragging him toward the door. As Miri moved to intervene, Maximillian raced past her, his face stormy with outrage at the insensitive treatment. He caught up to the ward nurse in a few steps and yanked Erich's hand from her grasp.
"Leave him alone!"
"I wasn't aware that compassion was no longer a part of the nursing profession, Frau Hahn," Miri snapped as she arrived. She gathered the three children close about her and led them to the door. Frau Hahn bustled after them, still sputtering in surprise.
Carter and Newkirk, having witnessed the entire exchange, had to fight to stay in character and not leap to the children's defense. Carter watched Frau Hahn carefully, ready to give her full benefit of his anger should she provide him further cause. His attention swung to the children when they stopped in front of him. Huddled like three chicks at Miri's side, they looked up at him, eyes wide with barely contained fear. He nodded in greeting, deliberately softening his expression and voice.
"I am Hauptmann Biermann. The weather is quite nice today. I thought to take you for a pleasant ride in the country." He hoped that Miri had already explained the reason for the trip. Frightening the children was the last thing he wanted to do.
The children relaxed slightly, but still looked to Miri for direction. She nodded and smiled reassuringly. Maximillian turned back to Carter.
"Do we have to come back here after?"
Carter swallowed against a sudden lump in his throat. Behind him, Newkirk shifted in place. "Nein. You will be going someplace very nice."
Miri almost smiled again. He'd come very close to echoing her own words. She looked down as Erich latched onto her hand with fierce determination. "We want you to go with us!" Her eyes widened in surprise. It was the first complete sentence she'd heard from him.
"Impossible!" Frau Hahn lunged forward, grabbing Miri's arm, intending to yank her away from Erich. Carter's hand shot out with surprising speed and clamped onto her own arm. Frau Hahn quailed in fear, pinned by the fury in his blue eyes.
"Release her! JETZT!" Carter's voice lashed out in an angry snarl. Under his narrowed eyes, Frau Hahn instantly dropped Miri's arm and shrank away. "She will come with us and be responsible for the children's care during the trip. By my order." Head cocked, voice clipped and laden with menace, Carter prompted, "Which . . .surely . . . you don't object to?"
Frau Hahn violently shook her head. Carter's mouth twisted into a thin smile, curdling the blood in her veins.
"Sehr gut." Carter snapped his heels together, flipped a salute in her direction and barked, "Heil Hitler!" Back straight, head raised high, he led Miri and the children from the ward. Newkirk paused long enough to bestow a withering glance upon the nurse, then marched after them.
Utterly terrorized by the encounter, Frau Hahn was still rooted in place when another nurse entered the ward minutes later. Unable to receive an intelligible response to her questions, she sent Frau Hahn home, convinced the older woman was suffering from nervous exhaustion.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
With the children safely at her side, Miri followed Carter through the hospital corridors and out to the truck. Once the children had been settled in their seats, she turned to Carter and tapped his arm.
"That was quite the performance. I wouldn't have believed you could be so fierce."
He avoided her eyes, choosing instead, to check the shine on his boots. "She made me mad."
Newkirk leaned forward at the muttered explanation, his eyebrows on the rise. "Thats putting it mildly, mate. I thought you were right going to take her head off! Not that the old bat didn't deserve it." He'd been more than ready to do the same.
Heat suffused Carter's face. Snatching the cap from his head and the monocle from his eye, he snapped, "Well, maybe I just lost myself in my part!" He wasn't about to explain his true reason, especially with the major seated beside him. Having his toenails torn out one by one appeared more attractive than confessing aloud that he'd appointed himself her guardian in Hogan's absence. He hated bullying and normally used it only as a last resort. But he'd literally seen red when Frau Hahn had grabbed the major's arm. The nurse's uncaring attitude with the children had primed his anger, but mauling an officer had absolutely been the last straw.
Newkirk gave a short laugh at having his own words thrown back at him. Settling back on the truck bench, he studied his friend's tight-set jaw and decided to let the matter drop until after the mission. Now was not the time to pursue it, and besides, knowing Carter, it would be easy to pry the real reason from him later, when they were alone.
"Is everyone all right back here?" Kurt asked, sticking his head through the opening in the canvas separating the truck's cargo area from the cab.
Startled by his sudden appearance, Liselotte cried out and huddled against Miri, hiding her face beneath the Welshwoman's arm. Miri soothed her, stroking her back with a gentle touch. Kurt grimaced in remorse and crawled into the back to sit next to Miri.
"Liselotte," he called softly. "I am sorry to have frightened you." He felt a rush of affection when the little girl peeked from beneath Miri's arm. "Do you remember me? I am Doktor Metzger, yes?"
Maximillian jumped down from his seat beside Newkirk. "I remember you. You were the only one besides Fraulein Bach to ever really talk to us. You're helping us, too?"
Liselotte wriggled from beneath Miri's arm and shyly smiled up at Kurt. He held out his hand to show her that it was empty, then made a fist and held it palm down. A second later, he flipped it over and opened it, revealing a small chocolate bar. Giggling in delight, Liselotte accepted his offering and tore open the wrapper to devour the treat. Kurt doled out chocolates to Erich and Maximillian, then made a face at Newkirk when he hopefully held out his hand. "I am sorry, Newkirk, I only brought enough for the children." Ignoring the Englishman's grumbled complaints, he turned to Miri and smiled warmly. "It is a pleasure to see you again, Katrina. Or would you prefer, Miriam?"
"I am sorry about that, Kurt, but there was never an opportunity to explain." Miri gently wiped a smear of chocolate from Liselotte's nose. The little girl beamed up at her with chocolate-covered lips.
"I understand." Mischief twinkled in Kurt's blue eyes. "I rarely know all the details with Robert, either."
She forced a smile, which quickly faded when she looked toward the hospital. Hogan should have been out by now.
Kurt studied her profile for a long moment. "I'm sure everything is proceeding as planned, Miriam." He winced inwardly. The words didn't sound convincing, even to himself.
Leaving her to her thoughts, he joined Carter and Newkirk in keeping the children distracted while they waited. In doing so, he hoped to distract himself, as well.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Things were definitely not going as planned.
Rather than finding Ryker in his room as Hogan had expected, he discovered the German had inconveniently decided to take a leisurely walk through the hospital. A single guard accompanied him, trailing a few steps behind.
Hogan jerked his head back around the corner, mouthing an oath that would have shocked a sailor.
Okay. Same plan, with one minor adjustment. Minor, but a lot more dangerous.
He'd have to move fast to make it work.
He glanced to either side of the hall, then ducked into a linen closet that he'd chosen while planning the mission. A quick yank of the chain on the overhead light illuminated the room. The two empty linen carts were right where Kurt had said they'd be at this time of day. He pulled a stack of sheets from the shelves, opened them to their full spread and dumped them loosely into one of the carts. Returning to the door, he opened it just far enough to see out and was happy to find his luck hadn't completely deserted him. The hall was still empty.
Grabbing the canvas cart with one hand, he hurried into the hall and quickly trotted in the opposite direction that Ryker and the guard would appear. When he thought he'd gone far enough, he turned and slowly started walking back in the direction he'd come, pushing the cart ahead of him. Ryker rounded the corner, a black cane tapping the floor at his side. The guard followed in his wake, still at a respectful distance. Favoring his left leg, the general reached, then limped past the linen closet.
Hogan kept a steady pace toward them. The guard's eyes flicked toward him, then immediately dismissed him as just another orderly. But Ryker's eyes widened in recognition. Hogan warned him with a slight shake of his head. As he came even with the two men, Hogan nodded in apparent respect to the general, but ignored the guard completely. He waited until he was just past the guard and out of his peripheral vision, then whirled and clubbed the man at the base of his head, catching him before he hit the floor. Grunting beneath the unwieldy dead weight, he wrestled the unconscious man into the linen cart, then tucked the rifle inside as well. He pulled the sheets up and across the top of the cart, making certain that both guard and gun were well hidden. When he looked up from the task, he found Ryker a few paces away, slack-jawed in shock.
"Move it, Ryker!" Hogan started pushing the cart back to the closet. "I don't know about you, but I intend to get out of here alive, with or without you!" He hurriedly shoved the cart into the linen closet and tucked it in a far corner. While he checked on the guard, Ryker entered and had the presence of mind to close the door.
"Now what, Papa Bear?" Ryker grinned malevolently when Hogan's eyes flashed in warning at the continued use of his code-name. "You may have disposed of one guard, but there are dozens more between us and freedom."
Hogan's initial dislike of the man was growing with each passing moment. He pointed to the other cart nestled against the wall.
Ryker's face purpled with indignation. He lifted his cane and poked Hogan hard in the chest. "I will not! Find another way!"
"Ryker," Hogan growled, slapping the cane tip from his chest. "I'm through dancing to your tune. Either get in there or take your chances with your so-called friends. This is a one-time deal. The cavalry rides out of here in less than ten minutes, with or without you." He fell silent, mentally crossing his fingers that his bluff wouldn't be called. There was no way he could leave without that information. If Ryker gave any answer but 'yes', he would receive the same treatment as the guard.
Ryker stared into the obsidian eyes, inwardly seething that he couldn't thrash the younger man right then and there. But since he still needed the American's help, that time would have to wait until later. Grudgingly, he conceded with a nod. "Very well." He handed his cane to Hogan and awkwardly climbed into the cart, grunting with the effort of making himself smaller. Hogan placed the cane beside him, then tossed sheets and towels. Remembering the general's dressing gown and lightweight clothing, he added a blanket. Quickly, he arranged the assorted linens until he was satisfied. Anyone they encountered would see only another hospital cart, loaded to the brim with what appeared to be soiled linens bound for the laundry.
A peek out the door revealed the hall was no longer empty. A nurse bearing a tray of medications was walking toward him. Still approximately twenty to thirty feet away, he could hear her muttering to herself while fussing with the assorted containers on the tray. He jerked back and rested his forehead against the door. There wasn't enough time to wait. He'd have to take his chances. Flinging the door open, he boldly strode for the elevator, pushing the loaded cart ahead of him. The nurse's footsteps stopped several yards behind him.
Hogan sucked in a deep breath and stopped. "Ja?"
The nurse frowned at the orderly's back and stepped closer. "New linens are needed in room 27. We had to strip the bed again."
"Jawohl," Hogan acknowledged, still facing away from her. He took a firmer grip on the cart's edge and started it rolling once more for the elevator, giving a brief prayer of thanks that room 27 lay in that direction.
The nurse clucked in disapproval. Not once had the man turned to address her. Still shaking her head at the rude behavior, she went back to delivering her tray of medications. She was so engrossed in the task, she failed to see the orderly stop at the elevator instead of continuing on to room 27 as ordered.
Hogan entered the empty lift and punched the button for the lowest level. The doors slid shut with a wheeze and the car began a slow, creaky descent. He scowled when the cart jiggled beneath his hands. Ryker's head poked up from beneath the linens, a grimace of displeasure on his face. Hogan placed the flat of his hand against the general's forehead and shoved him back beneath the cloth.
"STAY DOWN!" Hogan snapped, just as the lift doors opened. After a glance in either direction, he pushed the cart across the threshold and into the hall. Moving quickly, keeping his eyes straight ahead, he headed for the hospital laundry room. The double doors were in sight when a voice called out from behind him.
Hogan slowed to a stop, pivoting to meet the guard advancing on him from the stairway.
"What are you doing? No one brings the laundry down here at this time!" The guard's grip tightened on his rifle.
Hogan's eyes widened and he thrust one hand out in warning. "Stay back! Don't come any closer!"
The unusual reaction gave the guard pause. Forgetting that he was the one holding a weapon, he froze in his tracks. "Was?"
"We've had patients dying suddenly without any reason on the third floor. The doctors think that it might be the start of an epidemic." Hogan jerked his chin toward the linen cart and its contents. "These are the sheets and towels from the last patient who died just a few minutes ago. I'm supposed to take them out and burn them." He nervously glanced around the empty hall, then leaned toward the guard. "And then I'm quitting. My cousin has a brewery. I'll be a lot safer working for him!"
The guard gulped and backed away, gesturing wildly with his rifle. "Gehen! Gehen!" No longer caring about Hogan's presence, he trotted back to the stairway.
"You can bet I'm going!" Hogan breathed in relief, watching the frightened guard disappear up the stairs. Grabbing the cart again, he shoved it and the general through the double doors and into the laundry room.
Hogan quickly crossed the room to the loading bay doors leading to the dock. Holding one of the doors open, he pulled out the laundry cart and quickly wheeled it to the truck. He smacked the side of the cart with one hand, then tossed aside the sheets, towels and blanket, allowing Ryker to rise into view. Using the sides of the cart to balance himself, the older man stiffly levered himself into a standing position. Hogan helped him from the cart and into the truck, then handed Newkirk the ebony wood cane and blanket. As the Englishman helped the general get seated, Hogan quickly shoved the cart back into the laundry room. He reappeared scant seconds later and jumped into the back with the others. Carter signaled Zoellner. Moments later, the truck rolled away from the hospital.
So far, so good.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Leidel's fingers tapped erratically against the steering wheel while he stared, utterly perplexed, at the surrounding scenery. His plans for the day hadn't included a trip to the woods.
He remembered setting out for the dry goods store. The lengthy list stuffed into his jacket pocket needed immediate attention. His larder wouldn't feed the smallest of mice. The faucet in his sink was missing a washer and had nearly driven him insane the night before with its incessant dripping. His boots needed polishing. A trip to the barber was also in order. The list went on, items and chores that could only be taken care of during his infrequent off-duty hours. But instead of driving to town where he could make a sizeable dent in the list, without any conscious thought at all, he'd ended up sitting on a back road in the middle of the woods.
Being distracted to that degree could lead to all sorts of nasty situations. Some of them terminal.
Admittedly, he'd been distracted for some time. Since his patrol's encounter with the anonymous couple, to be exact. Details of that serendipitous meeting kept leaping into the forefront of his mind at the oddest moments of the day and night. Small niggling pieces of information he'd mentally shift and sort, trying to prod together into a bigger picture.
It was obvious that the man, at least, had military training. The reactions and shooting stance had fairly screamed it to the sky. Definitely military, not simply another rebellious German citizen turned underground agent. A trained soldier. One who could make snap decisions under pressure, who was willing to sacrifice himself for another and who took tremendous risks rather than chance capture.
A man like that wouldn't be a follower, but a leader. A very dangerous one.
But what nationality? German? American? British? French? Was he based with one operation, or a liaison between many? Was he in Germany only for a short time, or had he been present for months or years? What information had he been discussing with the woman? Was she also a leader in the underground or simply a messenger for another?
Too many unanswered questions.
Since that night, he'd studied faces closely, trying to fit them to the people imprinted in his mind. There was little hope of recognizing the woman, since he'd seen even less of her features in the weak light than the man's. Only two things had been obvious: she was of medium height and appeared to have an attractive figure beneath the bulk of her coat. But that was the extent of what he'd been able to pick out. Even her hair color was a mystery since it had been concealed by her scarf.
No, the man was the key to what he wanted to know. Approximately the same height and build as himself, black hair, with a high forehead. Not much to go on, but possibly enough. Somehow, he felt he'd be able to pick him out even in the midst of a crowded room.
Find that man and he'd have a chance of getting some answers.
Of course, that man might now be a frozen corpse, quite incapable of providing any information at all.
His own growl of frustration startled him out of his musing. He looked down and sighed. His fingers were still doing their impromptu dance and he was still sitting in a woods in the middle of nowhere. Taking the wheel in a stranglehold, he focused upon the most pressing question of the moment.
Stay or go?
Through the dusty glass of the car's windshield, he could see a pair of birds busily pecking out a meal from beneath the scattered leaf litter. To the left of the industrious pair, the bewhiskered face of a rabbit peeked from below the shelter of a bush. He felt himself smile.
Doing nothing at all suddenly appeared very attractive. Here, there would be freedom to roam, with no gray buildings to block him in. No duty, no responsibility, no uniforms. Nothing at all but open air, sunshine and a path bordered in wild flowers that just begged to be explored. And perhaps here, for a time, he would be able to put all thoughts of mysterious Resistance leaders out of his mind.
Grabbing a set of binoculars off the seat, he set off at leisurely pace, whistling a tune from his childhood.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Barely five minutes from the hospital, Ryker was in danger of losing his life. He had wasted no time upon entering the truck, in placing as much distance as possible between himself and the children. From his solitary corner, he loudly complained about being trundled about the hospital in a cart like so much dirty laundry. Exhausting that subject, he declared his outrage at being thrown into the back of a truck. He was General Oswald Ryker, not a sack of potatoes or peasant bound for a day of work in the fields! The others ground their teeth, bit their tongues and with superhuman effort, refrained from telling him exactly what they thought he was. But then he moved on to the children. And that was when his grace period and their patience, ran out.
Hogan shot to his feet a scant instant ahead of Kurt, Newkirk and Carter. Waving them back to their seats, he started for Ryker, fire gleaming in his eyes. Miri, cradling Liselotte on her lap, looked up as he brushed by.
"Give him my regards, also, Robin." Her voice betrayed her anger at Ryker's callousness.
Hogan stopped in front of Ryker and clenched his hands at his sides to keep from doing the man bodily injury. "I'm going to warn you just once. One more word out of you that isn't sunshine and light and I'll plant my fist in your teeth. You wanted out of Germany and I'm getting you out. But you don't have to be conscious during the trip."
"You said nothing to me of children!" Ryker hissed, forcefully thumping the tip of his cane on the floor. The children cringed closer to Miri, who murmured quietly in reassurance.
Conscious of the children's presence, Hogan counted to five, then leaned toward him, continuing in a voice gone deadly quiet. "These three kids have been through hell already. I won't allow you to put them through any more. It's because of bastards like you that they're along in the first place. If we'd left them behind, they'd have been killed like an unwanted litter of puppies." He felt a measure of gratification when Ryker's eyes widened and moved to where the children huddled with Miri.
"Aplerbeck." The whispered word fell like a stone between them. "Whatever else I may be, I am not a baby-killer."
"Really?" Sarcasm dripped from the retort. "Yet you and others in power, just turn your backs and do nothing to stop the wholesale slaughter that goes on there."
Ryker lifted eyes gone livid. "You are a fool!"
Hogan smiled coldly. "So I've been told." He started back to Miri's side, then staggered as the truck lurched beneath his feet and a muffled pop sounded outside.
"Flat tire!" Zoellner bellowed from the cab. He pulled to the side of the road and parked, then got out to check the damage.
Hogan shared a rueful look with Miri over the children's heads. You know what they say about best-laid plans, my dear. His gaze shifted to Carter and Newkirk. "Okay, let's get out and help Marc as quick as possible. We're like sitting ducks on this road. Carter, keep watch. Newkirk, get the tire." He placed his hand on Kurt's arm, keeping the doctor from getting to his feet. "Stay here a second." Turning back to Miri, he asked, "You gonna wait in here with the kids, or do you want to get out and stretch your legs?"
Her lips pursed in disbelief. "Do you honestly think that three young children are going to sit quietly in the back of a truck while all the activity is outside?"
He glanced at the children, who were already inching toward the tailgate and the freedom that lay beyond it. "I don't know what I could've possibly been thinking," he answered dryly. Miri went to the children and start helping them over the tailgate. Hogan briefly met Kurt's eyes, then reluctantly returned to Ryker.
"Ryker, stay or leave?"
The general's mouth twisted at the ill-concealed dislike in Hogan's voice. "I will stay here."
Hogan was moving for the tailgate before the answer had been completed. He arched an eyebrow at Kurt in passing, and received a grimace in reply. Hogan shook his head emphatically, He's all yours! then jumped over the tailgate. He sighed in relief when a quick head count equaled the right number.
"Colonel Hogan!" He turned to Newkirk, who was kneeling beside the truck inspecting the spare tire he'd pulled from the rack.
"Would you have a look at this?" The Englishman's voice rose in disgust. "The bloody thing's been patched twice! See here?" He pointed to several places on the bare tread.
Hogan ran his hand over the tire's rubber surface. "All I care about is whether it'll make it through the rest of the mission. After that, I don't give a tinker's darn if every one them goes flat."
Zoellner arrived from the front of the truck in time to hear his comments. Reaching down, he pulled the tire from Newkirk's grasp and started rolling it around to the front of the truck. "Do not worry, Colonel," he called back over his shoulder, "I'll make certain that we get to our destination safely." Upon reaching the front axle, he let the tire fall onto its side, and started placing the jack.
Hogan tapped Newkirk on the chest and jerked his head toward Zoellner. "Go help him. I'll be with you in a minute." He glanced in Carter's direction. The sergeant was alertly studying their surroundings, clearly all business. Hogan started to turn away, then looked back again as something caught his eye and gave him pause. His head tilted in thought. Carter had been uncharacteristically silent since leaving the hospital. A silent Carter usually meant a troubled Carter. But it wasn't something he could deal with now. Putting it out of his mind for the moment, he went to where Miri had the children happily exploring a short distance from the roadside.
"I'm glad Ryker remained in the truck," she commented. "At least we'll have a few moments of peace. Robin, that man is a beast." The trip to London had never appeared so long to her.
"He does seem to have left his warm and cuddly side at home." Crouching on his heels next to Erich, he pointed out a fat chipmunk perched on a nearby log. The little animal goggled at the intruders and nervously bounced from side to side, his striped tail stiffened straight up behind him like a miniature flag. Erich squealed and clapped his hands in delight. Chittering in fright, the chipmunk leaped off the log and sped away. Erich chortled as he watched the escape.
Hogan smiled down at him. Guessing by the children's reactions, they hadn't experienced much wildlife. Probably the only wildlife they'd ever seen before were the rats, mice and cockroaches infesting their tenement. Shaking the thought away, he stood and told Miri, "I'm going to go help the fellas. Do you need anything?"
"A peaceful trip would be wonderful, Robin."
His gaze bounced from the truck to the children gathered about her. His mouth twitched into a half-smile. "I don't think that's going to happen, Miri."
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Ryker slowly turned his head and gave Kurt a malevolent look, daring him to attempt conversation. To his satisfaction, he received only a thin smile of indifference. At least the doctor knows his place. The satisfaction shattered upon the heels of that thought, coalescing into white-hot resentment. Twice now, he'd been insulted by the American's disrespectful arrogance. That, in itself, was worthy of retribution. But this latest insult -- this publication humiliation -- was intolerable.
He hated the American.
He hated him for possessing everything that was lost to him forever. The straight body in the prime of life, the assurance and easy strength, the fire within the deep brown eyes, and most of all, the moral character that he had always sorely lacked.
When he had been the American's age, his body had been just as hard, well-muscled and trained for battle. Back then, he had felt more than capable of taking on the world, proving his might and intelligence superior to anyone who dared attempt to best him. The rigor of military life had suited him, feeding an innate need for orderliness and discipline. He took particular pride in marching, boots shined to a mirror-like finish, uniform crisp and immaculate. The transparent lust and admiration on the faces of the women he passed along the parade routes had filled him with smug satisfaction. Rarely, did he lack for female companionship during his free time.
His rise through the ranks had been rapid, propelled by achievements on the battlefield and off. His superiors marked his talents and praised him, speeding him upward with medals and citations of merit. He never tired of the accolades, feeling they were only his due. As his rank increased, his taste for the finer grew apace. The solid bulk of his muscles slowly eroded beneath too many seven-course meals and too many glasses lifted in tribute. The regal, flowing stride of his youth degenerated to a pace slowed by inactivity. The uniforms he took such pride in grew larger in size, his belts longer to span his spreading girth. The lustful looks came less and less often, until they no longer came at all. Yet the court of women around him never seemed to thin. He had only to snap his fingers or deliver a speaking look to acquire an attentive companion. Eventually, the novelty of the parade of women wore off and after serious thought, he chose a permanent trophy companion.
During a protracted military function one evening, he'd idly studied his lady, who was chatting with one of the scores of adjutants seated at the table. Twenty years his junior, she was the picture of haute couture, every hair in place, every bauble agleam, every perfect feature highlighted for maximum effect. Her voice, practiced and sultry, drew attention whenever she spoke. She was everything he could wish, and made him the envy of his peers. Together for a little over three months, he liked to tell himself that she loved him.
Feeling his gaze, she'd turned her head, lifting heavily lashed eyes to meet his. In a single crystalline moment of perception, he'd realized that she sought his company not for reasons of admiration or genuine emotion, but only for the status and wealth he could provide. Suddenly, he'd wanted no part of her. Without explanation, he had her removed from the building, dragged screaming in shock and fear by her elegantly clad arms between two guards. He turned a deaf ear to her cries and went on to the meal prepared to his liking, gaily relating anecdotes while his table mates smiled and laughed politely.
Never again, had he given in to the allure of a beautiful woman.
With the passage of time, his rise up the military ladder had slowed, then stalled completely just within view of the top. Though still revered and hailed wherever he traveled, he felt slighted nonetheless. He deserved to go higher, up those last few rungs. He deserved to be lauded alongside Himmler, Göring and Goebbels. He deserved to stand at Hitler's side. Pride had turned to bitterness. Bitterness to festering anger. Hitler would pay. Ryker would see that the last struts holding the Third Reich were destroyed, felled by the sensitive information he held.
But first, he would find a way to dispense a much-needed attitude adjustment to a hot-headed American upstart.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Miri patiently brushed snow from her hair, feeling the crystals melt away against the heat of her fingertips. Beside her, Liselotte shoved her hands into another small pile of snow that hadn't yet been melted by the sun, then threw handfuls of it into the air in an explosion of white glitter. It fell back to earth, showering down upon them, covering them head to toe in glistening dampness. A short distance away but still safely within Miri's sight, Erich and Maximillian were using sticks to poke at the moist earth beneath the wet, rotted leaves, looking for whatever little boys look for in such places.
At her back, Miri could hear the three men struggling with the heavy, uncooperative tire. Apparently, the maintenance on the truck had been spotty and the old tire was refusing to release from the axle. Newkirk's complaints grew ever more colorful, interspersed with rhythmic pounding.
Miri swiped droplets of water from her face, then quickly reached over and gently took hold of Liselotte's arm. The child looked up, puzzlement in her eyes. "Let's find something else to amuse ourselves with, sweetheart." She hated to bring the snow-throwing to a close, but she really didn't want herself or Liselotte to come down with colds. Oh, that would be ever so lovely! Just the thing to make the trip with Ryker even merrier. She sniffed and wiped melted snow from her forehead, catching more droplets before they could reach her eyes.
Liselotte obligingly dropped her latest handfuls and squeaked with glee. Bemused, Miri watched the little girl clap her hands over her mouth and bob in place. Her giggles came thick and fast as she gestured for Miri to bend down. Crouching onto her heels, Miri held perfectly still. Liselotte reached up and lightly brushed at her hair, knocking a sizeable amount of snow into her lap.
She echoed Liselotte's amusement. "Good heavens, I must look like a walking snowball!"
Liselotte shrieked with laughter and dropped onto her bottom on the moist forest floor.
A clatter of noise from the truck interrupted the playful moment. Miri's head whipped toward the road.
The men had finally managed to free the flat tire from the axle, but at the expense of losing the jack's support. Newkirk lay pinned on his back beneath the lower edge of the truck's running board. Gasping for breath, he pushed ineffectively at the metal across his chest.
Miri jumped to her feet and rushed toward the truck, while Zoellner leaped to the front bumper. Grabbing it, he strained upward, lifting with all his strength. Hogan blocked out Newkirk's pained grunts, and concentrated on resetting the jack.
As soon as the weight was lifted away, Miri helped Newkirk slide out from beneath the running board. At the edge of her vision, she could see Kurt sprinting toward them from the back of the truck.
"This is . . . not my . . . idea of . . . a fun afternoon . . . with the kiddies!" Newkirk panted, wrapping his arms protectively about his aching ribcage. Hogan knelt at his side, making no effort to hide his concern while he assisted Kurt in keeping the Englishman on his back.
"Give me a chance to find out," Kurt snapped without looking up. "Lower your arms, Newkirk." He opened Newkirk's shirt and jacket and carefully ran his hands over the Englishman's torso, stilling at the sharp gasp of pain the movement wrought. Kurt sighed and met Hogan's worried gaze.
"Two ribs cracked and bruising over three more." Kurt glowered down at Newkirk. Anger filled his voice, disguising his concern. "What happened? With all the pounding, it sounded as though you were demolishing the truck rather than changing a tire!"
Zoellner came forward at that moment and crouched beside them, one hand wiping at the sweat threatening to drip into his eyes. "The bolts were heavily rusted. We were able to finally loosen them, but then the tire wouldn't come off. Newkirk was under the truck using a hammer to knock the tire loose from the axle -"
"And succeeded, along with knocking the jack out of place," Kurt muttered, helping Hogan guide Newkirk into a sitting position. The Englishman groaned at the movement and cradled his ribs again.
Hogan wrenched his gaze from the pale, sweating face and looked for Carter. The sergeant was still in position, but appeared for all the world like a racehorse at the starting gate. Dancing from foot to foot, he nervously kept glancing toward the truck in between sweeping checks of their surroundings. Hogan caught his attention and flashed the okay sign. The dancing stopped and Carter noticeably slumped in relief before resuming his surveillance.
"I demand to know what is going on! Why are we still sitting on this road!?" Ryker bellowed, limping to a stop beside the truck.
Miri jumped to her feet, startling everyone into silence. Hogan groaned in understanding when she raced back to where she'd left the children.
"Liselotte! Erich! Maximillian!" Hurriedly, she looked about the clearing where the children had been happily playing not five minutes before. At her feet lay the scattered evidence of Liselotte's snow throwing and the boys exploration of the forest floor. But not a sign of the children themselves. Her heart clenched in fear. She'd only been gone a few minutes!
"They couldn't have gone far." Hogan's words of reassurance fell flat upon her ears.
"He's right. They must be nearby," Kurt agreed breathlessly, sliding to a stop next to him.
"Listen!" Miri cried, reaching over to clutch Hogan's arm. Hogan and Kurt grew motionless. A moment later, they heard a shrill scream, followed by Maximillian's panicked voice calling out Erich's name. They took off toward the sounds, Miri leading the way.
They burst into a clearing and found Maximillian crying in distress at the base of a large tree. He whirled toward them, gesturing frantically above his head.
"He can't get down! He tried, but almost fell! Now, he's too frightened to move!"
As one, they looked up into the tree's canopy. Visible among the branches, three-quarters of the way to the top, was Erich. Despite the distance, they could see tears dampening his face as he peered down at them, sobbing brokenly.
"Not in that skirt, Miri," Hogan said, holding her back when she started for the tree.
She groaned in exasperation, then looked around the clearing as realization struck. "Where's Liselotte?" Leaning down, she gently grasped Maximillian by the shoulders. "Do you know where she might have gone?"
He shook his head forlornly. "She came with us. But I don't know when she left."
She smoothed a hand over his hair and gave him a quick hug. "Don't worry, Maximillian. We'll find her." She turned to Hogan, who'd been listening to the exchange while keeping an eye on Erich. "Get Erich down. I'll look for Liselotte."
"Right." He held her eyes. "Be careful." He watched her move out of sight, then looked over at Kurt. His friend had his arms around the trunk of the tree, clearly testing his hold. "Hey! You ever done this before?"
"Many times." But not for some years! Kurt lunged upward from branch to branch, fingers and feet scrabbling at the rough bark. Feeling a fingernail tear with a stabbing pain, he carefully avoided thinking about the damage he was doing to his hands. He'd deal with it later. Nothing else mattered at the moment but the terrified child above him.
Hogan and Maximillian gaped in amazement as they followed his progress up the tree. Even Erich stopped crying, fascinated by the sight of Kurt nimbly climbing steadily upward through the tangle of branches. Within moments, he was perched on a branch beside Erich.
It took a few minutes of convincing, but he finally managed to coax Erich into giving up his panicked grip on the tree's trunk. After a moment of explanation and gentle guidance, Erich understood that he was to wrap himself about Kurt and hang on just as tightly as he had the tree. Speaking softly and moving in slow and cautious increments, Kurt carried him to the ground. Erica's fright disappeared as soon as his feet hit the earth. He planted a kiss on Kurt's cheek, then ran to Hogan and Maximillian. Kurt blew out a ragged breath and blinked away the sudden burning in his eyes.
Erich latched on to Hogan's leg and babbled up at him, "High tree! Very, very high!"
"Yeah, high is right." Hogan bent down and gathered him into his arms. "Come on, Tarzan. It's back to the truck for you and your brother."
He hurried back through the trees, Kurt following with Maximillian trotting to keep up.
Newkirk and Zoellner met them at the side of the road and fell into step with them.
"The major and little Liselotte behind you, Guv'nor?"
"No. Liselotte wasn't with the boys. The major's gone to find her." Hogan looked at Ryker, seated in the truck's cab. The general met his eyes, nodded, then calmly went back to examining the head of his ebony cane. Hogan shook his head, surprised by the lack of complaint at the further delay. Thank you for small miracles!
He noticed as he handed Erich off to Zoellner, that the truck rested once more on four tires. "Good work on getting that tired fixed so fast, Marc. Now I want you to take Ryker and the boys into the woods and keep them there until we get back. You're too vulnerable sitting out here. At least in the woods, you have a chance if someone comes along." He patted Newkirk's shoulder. "Go with them, and take it easy, willya?"
The Englishman's mouth opened and closed several times before he found his voice. "I'd like to help with the search, Colonel." Receiving a hard shake of his CO's head, he hurried to add, "Three pairs of eyes are much better than two!"
Hogan wasn't going to waste time arguing. "Kurt has the final say." Stepping toward the woods, he waved Carter over, explained the situation, then took off at a run. Carter tossed Zoellner his rifle and raced after him.
Newkirk turned to the doctor. Kurt hesitated, took one look at the plea in the blue eyes, then nodded and ran into the woods. Gritting his teeth against the pain, Newkirk followed as fast as he could.
His mother had warned him there would be days like this!
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
You're going about this all wrong, Miriam!
Miri paused and quickly looked around, seeing trees and brush, scattered spring wildflowers bravely poking their heads through the moist leaf litter and birds fluttering overhead. Closing her eyes to block out the distraction of sight, she focused intently, throwing herself back to her own childhood. You're six years old, in a new place, full of wondrous sights and things to explore.
Suddenly, one sound, muted and playing just below the others, caught her attention. It was a sound that as a child, she'd never been able to ignore. One that had always, always drawn her. Her eyes snapped open in horror.
The sound of rushing water.
She ran toward it, praying she would be in time.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Kurt lost sight of Hogan and Carter when they split off in opposite directions. Pulling up, he glanced to the left and right. He could only make a guess as to which direction Miri might have taken, since he'd been readying himself to climb after Erich and hadn't seen her leave. He bounced on the balls of his feet, indecision holding him in place.
Make a choice!
He ran straight ahead. In the back of his mind, he dimly remembered a river and a wooden bridge off of an old, seldom used logging road.
When he was sixteen, he'd once set a sprint record at his school. Hopefully, the passage of time hadn't robbed him of his natural ability. Instinct warned him he was racing against a clock.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Why did it have to be the bloody ribs again?!
Newkirk stumbled to a stop and watched Kurt's back disappear from view. Bending forward slightly at the waist, he tried to breathe past the stabbing pain in his ribs. The last time he'd felt such pain was when he'd fallen hard atop a brick wall while vaulting to escape an angry father.
You're not doing little Liselotte any good standing around moaning! Move your arse!
He took off running again; one arm braced against the painful throbbing in his ribs.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Miri broke out of the woods at a run and gasped in horror as she spotted Liselotte. The little girl had wandered onto a bridge, apparently fascinated by the river below. She sat on the very edge, her hands gripping it, her legs swinging rhythmically back and forth beneath her. As Miri cautiously started forward, not wanting to startle her, Liselotte leaned even further out, peering intently at the water over twenty-five feet below.
Oh, sweet Dewi Sant!
"Liselotte," Miri called, keeping her voice soft but firm. She walked steadily onto the bridge, her footsteps ringing hollow on the planking. The little girl glanced up with a smile of delight, then went back to staring at the churning water. Miri bit her lip, fighting against the overwhelming urge to rush to her side. She estimated the diminishing distance between them. Less than fifteen feet to go.
"Liselotte, please dear, sit still."
This time, Liselotte sensed the urgency in her tone. A frown marred her face as she watched Miri cover the last few feet between them.
Miri crouched and carefully wrapped her arms around the small body. Liselotte smiled up at her and pointed between her feet at the water.
"Yes, dear, I see. But we really must go. It's cold, and Maximillian and Erich miss you terribly." Pulling Liselotte securely against her chest, Miri breathed a sigh of relief and got to her feet. Liselotte didn't protest, but she did twist in Miri's arms to take one last look at the water. The sudden shift in weight threw Miri off-balance. Her foot slipped on the light dusting of frost covering the boards, and in a rush of horror, she knew they were going over the edge.
Kurt had arrived at the bridge as Miri reached Lisolette's side. Thinking all was fine, he'd slowed to a walk. Seconds later, he saw Miri stagger. He bolted forward in another desperate sprint, certain there was no chance of reaching them in time. Launching himself the last few feet, he reached for Miri as she toppled over the side of the bridge, Liselotte still clutched in one arm.
He landed belly-down, Miri's outstretched wrist miraculously caught in one hand, as the other scrabbled for purchase on the bridge's surface. He didn't register Miri's scream when her shoulder gave with a brittle pop, nor did he feel his own pain from the hard landing. His entire focus had narrowed to his fingers as they skidded across the damp boards, digging and clawing for an anchor. Miri and Liselotte dangled below him, their combined weight dragging him over the edge. Just when he thought he was going over with them, his fingers caught the edge of one of the boards. Their slide came to a muscle-wrenching halt, leaving his body angled awkwardly halfway off the side of the bridge. His lungs strained for breath in air that suddenly seemed too thin. Distantly, he felt the edge digging into his ribs with each heaving gasp. He blinked hard, driving tears from his vision. Miri's face, drained of color, swam into focus below him.
Liselotte shrieked and struggled within the tight band of her arm. The water that had just moments before been so fascinating, now filled her with terror.
Miri sobbed and moaned in pain, feeling the muscles in her arm and shoulder tear further with each of Liselotte's frantic twists. One flailing hand caught in her hair and yanked hard. Another just missed jabbing into her right eye. Miri called to her with a voice thin with agony, trying to calm her, but Liselotte continued to struggle. Miri's arm trembled from the strain of holding her weight and she felt the beginnings of a cramp. She cried out in denial as Liselotte slipped lower in her grasp.
Strained beyond normal limits, Kurt's fingers were slowly giving way to the stronger grip of gravity. They were seconds away from tragedy. Miri's eyes lifted to his when his grip on her wrist slid even more. Kurt's breath left his lungs in a silent scream of despair and denial.
Weight slammed atop his legs, forcing a grunt of surprise from him. Hogan dropped into view at his left and grabbed Miri's arm with both hands, combining his strength with Kurt's. Newkirk fell to his knees at his right and despite his injury, managed to pull Liselotte from Miri's arm. Free of the child's weight, the arm fell limp and useless to her side. With a massive tug on her good arm, Hogan yanked Miri up and into his embrace. They tumbling backward onto the bridge, Miri landing on his chest with a keening wail of agony.
Kurt remained on his stomach, staring beyond his dangling arm at the water far below. Partially in shock, he barely noticed the weight leave his legs, or the hand that gently touched his shoulder a moment later.
The call was repeated before he heard it. Shaking himself back to awareness, Kurt allowed Carter to help him into a sitting position. He ran a badly trembling hand through his hair, surprised to find it sticky and clumped with sweat. Carter sat back on his heels, watching him with concern.
"Danke, Carter," Kurt murmured, closing his eyes and making an effort to slow his breathing.
A few feet away, Newkirk was trying in vain to calm Liselotte. Despite his litany of reassurances and soft crooning, the terrified child still believed she hung above the water. Face reddened and damp, eyes swollen from tears, she continued launching piercing screams of terror. Newkirk was having his own trouble. The effects of the wonderful pain-numbing adrenaline were ebbing, leaving him gasping in pain once more. He glanced over at Carter and shrugged helplessly.
"Give her to me." Carter commanded, concerned as much for his friend's injury as for Liselotte's terror.
Newkirk was only too glad to comply. He gave Liselotte a quick peck on one cheek and released her into Carter's arms.
Carter started back to the truck with Liselotte cuddled to his chest, his cheek resting against her damp face. The breeze carried back to Newkirk a lullaby he'd never heard before. Melodic and soothing, Carter's voice wove a spell around Liselotte. Newkirk sank onto his heels, going limp with amazement when the little girl's cries stuttered and faded, her head came up and her struggles ceased. He had a brief glimpse of her entranced expression before she was carried from sight.
Hogan's sharp call jerked Kurt from his daze and to Hogan's side. Miri lay shuddering and whimpering within the shelter of his arms. Gently, Kurt probed at her injured shoulder, wrenching a cry of pain from her.
"Miriam," Kurt called, keeping his voice even and calm. "Your shoulder has separated and without a doubt, you have torn muscles as well. I will need to reset the shoulder, but first we must find somewhere other than this bridge to do it."
"You can set it back at camp," Hogan said, shifting a bit. Miri whimpered at the movement.
Kurt shook his head. "I have better idea. My parents' farm is closer, and there, she might rest more comfortably. It will also offer her more privacy." Pausing, he added quietly, "But first, I must wrap something about her to hold her arm securely in place." His eyebrow lifted in warning.
Hogan looked down at Miri. Her eyes were squeezed shut, her good hand fisted in his shirt.
Lowering his head, he softly explained to her exactly what they were about to do.
She glanced up at him and gave the barest of nods. It was all the energy she could spare. With watering eyes, she watched Kurt pull his sweater over his head and fold it into a narrow band. He gave her a measuring look and waited until she signaled her readiness. Gritting her teeth, knowing what was coming, she was still unprepared for the pain that exploded in her shoulder and traveled the length of her body when he carefully moved her arm. Darkness folded about her, the sound of her own scream following her into oblivion.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
High-pitched screams filled the air, abruptly ending Leidel's peaceful walk and raising the hair on the back of his neck. Frantically, he whipped his head from side to side, trying to pinpoint the direction of the sounds. Hoping he'd chosen correctly, he raced forward, angling slightly to his left. Less than a minute later, he arrived at the top of a hill and looked down into the valley bisected by a river.
A life and death drama was playing out below him. It immediately became apparent that the three people on the bridge were in a definite no-win situation. Without help, at least one person was going to die.
He plunged down the steep hillside at a breakneck pace, then caught sight of three men racing out of the woods from different directions. His heels dug into the sod so suddenly, he was thrown onto his backside with bruising force. Ignoring the pain, he watched the drama end moments later with no loss of life. With a sigh of relief, he picked himself up and absently brushed at the seat of his trousers. It gradually dawned on him that he was standing in a clearing, within plain view should anyone happen to look up. Keeping one eye fixed on the activity below, he retreated into the shelter of the trees.
He pulled out the field glasses and trained them upon the group huddled on the bridge. He grunted in surprise as one man filled the lens' focus.
So, you survived after all! And here you are at the river again, in the company of yet another woman!
Quickly, he studied the raven-haired man's features in detail, committing them to memory. Then he moved on to the woman cradled in the man's arms.
Too small. Different woman.
His attention went next to the man kneeling beside the couple. Something about the blond was familiar. The man's position made it difficult to see much, other than the back of his head and a tiny bit of his profile. He sharpened the focus, just as the man turned directly into his field of vision.
He almost dropped the field glasses when another scream, even more piercing than the rest, echoed through the valley. Cursing under his breath, he fumbled the binoculars back into position and watched Kurt wrap the now unconscious woman in a sweater. A few minutes later, the doctor assisted the other man to his feet, carefully helping brace the body in his arms.
Thoughtfully, Leidel watched the group move off the bridge and back into the woods. He had a good idea of where they might be headed.
If he was quick, there was a chance of reaching it before them.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Romie's soft humming broke off and she let her embroidery fall to her lap. She could have sworn she'd heard something outside. Sighing with exasperation, she glanced across the room at Josef, snoring loudly from his prone position on the threadbare couch. It was a wonder she'd heard anything at all over that noise! Putting aside the pillowcase she'd been using as a distraction, she stood and went to the window.
One hand flew to her mouth when she pulled the thin curtain aside and saw what lay beyond the glass. A large truck was parked in the barnyard. Kurt stood at the tailgate, talking with someone hidden from view. Standing beside Kurt was a man she'd never seen before. He was leaning heavily upon the tailgate, looking rather ill.
Romie dropped the curtain back into place and called to Josef as she rushed across to the door.
He woke with a start, instantly alert to the alarm in her voice. He'd just gained his feet when Hogan entered carrying a woman in his arms, her head lolling against his shoulder. Romie took one look at her ashen, tear-stained face and pointed him toward the back bedroom. Hogan gave her a small nod of thanks and silently strode past.
Torn with indecision, Romie glanced between the bedroom and the open door, then went outside with Josef. They stopped on the porch steps as Kurt's voice sounded from within the back of the truck. Romie's hand reached out curled around Josef's.
What has happened?
From his place at the tailgate, Newkirk noticed the couple and waved in greeting. Before he could introduce himself, Erich appeared at the tailgate. He timidly peeked at Josef and Romie over Newkirk's shoulder, his eyes dominating his pale features. Romie was reminded of her own children at that age, when they'd been terribly frightened, but not wanting to admit to it. She waved and smiled, trying to appear as non-threatening as possible.
Erich bit his lip, ducking his head to shyly peek from beneath his lashes.
"It's all right, little mate." Newkirk coaxed. Holding his breath against the pain, he steadied the little boy's climb over the tailgate and drop to the ground. Maximillian came forward and clambered out of the truck unassisted. Newkirk beamed his approval and gratitude. Taking each boy by the hand, he led them past the couple and into the house.
Carter stepped out of the truck next; his arms wrapped protectively about Liselotte. Feeling unaccountably shy, he mumbled a polite, "Guten Tag," and quickly dodged around them into the house.
Romie felt a brief flash of amusement. How many more are going to come out of that truck?
As if in answer, Kurt reappeared, bracing General Ryker. Stiff from the trip, Ryker had some difficulty stepping out of the truck. But once on solid ground, he straightened, took a firm hold of his cane and regally limped forward to stand before the Metzgers. Kurt hung back, curious as to how the general would react. Hogan appeared in the doorway to the house at that moment, intending to hurry Kurt along. He tensed upon seeing Ryker. If the Gestapo officer was in any way rude or ungrateful to Josef and Romie, Kurt wouldn't be the only one he'd answer to.
Ryker bowed formally at the waist, his face remote and austere. "I am General Oswald Ryker. Might I be allowed into your home, bitte?"
Recognizing the name, Josef and Romie stared, dumb-founded.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Leidel had just settled into a good vantage point when the truck pulled into the barnyard. From the safety of the shadows, he watched the parade of adults and children flow from truck to house. He was surprised when Kurt didn't immediately follow the man and woman, but instead, remained in the truck. Someone else had to be in need of medical assistance. Otherwise, the doctor would be in the house, tending to the obviously injured woman. Leidel was close enough to have seen the worry on the raven-haired man's face. It wouldn't be long before Kurt would be summoned to the woman's side.
His mouth quirked into a grin when the door to the house swung open again. The anonymous man from the river reappeared and immediately looked toward the truck. Leidel followed his gaze and took an involuntary step forward in sheer surprise. Standing in front of the Metzgers, out of uniform, but still recognizable, was one of the top-ranked generals of the Third Reich.
Leidel's aristocratic features hardened to stone and his gray eyes took on a stormy glint. General Ryker was supposed to be in hospital in Hammelburg, recovering from injuries. Yet here he was, being escorted into a common farmer's household, accompanied by a member of the Resistance. And not just any member of the underground. Leidel had seen enough to solidify his theory. The man from the river was a leader.
Leidel muttered a curse, his hands bunching at his sides. Kurt and his parents were willingly aiding the underground.
Which made them enemies of the Third Reich.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Controlled chaos descended upon the Metzger household.
While Romie and Josef got Ryker settled and Newkirk and Carter safeguarded the children, Hogan instructed Zoellner to park the truck out of sight and stand watch. With that done, he quickly checked the house, locating every avenue of escape, checking every position of defense. Satisfied for the moment that all immediate concerns had been addressed, he rushed back to the bedroom. Kurt just beginning his examination. Miri was semi-conscious, moaning and writhing in pain upon the bed.
Kurt reached for her arm with one hand and absently shooed Hogan away from the bed with the other. "Go, Robert. I will call you when you may see her." He looked up a few moments later. Hogan hadn't moved an inch from his place at Miri's head. Taking a deep breath of resolve, Kurt stood and drew himself to his full height of five feet eleven inches. He stepped forward, placing himself nose to nose with Hogan.
"I am too tired for this, Robert. I do not need, nor do I want an audience . . . most especially you." His hand sliced through the air between them, cutting off Hogan's protests before they could be voiced. "Nein! Go into the other room and help Carter and Newkirk entertain the children. I need my full concentration on what I am doing, and I do not want you hovering about, snapping and growling like some over-protective bear! You will do Miriam no good, nor will you do my nerves any favor, yes?"
Hogan stared in mingled amazement and frustration at the stonewall his friend had become. Trying another mode of persuasion, he smoothed his expression over until it radiated pure innocence. "What if I promise to stay quiet over there against the wall?"
Kurt dropped his head and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "And at Miriam's first outcry of pain, you will be on top of me like some rabid bear. Nein, nein, nein . . . NO!" He looked up and huffed in disbelief. "What is this . . . this look that you are giving me? Stop with the woeful eyes, Robert. It will not work with me."
"Kurt . . . "
Kurt lost the last of his patience. "NEIN!" Muttering phrases definitely not meant for polite conversation, he shoved Hogan toward the door.
Hogan stumbled backward under the assault. "But . . ."
Another shove. "GET . . ."
"OUT!" With a last shove, Kurt pushed him out of the room and slammed the door in his face.
Hogan blinked, surprised to find himself outside the room and staring at the closed door.
A hand fell upon his arm. He looked down into Romie's compassionate blue eyes.
"Kurt will take good care of her, Robert. She will be fine." She gave his arm a gentle but insistent tug, smiling when his eyes returned to the door. "Please, Robert. He will call you when you can see her. You need to take time to rest. Come to the table. We have hot tea and bread with jam." She tugged his arm again, then sighed in resignation. She might as well try to move a boulder from the earth.
His head lifted slightly and his eyes took on a distant look as though he were listening to something only he could hear. Long seconds passed, then his gaze drifted back to her face and focused with difficulty. He finally yielded to another tug, allowing her to lead him to the table.
She no sooner had him settled on one of the chairs, than a shriek sounded from the bedroom. Hogan shot to his feet, knocking the chair backward to hit the floor with a bang. The children lunged into a clump on the couch and stared at the door with eyes round as saucers. Beside them, Carter and Newkirk's heads swung in tandem toward the bedroom. Even Ryker blanched.
Hogan stared straight ahead for a second, feeling as though his heart had literally skipped a few beats. When his muscles finally unlocked, he bolted for the bedroom
"Robert . . . " Josef strode out of the kitchen, intent upon intercepting him.
Hogan easily evaded his outstretched hand, only to have another close on his arm from behind and jerk him completely around. He looked down at the hand, then into Carter's eyes, widened in horror. Hogan wrenched free and stepped back.
"Colonel, don't . . ." Carter flinched beneath the force of his glare.
Slightly hunched in pain, Newkirk still managed to move forward to present a united front. "The doc must've just put 'er shoulder back into the socket, Guv'nor. It hurts like bloody hell while it's being done, but it's quite a relief after."
Hogan looked from one to the other, then beyond them to where Romie waited at the table. She patted the back of the chair she'd righted. He stared at where her hand rested on the chair's back, then turned away and walked to the door. He waited, but no other sounds came from the other side.
It came down to trust. Trust and belief in Kurt. Something that had been between them nearly from the moment they'd met. Slowly, Hogan turned and walked back to the table.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Ryker finished his tea and left the table without comment. He was aware of the Americans' disapproving stares, but cared nothing for their opinions of his manners. Moving carefully, he navigated between the furniture until he reached a chair placed squarely in front of the stone fireplace. A cheery blaze had been built in the hearth to keep the chill away. Slowly, he lowered himself onto the chair.
Perfect. From here, he could ignore the others, ignore the room and its meager furnishings and most importantly, ignore the children. Since leaving the hospital, he'd felt almost desperate to place distance between himself and the innocents sharing his trip.
Hardened against everything else he'd ever encountered, children still managed to alight the tiny, stubborn spark of compassion buried deep within the darkness of his soul. Though a general in the upper echelons of the Third Reich, he wasn't so far removed that he wasn't aware of the life that most children were subject to under Hitler's reign. Deplorable living conditions, coupled with a lack of proper meals and bombs raining from the skies at all hours, made a normal childhood a thing of the past.
Whenever traveling through towns and villages, he always insisted that the curtains in his staff car be drawn to block out the sight of the children. If he was forced to ride in a car without curtains, he would avert his face, sickened by their suffering, fear and hatred.
Countless times, he'd chided himself for caring about what happened to them. They were useless to him. They offered him nothing. No power, no possibility of advancing his career. Absolutely nothing.
Yet no matter how hard he tried not to, he did care, because in them, he was reminded of himself. Just like them, he had once begged for rescue. When his father's hand had brutally landed on his backside, when the leather strap that hung in the kitchen had marked the skin of his back with welts that took days to disappear, he'd silently screamed and begged to be saved from the cruel discipline. Over and over while huddled bleeding and sobbing in a corner, he'd pleaded for someone to take him away to safety. But no one had ever answered his pleas. No one had cared.
He did care about the children, but not enough to risk everything he'd worked half his lifetime to achieve. For reasons of self-preservation, he did nothing to ease their suffering, or improve their lives in any way. They were on their own - just as he had been.
And then there was Aplerbeck.
In that building masquerading as a benevolent institution, children of all ages were routinely killed for nothing more than the crime of being less than normal. Mentally slow or physically handicapped in some way, they were judged a blight upon the Master Race and quietly eliminated, leaving families to grieve and wonder in ignorance.
As much as he had wanted to, he couldn't question the scores of deaths being falsely recorded at the institution, for to do so would bring attention to himself. Normally, he welcomed attention, especially that which came from those privileged enough to be above him in rank and power. But the type of attention he would draw in pursuing this matter, was attention he could do without. Even he, thought of as one of the golden ones, wouldn't go against the tide of consensus that believed that anything less than perfection must be weeded out and destroyed.
That was, after all, Hitler's decree. And no one, unless suicidal, voiced any opposition against the Führer.
Yet safe within the privacy of his own mind, he scorned the Führer's belief that physical or mental defects would ultimately weaken the purity of the Master Race. The idea that being blonde and blue-eyed was the benchmark of the purest and smartest of Germans was, in his opinion, ridiculous. He, himself, was neither, yet he was confident that his abilities were more than equal to anyone possessing those physical attributes. It also hadn't escaped his notice that Hitler, Father of the Master Race, had a full head of black hair.
He did his best to ignore these things, just as he did the children. Most especially those imprisoned at Aplerbeck. He carefully kept them out of his mind and out of his sight. It was indeed, far safer that way. Occasionally though, his resolve would weaken, and he'd have to remind himself of one of the many lessons his father had been beaten into him: compassion is weakness. Still, the damnable emotion sometimes kept him awake at all hours of the night, when his only companions were the liquor bottles in his cabinet and the immaculate uniform in his closet. It was then that he downed glass after glass of potent alcohol in desperate attempts to shore up his defenses.
He thought he'd done fairly well dousing that stubborn flicker of humanity.
Until now. Behind his mask of indifference, tucked away from sight, he remained painfully aware of the three children at his back.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Josef watched Hogan prowl the perimeter of the gathering room, long legs eating up the distance. In light of the nervous energy, he was surprised that the officer had remained at the table as long as he had. Where as Kurt would remain quiet and still when worried or upset, Hogan paced like a caged cat. Watching the officer make another circuit of the room, a hollow feeling took root in Josef's chest.
Just like Philipp used to be. So very much like Philipp.
Tearing his eyes away from Hogan, Josef glanced around. Though only late afternoon, the modest gathering room held people and children in varied positions of rest. Newkirk sprawled bonelessly in one corner of the couch, head thrown back, lips slightly parted in sleep. Erich lay beside him, his head pillowed comfortably on the Englishman's thigh. At the table, Carter was playing a quiet game of cards with Maximillian, while Liselotte, seated next to her brother, contented herself with nibbling on one of Romie's freshly baked cookies.
Romie glided into the room at that moment, another plateful of warm cookies in one hand. Catching Josef's eye, she lifted the platter in silent question. He smiled and shook his head. She returned his smile then hesitated as Hogan stalked by in yet another circuit. After watching him for a moment, she walked to where Ryker was seated by the fire. Josef tensed a bit, still uncertain of the general and his presence. But Ryker only refused the cookies and went back to staring into the fire. Josef blew out a slow breath of relief as Romie placed the plate on the table and after a few words with Liselotte, returned to the kitchen. He tensed again just scant minutes later, when Liselotte got down from her seat at the table and slowly approached Ryker.
Immediately, Hogan's pacing stopped. His brown eyes narrowed and swung back and forth between Ryker and Liselotte. For the first time in over an hour, he focused upon something other than Miri.
Completely ignorant of the worry she was causing, Liselotte came to rest at Ryker's knee and gazed up at him from beneath thick black lashes. Though he'd seen her approach, the Gestapo general ignored her and continued staring into the fire. Only an occasional twitch of his fingers upon the head of his cane indicated his awareness of her presence. Liselotte waited patiently, taking delicate bites from her cookie. After a few moments, she reached into the pocket of her smock and pulled out another cookie. Without a sound, she extended her hand and offered it to Ryker.
Josef held his breath and glanced at Hogan. The officer hadn't budged and neither had his attention.
Carter sat motionless, one hand locked on Maximillian's forearm, holding the boy firmly in his chair.
Maximillian stared hard at Ryker. He didn't know yet if he trusted this man, but it appeared that Liselotte had already made up her mind. And her reactions had always proven true before.
Surrendering to the little girl's patient tenacity, Ryker slowly turned his head and looked down at the offering. Liselotte smiled around the remainder of her cookie and lifted the hand holding the other treat higher, clearly willing to share.
Ryker steeled himself, then slowly moved his gaze up to rest upon her face. He found no condemnation in her eyes, no hatred. Her face held no judgment, only innocent charm. He swallowed audibly, his hardened expression melting beneath her continuing regard. With a smile of genuine warmth, he gently accepted the cookie.
"Danke schoen, Liselotte."
Her smile broadened, revealing cookie decorated teeth. Chuckling softly at the sight, Ryker bit into his own cookie.
Josef shared an incredulous glance with Hogan. Is there no end to the surprises of this day?
But Liselotte wasn't through. She finished her cookie, then crawled up into the general's lap and made herself comfortable. Visibly surprised, he held still while she tucked her head beneath his chin, leaned back against his chest and hummed softly. Her eyes immediately began to droop as she gazed into the flames. Ryker tilted his head to stare down at her in shock, then sighed in resignation and carefully shifted into a more comfortable position.
The bedroom door swung open. Kurt backed into the room, pulling the door closed with a soft thump. He started in surprise when he turned and came face to face with Hogan.
"How is she?" Hogan asked. "May I see her now?"
"Yes, you may see her, my friend." He held Hogan back as the officer started to move. Hogan glowered at him. Ignoring the look, Kurt warned, "But she is quite groggy due to the medication I've given her for the pain. You must promise to let her rest."
Kurt released him and led him inside. "She will be quite sore for sometime, but I'm confident that she will recover with no permanent damage to her arm or shoulder. Provided she behaves herself! Now, I'm going to see to Newkirk's ribs and check if mother and father need any help. I won't be far." He waited for questions, but received none. Turning on his heel, he quietly left the room.
Hogan slowly sank into the chair next to the bed, wincing in sympathy at Miri's appearance.
Even unconscious, her face was lined with pain, her normally pale complexion appearing translucent against her dark hair. Frowning uneasily, he studied the bandages binding her injured shoulder. Her left arm lay bound tightly across her chest, the arrangement looking thoroughly constricting. He rolled his own shoulders in empathic misery. Carefully, he reached out and gently enfolded her free hand within his own. Miri's eyes fluttered open at the touch, appearing dull with pain despite the medication she'd been given.
He leaned into her line of vision, being careful not to bump her. "Hey, there. How do you feel?"
She took stock of the various aches and pains littering her body. What she felt vividly reminded her of a time she'd gone headfirst over a balking horse. But rising above all the painful sensations, was the warm pressure of his hand. Although welcome and comforting, the touch left her longing for something more substantial. Refocusing her wandering thoughts, she finished the inventory.
"Even my toenails hurt, Robin." She lifted her head from the pillow, then took a sharp, hissing breath when the pain intensified. Ignoring his abortive gesture to hold her down, she inspected the bandaging woven tightly about her. Being imprisoned in a corset couldn't have been more uncomfortable.
"Oh, damn and blast," she muttered under her breath, envisioning all sorts of inconveniences due to the cumbersome bandages. Even normal, everyday activities would be tedious and awkward. Getting dressed, for one, promised to be a real challenge. Not to mention attending to calls of nature! she thought with disgust.
He smiled at her reaction. "Kurt's got you wrapped like a mummy I saw once in a museum."
Their friend's name jolted her memory. Kurt's frantic face flashed into her mind, at the same time she felt his grip on her wrist. Her left hand jerked involuntarily, sending agony rocketing through torn muscles. When she finally caught her breath, she opened tear-filled eyes and gazed up at Hogan, now hovering even closer in concern.
"Liselotte? How is she? Was she hurt, Robin?"
"Hush, Miri," he soothed. "She's fine. They're all fine. You're the only one hurt, besides Newkirk."
Her eyes closed in relief. For awhile, she floated aimlessly from thought to thought, until the image of Kurt's face reappeared. Without opening her eyes, she murmured, "If not for Kurt . . ."
"Yeah, that was some grab. He'd make one helluva shortstop."
A maddening itch beneath the bandaging across her ribs suddenly distracted her from the conversation. She shifted cautiously beneath the duvet, knowing this was just the first of many unpleasant discomforts to come. Clenching her teeth, she cautiously raised up again to inspect the tight wrappings, then threw a glare in Hogan's direction when he chuckled quietly.
"Robin, aside from being damned uncomfortable, these bloody bandages will permanently flatten my bosom."
He tried, but failed miserably in containing his laughter. Remembering his promise to Kurt and not wanting to be chased from the room, he quickly quieted. Humor deserted him completely when she winced again. "Miri . . ." She slowly lifted her eyes to meet his. "You scared ten years off my life."
Apparently, she wasn't alone in needing comfort. Grasping a handful of his shirt, she carefully pulled him closer until he was poised directly above her, then whispered, "Robin, please hold me."
The vulnerability in her expression surprised him as much as the request. A smile slowly spread across his face. "I can go that one better." He lowered his head and gently kissed her, reveling in the moment of intimacy regardless of the circumstances. After breaking the kiss, he murmured, "Just relax, don't try to help." It took some doing, and Miri couldn't restrain a few whimpers of pain while he shifted her, but finally, she lay propped against his chest, pillowed comfortably within his arms. She sighed and snuggled against him.
A chuckle rumbled through his chest. He brushed a kiss against her hair, then whispered into her ear, "Go to sleep, Miri." Already drowsy, she nodded, tucking their joined hands against her hip. Minutes later, her breathing deepened and evened out into sleep and her weight against his chest grew heavier.
Feeling his own weariness, Hogan sighed and leaned his head back against the headboard. He wasn't moving until he had to.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Ryker stared down in wonder at Liselotte. She lay fast asleep in his lap, curled sideways against his chest, with one hand tucked beneath her chin. He could feel a warm, wet patch soaking through his shirt from where she'd drooled in her sleep. The entire situation should have horrified him. He should have thrown her off and roared at the indignity. Yet against his will, he felt himself grin.
He'd never been the beneficiary of such trust, especially when he'd done nothing to encourage it. Quite the opposite, in fact. He'd shouted, raged and delivered scalding looks in an attempt to keep the children away and to deny what he felt. But Liselotte had seen past all the smoke screens and homed in on his single weakness. Whether too foolish to care or too perceptive to fool, she'd walked right up and faced him down. No one, man or woman, had ever managed to lay waste to his defenses like she had.
He felt torn, utterly off-balance and lost. He should hate Liselotte, Erich and Maximillian for revealing the compassion he'd tried and failed to hide. But he couldn't. Rather than hating them, he directed the violent emotion onto the American. For it was he, who had brought the children on the mission. Therefore, in the seething turmoil in Ryker's mind, it was he who was to blame for exposing his weakness.
A weight settled against his leg. He looked down in disbelief.
Erich grinned up at him, one hand tightly fisted in the leg of Ryker's pants. Abruptly, he yawned, displaying a healthy pair of tonsils. Then tucking his head against the support provided by Ryker's good leg, he closed his eyes and promptly fell asleep.
Ryker looked from Erich to Liselotte, then up at Maximillian, now standing slightly to one side of his chair. They studied each other warily. Ryker felt naked beneath the boy's stare and tried to muster a snarl, but the tirade refused to be born. Instead, he actually found himself giving the boy a hesitant smile. It felt unnatural and stiff, but it apparently satisfied Maximillian, because he folded his legs and dropped into a seat beside Erich. Ryker's mind stuttered and jibbered in panic, then finally surrendered and shut down.
Feeling oddly distant from his actions, he carefully tucked an arm about Liselotte and went back to staring into the flames, the sweet taste of cookie lingering in his mouth.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Carter slowly walked past the table where Kurt was busy wrapping Newkirk's ribs. While concerned for his friend, his full attention for the moment was upon Ryker. Emboldened by the general's acceptance of their sister's presence, Maximillian and Erich had gradually approached the fireplace and settled in for a nap at Ryker's feet.
Amazingly, the general had kept quiet and offered no further resistance to the three children. As incomprehensible as the idea was, Carter thought that Ryker might actually like kids, but was afraid to show it for some reason.
Whatever the case, Ryker was letting the kids use him as a makeshift pillow and that was a pretty telling thing in Carter's book
His eyes still upon Ryker, Carter lightly tapped his fingers against the side of his leg, unknowingly mimicking one of his CO's nervous habits. Everything seemed calm for the moment. Turning on his heel, he walked back to the table and waited while Kurt helped Newkirk back into his shirt.
"Newkirk," Carter began, bringing the other man's head up. "I'm going outside for a while."
"That's ruddy irregular, Andrew." Newkirk stood and carefully tucked his shirt back into his trousers, refusing Kurt's solicitous offer of help. "You know the guv'nor would want us all together, mate, not scattered to the four winds."
"I'm not going to scatter anywhere, just walk around a little bit. I never got a chance to see the farm when the colonel and I were here before. I want to do a little tour of the place." While this wasn't a lie, it wasn't exactly the truth, either.
Newkirk glanced at the closed bedroom door. "Well. . ."
"I won't go far!" Carter bolted for the porch, leaving the Englishman gaping in surprise.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Leidel looked toward the house as the door to the house opened again. The slender blond with the narrow face stepped out, paused and looked around, then trotted down the porch steps.
Curiosity getting the better of him, Leidel slipped by Marc Zoellner, and keeping his eyes upon the blond, silently followed like a shadow brought to life. A few minutes of observation left him shaking his head in consternation. The young man was wandering haphazardly about the farm, paying little attention to his safety, or anything else, for that matter.
This surely can't be habit, Leidel mused, dodging around the granary, while keeping his target in sight. Because if it were, he'd be long dead by now.
Finally, just when he was about to give up and return to the house, the young man chose a spot and sat down. Leidel took up a position close enough to see clearly, yet far away enough to feel safe. Head canted quizzically, he studied the forlorn expression and slumped posture, wondering what could have possibly sent the other man bolting from the house.
Five minutes stretched to ten, with the young man showing no signs of returning to the house. Leidel squashed the urge to fidget.
Ten more minutes of this nonsense and then I leave.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Kurt opened the bedroom door and stared incredulously at the sight that met his eyes.
Why do I listen to him?
Still wide awake, Hogan cautiously raised his head, knowing that the awkward position would make him pay. Sure enough, a sharp zing of pain raced from shoulder to neck. By some mighty effort, he managed not to yelp in reaction. Carefully swiveling his head toward the door, he watched Kurt hook a thumb over his shoulder.
Hogan dipped his chin, directing Kurt's attention to Miri lying snuggled against his chest, sound asleep.
Kurt's upper lip lifted in a silent snarl. Taking great pains not to make any noise, he closed the door and stalked across the room. Hogan watched his approach, eyes widening in feigned terror.
Looming directly over top of the couple, Kurt twisted his hands a short distance from Hogan's throat in an unmistakable threat of strangulation. Stubbornly, they eyed each other, noses only inches apart, neither willing to back down. Hogan conceded first, knowing that Kurt could do stubborn with the best of them.
Waggling his head, Hogan silently mouthed with ill-grace, Okay, okay! Working together, they gently laid Miri back on the bed. Satisfied that she was still soundly asleep, Hogan allowed himself to be ushered from the room.
Once safely on the other side of the closed door, Kurt turned and studied his friend as if he were an interesting bit of medical trivia. "Would you care to explain what you were thinking? When I allowed you to stay, I didn't expect you to take the opportunity to crawl into bed with her!"
Anger washed across Hogan's face, surprising Kurt into silence. Then his mind caught up with his mouth and helpfully replayed word for word exactly what he'd said. Mortified, he bowed his head. And you call yourself his friend! Raising his head, he presented the side of his face to Hogan and tapped his unprotected jaw with one finger.
Hogan's anger melted into disbelief. "What?"
"I thought I was quite clear." Kurt tapped his jaw again. "Hit me. Right here." After brief consideration, he changed position, angling the opposite side of his face toward Hogan. "You are right-handed. This is better. Now hit me."
Hogan shook his head, grabbed Kurt by the arm and turned them so that their backs were to the group assembled at the kitchen table. Leaning close, he hissed, "What's gotten into you?"
"I was incredibly insensitive when I said those things. You are an officer and a gentleman and you have every right to hit me for insinuating that you would ever take advantage of Miriam and the situation. I can only hope you will forgive me."
Hogan pulled back and studied the contrite expression. While the comment had stung, it certainly didn't rate a punch to the jaw. "Apology accepted."
"Nein," Kurt snapped, drawing himself up to his full height.
The response tossed Hogan for another loop. "What?"
"Again with the 'what?'," Kurt mimicked with a sigh. "You are letting me off much too easily. Hit me."
"I didn't know you had such masochistic tendencies."
Hogan glanced toward the table, hoping against hope that their strange conversation hadn't been overheard. One look at Romie's smile before she went back to talking with Newkirk blew that hope right away. He turned back to Kurt, growling, "I am NOT going to hit you!" The blue eyes narrowed. Hogan threw his hands into the air. "All right, have it your way!" He cuffed the side of Kurt's head, barely ruffling the ice blond hair.
Kurt looked back at him, utterly expressionless. "Oh, my, that did hurt terribly. But it will have to do, since I do not intend to repeat the offer." He drew a deep breath and straightened his shoulders, feeling tension crackle along his spine despite the light banter. "All humor aside, Robert, I am sincerely sorry for hurting you."
"It's forgotten," Hogan shrugged, hiding a grimace when the move awakened another lance of pain. "We're all tired and on edge. Besides, if our friendship can't withstand a few rash comments, then we don't have much of a friendship, do we?"
Kurt smiled and tilting his head, thoughtfully studied Hogan's stiff, slightly off-kilter posture. "I am surprised that you are not sore from lying in that awkward position for such a length of time. If you had remained like that much longer, you would have been walking around for days with your head bent to the left."
Hogan gave a noncommittal grunt. He wasn't about to provide Kurt the satisfaction of admitting to the wicked crick that had made itself at home in his neck.
Kurt wasn't fooled for a moment, but let the matter pass without further comment. "Getting back to the reason I pulled you out here, Miriam should sleep for some time since the medication has taken full effect. So, please come to the table now and eat." Anticipating protests, he scowled in warning. "Mother has prepared a very fine meal for us and she will be terribly worried and disappointed if you do not join us. Surely you do not want to disappoint my mother?"
Hogan shook his head.
"And you do not want her to worry?"
He shook his head again, feeling like a child being scolded by a parent. And much to his surprise, he didn't mind.
Kurt beamed happily with the minor victory. "Then let us join the others, yes?" He placed a hand on Hogan's shoulder and gave him a nudge, starting him in the direction of the table. They'd only taken a few steps when Hogan planted his feet. Kurt frowned. He should have known it had been much too easy.
"What is it now, Robert!?"
Hogan's sweeping gesture took in Josef, Romie, Newkirk, Marc, Ryker and the children, all seated at the table ready to eat. "Where's Carter?"
"He went outside, Colonel," Newkirk answered, wincing as he got up from his chair. Despite the taped support around his ribs, movement was still painful. "Said he wanted to have a look around the farm." He glanced down at his watch. "That was almost a bleeding hour ago!" He started for the door, mentally scolding himself for not paying more attention.
"Newkirk, wait." Hogan caught up to him and steered him back to his chair. "Stay here and eat. I'll go find him. He's probably just lost track of the time." And I'm the King of England! he quipped silently. It wasn't like Carter to isolate himself. Especially with children around. The gregarious young man loved kids and welcomed any opportunity to be with them. It would take a lot for him to waste this rare chance.
Hogan walked quickly to the door, shooting an apologetic look over his shoulder at the Metzgers. "Go ahead and eat. I'll be back with Carter pretty soon." I hope.
"Nonsense, Robert!" Romie waved him on. "It will keep. Go find Carter. We shall wait."
He flashed a grin, then left to find his errant sergeant.
He checked first with Zoellner, who'd taken a position near the side of the house for a clear view of the lane. The German apologized, informing him that he hadn't seen Carter for some time. With a sigh of resignation, Hogan started searching.
Luck was with him. He quickly caught sight of Carter behind the barn, at the very edge of the Metzger property. Concern quickened his pace. Propped against the base of a tree with head bowed, arms braced on his knees, Carter was the picture of misery.
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Leidel shifted his weight, preparing to abandon his position. He'd spent the last ten minutes berating himself for wasting time watching the blond, rather than the house. Whatever it was that had kept him with the young man so long had to stop.
Movement to his left almost launched him right out of his skin. There'd been absolutely no warning. No rustle of clothing, no crunch of leaves or snap of twigs. One moment, no one was in sight and the next, the raven-haired leader was only a short distance away. Cursing himself for being caught unaware, Leidel watched the man pass by on an unswerving path toward the blond.
He tore his eyes away from the two men and quickly looked about the area, grimacing in frustration. He couldn't move any closer without being seen. He might have risked it with the blond. But instinctively, he knew better than to make any attempt with the leader so close.
The young man's refusal to acknowledge the other man's presence brought a frown to his face. In the Wehrmacht, such total lack of respect for a superior would garner severe punishment, if not death. Either the young man was stupid, or the command relationship between the two was completely unlike any Leidel had ever been privy to. His eyebrows leapt into his forelock when the leader sank into a cross-legged seat on the ground beside the blond.
That certainly answered his speculation.
Practically twitching with curiosity, he took a comfortable stance, resigned to simply watching.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Conscious of his CO's presence, Carter kept his eyes down and front, his fingers still shredding the weed he'd picked. Tattered pieces of vegetation fell to the ground between his feet, forming a small pile.
After a few minutes of uninterrupted silence, Hogan extended one leg and gently nudged Carter's foot with his own.
"I should have been paying better attention."
The lifeless tone propelled Hogan back to another conversation that had taken place within the darkness of a thicket. Cold, hurting and speaking in a halting whisper, Carter had blamed himself for an entire unfortunate series of events. It was rare for Carter to fall into blue funks, but when he did, they were beauties, loaded with gut-wrenching self-recrimination.
And Kinch says that I have an over-blown sense of responsibility!
His eyes still averted, Carter finished destroying the weed, then picked up a stick at his side and started in on it. The dry wood gave beneath his fingers with brittle snaps. Bits of wood joined bits of weed in an ever-growing pile. Hogan sighed to himself.
"Look at me." It wasn't a request, and the blond head finally lifted. "Is this about Liselotte's adventure?" Anguish twisted Carter's face, making him appear even younger.
"I should have kept an eye on her and the boys, Colonel! If I had, she wouldn't have gone off and got on the bridge and she and the major wouldn't have almost died!" Carter gathered himself, ready to jump to his feet, but Hogan leaned over and shoved a hand down on his knee.
"So, you're saying I made a pretty big mistake."
Carter fell back against the tree, feeling as though he'd been punched in the stomach. He didn't think he'd said that at all!
"That's what I'm hearing," Hogan remarked quietly, releasing the knee.
Carter's expression grew stricken and his throat worked convulsively, unable to form a reply.
"Indirectly, you're telling me that I should've had you help Major Broadbent with the kids instead of keeping watch. I trusted you to guard our backs. You did that. Even with all the commotion at the truck with the fallen jack, and with all the fuss of getting Erich out of that tree, you kept your attention right where it needed to be. On the duty you'd been given." Hogan sighed. The stricken look hadn't left. "Look at it this way, Carter. Say you'd ignored your orders and left your post to help the major with the kids. You might have been there to keep Liselotte from wandering away, but what good would that have done any of us, if some Krauts had come up and taken us by surprise?"
He stared hard into the blue eyes, painfully aware that he was speaking as much to himself, as to Carter. "Sometimes, despite every precaution we can think up, things happen. You plan for everything humanly possible and you give your best effort. But it can all still go to hell in handbasket in the blink of an eye. That's life, Carter." He grasped Carter's shoulder and zeroed in on what he felt was the real reason for the young man's depression. "You haven't let me down, Andrew. Not in the past . . . and certainly . . . not this time."
The words hung in the air between them. Carter was still unable to speak, but for a different reason, entirely. When he finally found his voice, it came out weak and shaky and his words tumbled over themselves in the effort to share his feelings. "It was so hard, Colonel. When I saw Newkirk under that truck . . . all I could think about . . . And then when the kids disappeared . . . but . . ."
"But you had your orders," Hogan gently interrupted. "I understand. Even though you wanted to help, you had to stay put and do your job." He watched the blue eyes sharpen with a rarely seen shrewdness.
"You probably know the feeling pretty well, huh, Colonel? Whenever you have to send us out to do something and you have to stay behind?"
"Yeah," Hogan murmured, feeling a surge of almost parental pride. Of all his men, Carter was the one who surprised him most frequently.
A rumble from his stomach diverted his attention, reminding him of the meal and people waiting back at the house. If they didn't return soon, Newkirk would be on the hunt next. With his injured ribs, the Englishman didn't need to be stumbling about any more than necessary. Hogan wearily got to his feet and extended his hand.
"C'mon. Romie's got supper waiting."
Carter's gaze dropped back to the twig he'd been abusing.
Hogan's smile died and his hand fell back to his side. "Carter?"
"What about the other kids, Colonel? The ones already at Aplerbeck?" Carter questioned plaintively. Raising his eyes, he saw the pain Hogan was unable to hide. "Isn't there a way to help them, too?"
Hogan looked away, suddenly exhausted beyond reason. "Carter --"
"I know we can't do anything today, or tomorrow, or maybe even next month." Carter scrambled to his feet, eagerness energizing his voice. Hogan's gaze swung back to him. "But somewhere down the line, maybe we might come up with a plan?"
Hogan's mouth opened to list all the reasons why the request couldn't be done. But then it slowly closed again when he thought of an impossible grab made from a bridge, an unbelievable network of tunnels running beneath a German Stalag, and plots and plans so fantastic that no one would ever believe that they could possibly succeed. Yet despite the odds, they had. He bowed his head and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.
"That's a pretty tall order, Carter. Maybe even an impossible one."
"Yes, sir, I understand." Carter's head bobbed, acknowledging the point. A grin played at his lips as he anticipated Hogan's next words.
"But," Hogan sighed, looking up. "We've been able to accomplish some pretty amazing things, haven't we?" Seeing the blue eyes light up, he held up a hand. "I'm not making any promises, Carter, but maybe if we work on it, we might come up with something."
The grin blossomed on Carter's face. "Yes, SIR!"
Hogan shook his head, trying not to get sucked in by the young man's enthusiasm. But it was difficult. "Don't get all excited, Carter. Even if we do come up with an idea, it still has to be cleared with High Command." He turned and started back to the house, still shaking his head in wonder that he was even considering it.
Carter bounced past, then turned so that he was back-pedaling in front of his very bemused CO. "Oh, but Colonel," he flashed another sunny grin, "You've handled them before. You can be really convincing when you want to be." He gestured between them. "You've got a gift, boy...you could talk an Eskimo..."
Hogan groaned good-naturedly and twirled him around to walk face forward. The way things had been going, Carter would trip and break an arm or leg.
"Don't push it, Carter."
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Leidel watched them go, too mystified by the strange encounter to move. He would have given a month's pay to have heard what had passed between the two men.
Pulling himself out of his reverie, he silently moved toward the house, careful not to get too close to the men ahead of him.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Newkirk rubbed his stomach in satisfaction and gingerly eased into a more comfortable position in the chair. He was full to the very brim, sated and sleepy like a well-fed moggy in a sunbeam. The modest but delicious meal Romie had served had done more to settle his frazzled nerves than one of Klink's smuggled cigars.
Peering across the table, he watched Carter present Liselotte with a perfect cat-in-the cradle made of red yarn. Her face rapt with wonder, she alternately plucked at the yarn and patted Carter's fingers. No doubt about it, Andrew has a way with kids. It takes one, an all that, I suppose. He stifled a yawn with the back of his hand, feeling his eyelids fall to half-mast. Of course, this particular kid is in his twenties and handles demolitions with the best of them!
He let his eyes drift shut, Liselotte's happy giggles providing cheerful background music. He was so completely relaxed that he didn't hear Josef's soft call, or even start when a hand settled upon his shoulder.
"You would be much more comfortable on the couch, jung Mann." Prying one eye open, he drowsily peeked up at Josef.
"He's right, Newkirk," Carter piped up. "You go to sleep in that chair, and your ribs'll really be scream'in bloody murder later!"
Newkirk swallowed his reply, both eyes popping open as Zoellner entered the house. Carter slipped the yarn off his fingers and absently handed it to Liselotte. Now fully awake, Newkirk carefully pushed himself upright.
Hogan met the cobbler by the couch. "What is it, Marc? Someone outside?"
"Nein, Colonel. It is like the graveyard out there." Zoellner yawned and pushed his hat back on his head, revealing a receding hairline. "Colonel, I must return to town. I agreed to help, expecting to be home from the mission by my usual time. I am sorry to have to leave, but I must. It is getting very late. I will bring the truck back when you are ready to leave. But I must go home now."
Hogan's eyebrow arched in surprise. Zoellner wasn't given to speeches. The length of this one was a sign of how important the issue was to the cobbler. "Okay. But I don't have any way to contact you. We don't have a radio."
"Ja, Robert, you do," Josef announced, moving around the table to stand next to him. He carefully avoided looking at Kurt when his son walked out of the kitchen, drying his hands on a towel.
"You have a radio?" Hogan asked, taking note of Kurt's reaction out of the corner of his eye. Judging by his friend's wounded expression, this bit of information was news.
"Ja. Tiger brought it when we asked for one. It has only a small range, but it is enough for our purposes." Josef nodded toward the kitchen and took Hogan's shoulder in one hand. "We have it well hidden. Come, I will show you." Carter and Newkirk glanced at each other, then rose from the table and followed. Kurt remained rooted in place as the group moved past and into the kitchen. Zoellner checked his watch, sighed, then folded his burly frame into a corner of the couch. Hands slowly twirling his worn cap between his knees, he entertained himself by watching the children play with pencil and paper at the table.
The men entered the kitchen and Romie smiled at them in greeting before going back to her dishes. Josef led the way to the pantry shelves lining the wall to the left of a water barrel. As they watched, he removed bundles of dried goods and foodstuffs from the third shelf until it was completely bare, revealing the wall behind. He pushed on that section of wall with both hands, causing it to drop open on hidden hinges.
Unnoticed, Kurt quietly entered the room and sidled closer.
"Holy Cow!" Carter leaned around Hogan's shoulder as Josef stepped aside, revealing a short-wave radio and power connections. "That's great! Who'd ever think of looking there?"
"Too right," Newkirk declared. "That's a stroke of genius, that is!"
"Danke," Josef murmured. "I devised it myself. The wall is false and is built just deep enough to conceal the radio." He caught sight of the confusion and hurt within his son's eyes before Kurt looked away. Josef sighed with sadness. He'd meant to break the news of the radio another way. He would explain to Kurt later; not only the radio, but also the guns Tiger had insisted be hidden in one of the other compartments. The radio, he knew, would eventually be accepted. The guns, however, were another matter.
"That ranks right up there with some of the stuff we have back at camp," Hogan proclaimed, shaking his head in admiration. But what about the antenna?"
Pushing his concern for Kurt aside for the moment, Josef turned his attention back to the conversation. "Kurt told me once about the antenna hidden in the flagpole at Stalag 13. It was not difficult to do the same here." He rested one hand upon a small handle to the left of the radio. "When we crank this, the antenna rises above the roof through an opening at the back of the wall. It is painted black and unless you are really looking for it, is fairly difficult to see against the backdrop of the trees."
Hogan clapped a hand on his shoulder. "We're in business. This means we can also contact Kinch and let him know what's going on." Turning on his heel, he went to give Zoellner his release.
The cobbler looked up hopefully from the couch. "Go on home, Marc. Just stay close to your radio. We'll contact you when we're ready to leave." Which hopefully, won't be long.
"Danke, Colonel," Zoellner sighed in relief and started working himself out of the couch's grip. After gaining his feet, he tipped his hat to Josef and Romie, and then hurried out the door. If all went well, he might still make it home in time to tuck his own children into bed for the night.
Hogan sighed heavily and stared down at the floor. They were without a lookout, and they had to have one. But he'd seen the weariness that had sharpened Carter's features and Newkirk was injured. The last thing the Englishman needed was to spend a night outside. There's always you, Rob. In answer to the thought, his eyes drifted to the bedroom door. She's asleep, and won't even know you're there. Besides, Kurt will let you know if anything happens. He rolled his shoulders back, straightening his posture.
Okay. You're it.
Hogan remained in place a moment longer, vaguely registering Carter's excited babble from the kitchen. Newkirk's voice occasionally broke in with his own glowing commentary on the radio set up. Kurt, however, hadn't said a single word concerning the radio or its hiding place. Hogan frowned and glanced toward the kitchen as his friend appeared in the doorway, absently twisting a hand towel between his fists. Stress and worry had carved lines in the youthful face, making his friend appear years older than his actual age.
Hogan's frown deepened. Pressure's just building inside you with everything that's been thrown at you. You might be used to the daily stress of a hospital and medical emergencies, but this is something else entirely. The best thing would be if you just blew up and got it all out. And one way or another, I'm going to find a way to get you to do it.
Slowly ambling back to the kitchen, Hogan mulled over possible ways of splitting open the German's shaky walls.
Why don't I ever get an easy mission? I could really use something easy for once . . . like taking Gestapo headquarters by storm.
After a few minutes with Kurt and instructions to his men, Hogan left the house, bound for a sentry post.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Leidel hunkered down onto his heels, barely breathing for fear of being heard. The raven-haired Resistance leader silently walked by, again much too close for comfort. Despite the cold air, sweat trickled down the side of Leidel's face.
Staying so close to the house suddenly didn't seem like such a good idea after all.
His breath paused in his chest when the other man abruptly halted and went perfectly still, his back to Leidel. Slowly, in tiny increments, the black head swiveled in his direction.
Leidel had seen the fierce protectiveness this man held for his men and the lady he'd cradled so carefully in his arms. Should the leader discover he wasn't alone; there would be no race back to the house to sound an alarm. Leidel would be hunted down. Whether he would end up a prisoner or with a bullet in the head, he didn't know and didn't care to find out. If he had anything to say about it, their meeting, if it ever actually occurred, would be on HIS terms.
After an interminable length of time, the Resistance leader took a step, then another, then stopped again. The black head swung in the opposite direction. Leidel's heart felt like it was going to hammer itself right out of his chest. He swore it was beating loud enough to send the wildlife scurrying. But neither the animals, nor the man appeared to notice. In fact, the object of Leidel's concern finally moved away with fluid grace, once again facing completely forward.
Leidel slumped forward, huffing out a breath of relief. Immediately leaving the area would definitely be a good idea, but he wasn't about to take any chances. The leader was much too canny, much too aware. Sacrificing comfort for safety, Leidel held the painful position for another thirty minutes. Then he stiffly slunk away and back to his car, left carefully camouflaged beneath piles of brush a safe distance from the house.
He was just clearing the last of the branches away when the first flakes of snow made him pause. At any other time, he would've appreciated the beauty. But tonight, he was simply grateful that the weather had held until he'd safely gotten away. Otherwise, the evening might have ended very differently for him.
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Hogan's nose wrinkled in disgust. It was snowing again. He, along with everything else in the countryside, was acquiring a glistening layer of white. The accumulation didn't bother him so much as the fact that the snow was outlining his form and making him visible in the darkness. He shook his head and shoulders to remedy the situation, dislodging the mantle like a dog would shake off water.
Once upon a time --- in a different lifetime, so it felt --- he'd loved snow. Snow meant sled rides on Beaumon's Hill, impromptu snowball fights with his brothers, and snow forts that took up most of the back yard. It meant playing for hours until he was worn out, then going inside to be pampered by his mother with mugs of hot chocolate and freshly baked cinnamon rolls in front of a cheery fire. But now, immersed in a war, it was difficult for him to find anything good about snow.
Now, snow meant danger and possible death. Snow revealed footsteps that could be tracked to hideouts and friends. If deep enough, it could hide holes, rocks and other natural surprises that could injure, trap and possibly kill a man. It led to colds that weakened a man's strength. And colds sometimes led to pneumonia, which often led to death for men held prisoner in German Stalags.
No, there wasn't anything good about snow anymore.
The lights in the farmhouse had slowly been going off one by one, until only the light in the gathering room remained. In the hours since taking up sentry duty, indistinct shapes had appeared intermittently in the front windows, casting shadows across the curtains. Over time, the shadows had appeared less and less often. It seemed that everyone was finally getting settled in for the night.
Hogan shifted his weight onto one foot and allowed a faint sigh to escape. He was tired and worried, with a nagging sense of uneasiness nipping about the nape of his neck. Not a good combination.
His gaze traveled back to the house as another shadow passed the single window that remained lit. The silhouette had been slightly hunched, with one arm bent upward, close to the head. One corner of Hogan's mouth curled upward.
Another sigh briefly fogged the air around his head. The Metzgers had their hands full catering to their visitors' needs, but hadn't uttered a word of complaint. Somehow, he'd find a way of repaying their generosity. Another bag of food just wouldn't cover it, this time.
His first priority, however, was to see that they didn't suffer any unpleasant repercussions from this visit.
He did another visual sweep, briefly touching upon the outbuildings, the truck, the perimeter of the barnyard and the lane. Nothing had changed. Why then, was he still so jittery?
His head snapped toward the house as the front door opened. Someone appeared in the doorway, moved off the porch and hesitated at the base of the steps. A moment later, they walked further away from the house, haltingly searching for direction.
The unexpected appearance set him thrumming with adrenaline fueled by a healthy dose of worry. Only caution born of experience kept him from immediately breaking cover.
Hogan moved into the open at the whispered call, meeting Carter just at the edge of the trees. "What's wrong?"
Carter came closer, simultaneously turning to include the house and access lane in his field of vision. "Everything's okay. I just thought I'd relieve you on watch."
Hogan melted back into the shadows, Carter trailing behind. "Thanks, but go back to the house. You need the rest." A faint rustle at his side gave away Carter's shifting feet, a sure sign that an argument was coming.
"Don't worry about me, Colonel. I'm not sleepy at all. The way I see it, there's no use both of us being awake when one of us can be asleep. I mean, why should you be out here when you could be in there sleeping when I can't -- "
The running dialog broke off.
Hogan studied the slender silhouette, taking his time deliberating his decision. Carter endured the inspection, not a word passing beyond his lips.
"You're not tired."
"Not even a little bit."
"No more than anyone else, sir."
"You don't mind taking watch until dawn."
Hogan bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing aloud. You're transparent as glass, Carter.
He could order Carter back to the house, but that would only serve to upset the young man, who obviously had his heart set upon doing a good deed. After thinking it over a little more, Hogan decided to give in gracefully.
"Okay, it's all yours, but come and get me if you need to be relieved."
"Yes, sir!" The silhouette quivered with the energetic answer.
He faced Carter head on and poked him hard in one spare shoulder, instantly quelling the energy. "The second you feel your peepers getting heavy, you beat it back to the house and tell me. That's an order, Carter. You're no good to us as a sentry if you're out on your feet."
"Understood, Colonel." Carter stiffened to attention.
Hogan stared hard at the area where the blue eyes would be located, if they could seen past the deep shadows. Good deed or not, their safety was paramount. Finally, he reached out and patted the same spot he'd prodded, feeling the muscles relax slightly beneath his hand. "Thanks, Carter."
"You're welcome, sir," Carter whispered back, watching Hogan walk back through the trees to the house. Tucking one hand in his pocket and the other around his gun, he settled in for the rest of the night.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Not long after, Hogan was wishing he'd stayed on sentry duty. First it had been his neck and now it was his butt. Mental note, Rob: if you ever become a desk jockey, make darn sure your chair has a thick cushion. Wincing slightly, he shifted forward in his seat and braced his elbows on his knees. As he stared down at Miri, the day's events flashed through his mind like scenes from a newsreel: Ryker's unexpected trip in the halls, the blown tire, Newkirk's injury, the children wandering off, and finally, the near-tragedy at the bridge. His eyes drifted closed, blocking out Miri's haggard features and bandaged shoulder. The mission had contained its share of disasters minor and major, but the results could've been much worse.
Be thankful. You could be mourning two deaths right now.
A soft cough at his side brought his eyes open. Without moving his head, he glanced over and found Kurt crouched at face-level. They studied each other in silence for a few moments, then Kurt placed a hand upon Hogan's knee and whispered, "Robert, surely you would be much more comfortable on a cot than in that chair."
Hogan dredged up a smile. "This is fine," he whispered back. "How's Newkirk?"
"He has not complained at all since I placed the wrap on his ribs."
Hogan's smile died. "Then he's hurting pretty badly." At Kurt's questioning look, he explained, "He'll go on and on about little stuff like hangnails or scrapes. It's when he clams up that I worry."
"Ah, I see," Kurt murmured. "Stop worrying. I have found nothing to be alarmed about."
"You're the doctor."
"That is right. You seem to have trouble remembering that, sometimes." Kurt's whisper took on a distinct sarcastic lilt. "Here," he said, lifting a quilt into view and thrusting it into Hogan's hand. "I anticipated your refusal to leave that chair. At least take this to keep warm. Try to get some sleep."
"Is everyone else okay for the night?"
Kurt chuckled. He checked that the noise hadn't disturbed Miri, then whispered, "Everyone is settled, thanks to working together and some rather ingenious maneuvering of the furniture."
Hogan was too tired to even ask what that meant. "Even Ryker?" He could hardly believe that the pompous man would lend a hand with anything.
"Even Ryker," Kurt confirmed with a tilt of his head. "I was quite surprised when he helped Newkirk convince the children that it was time to sleep."
"That," Hogan hissed softly, "was probably due to his own self-interests."
Kurt's shoulders shook with silent laughter. "Perhaps." Leaning an elbow on the edge of the bed to balance himself, he added thoughtfully, "For all his bluster and arrogance, Ryker may not be as bad as we first believed."
Hogan sighed inwardly. Just because the man had a soft spot for children didn't make him any more likeable. Not only would he never like Ryker, there wasn't the slightest chance that he would ever trust him. And the thought of Miri subjected to a lengthy trip with the German while at less than her best, set his teeth on edge. He looked over at her for a long moment, still trying to fully sort out his feelings. One fact remained glaringly obvious. But for Kurt's quick reactions, he'd almost lost forever any chance of discovering where the relationship might take them. He offered his hand to his friend, stating quietly, "Thank you."
Kurt caught the reference immediately. "You are welcome," he returned soberly, accepting the gesture.
Hogan looked down at their joined hands, wondering what had drawn his attention. Tilting their hands to one side brought scraped and badly torn fingers into view. Uncomfortable with the inspection, Kurt leaned back further onto his heels and tried tugging his hand away. Hogan tightened his grip, refusing to let go.
"Those look painful."
Kurt's lips thinned. He tried again to retrieve his hand, without success. "As you said, Robert, I am the doctor. I have seen to them. My prognosis is that I will recover with no permanent damage." He tugged harder, his blue eyes throwing a flinty glare until his hand was finally released.
Hogan inched closer, keeping his voice to a whisper. "There are bound to be questions about how a doctor would allow his hands to get into that condition."
"Which I will answer by saying that I was helping my parents with chores here and got careless," Kurt shot back. He held up a hand, forestalling the argument building. "Ruhe! We will wake Miriam!" Pointedly glancing toward the bed, he was relieved to see that she slept on, despite their heated discussion.
Hogan quickly covered his mouth, smothering a yawn. Kurt's eyes narrowed in sudden comprehension.
"You did it again," he snapped indignantly.
"What?" Hogan drew back, straightening in his chair.
"Changed the subject, turned the tables, led me down the flower path -- "
"Primrose path," came the vague correction.
"Whatever!" Kurt rasped, slicing one hand through the air. "I came in here to get you to sleep and that is what I intend to do!" He snatched the quilt back and started draping it around Hogan.
"Well, how do you expect me to get any sleep when you come in here and start talking?" Hogan asked, making no attempt to stop the tucking and fussing. Kurt stilled mid-movement, a mixture of laughter and frustration reddening his face.
Miri moaned and her good hand clutched at the duvet. Their heads jerked toward the bed and they fell silent. Seconds passed, but she made no other sound or movement. Breathing simultaneous sighs of relief, they shared a frown, and then both put a finger to lips in silent warning.
Kurt slowly backed across the room. Pausing in the doorway, he mouthed, "SLEEP!"
Silently, Hogan sent back, "YES, MOTHER!!"
Kurt looked heavenward and closed the door.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Hogan twisted within the warmth of the blanket, grumbling softly under his breath. It was no good. No matter what he tried, his mind refused to stop spinning long enough to let him sleep. Nor could he get his body to relax, despite the peace and quiet surrounding him. Only an occasional pop or creak of the house settling had disturbed the silence since everyone had retired for the night. He grinned. It had been a long time since he'd slept anywhere other than in his bed at Stalag 13. Without realizing it, he'd gotten used to the background noises of the barracks and camp at night. Their absence was probably contributing to his unease.
Unlike him, Miri was having no problem sleeping. He nodded in satisfaction. The longer she slept, the better.
His jaw gaped open with a yawn as he blinked at his watch. One thirty-five. You could do with some sleep, yourself, Rob. Closing his eyes once more, he tried concentrating on the soothing rhythm of Miri's breathing. Scant minutes later, he finally slid into the sleep he craved.
Miri muttering in her sleep jolted him awake again. He leaned over and softly murmured reassurances into her ear. After a few moments, she quieted and her breathing evened out again into natural sleep. Blinking owlishly, he rubbed at the rough stubble of his beard, then tilted his watch to catch the light from the lamp across the room. Two in the morning. He'd slept for all of twenty-five minutes.
After a short debate with himself, he stiffly rose from the chair and stretched his arms above his head. Pain flared in his neck, reminding him why that it wasn't a good idea to try and sleep in straight-backed chairs. Between his bout with the bed and now the chair, he'd probably be stuck with a permanent crick in his neck. Gingerly massaging the ache, he slowly walked to the door.
He paused in the doorway and waited for his eyes adjust to the darkness in the gathering room. Once he'd gained his night vision, he carefully picked a path through the bodies scattered around the room, wincing in sympathy at some of sprawled positions. He'd lay bet that come morning, he wouldn't be the only one feeling stiff.
Stepping out onto the shelter of the wrap-around porch, he drew in a deep breath of crisp night air. The sudden sense of freedom he felt made him realize how penned up he'd been feeling, despite his earlier turn at sentry duty. A walk to stretch his legs was tempting.
A hint of movement by the barn caught his eye, locking him in place. Seconds later, the reflection of moonlight off the snow highlighted the face, sleek body and bushy tail of an inquisitive fox. The animal was on the prowl, nose to the ground, casting back and forth for food. Abruptly, the questing nose paused and the body stilled. A split second later, the fox rocketed into the air, then returned to earth in a stiff-legged pounce. The head dipped, grabbed and flipped, tossing some small prey into the air. With a deft mid-air snatch of its jaws, hunter and snack disappeared into the shadows.
The door to the house swung open behind Hogan and soft, familiar footfalls approached. He kept his voice low, mindful of those lucky enough to be sleeping.
"People are going to talk if we keep meeting like this."
Kurt moved past, propped one hip on the porch rail and leaned back against the post. "Like you, I could not sleep. So when I saw you ghosting through the room, I decided to follow."
Silence stretched comfortably between them, broken only by the mournful hooting of an owl nearby. The fox eventually returned to the barnyard, this time with mate in tow. Hogan watched with amusement as the pair danced and capered together in abandon. Perhaps the snack had been a courting gift? Finally, the smaller of the two gave a squeaky yip and bolted into the trees, a mere tail ahead of its mate.
He sighed in regret. It had felt good to lose himself in the moment. Growing tired of standing, he took a seat in the porch swing. Surprisingly, the chains suspending the swing didn't squeak like all the door hinges on the farm. Slowly rocking back and forth, he thought of a time when he'd seen Josef and Romie holding hands, enjoying a quiet moment together on the porch. He grinned to himself. The reason why the chains were silent suddenly made sense.
Stretching his legs out and clasping his hands behind his head, he studied Kurt's silhouette. The moonlight shone upon the ice blond hair, creating a silver halo around the younger man's head.
"I've been wondering about something," Kurt suddenly announced, twisting slightly on the rail to rest his head against the post. "Your absence from Stalag 13 has surely been noticed."
"Oh, I'm sure it has," Hogan drawled quietly. "But only by Schultz, and he won't sound any alarms."
"I don't understand."
"We're supposed to be serving a week-long sentence in the cooler for fighting. Schultz is in charge of guarding us and bringing us our food, so only he'd be aware that we're missing. He's certainly not going to inform Klink about it, and he will do his best not to let any of the other guards find out either. Because if they do, it'd mean a one-way ticket to the land of reindeer and babushkas for him." He paused, chuckling softly. "And if I know LeBeau, Schultz is being bribed with all the strudel he can eat. We're okay, as long as we get back before our stay in Klink's hospitality suite is up." It suddenly dawned on him that Newkirk had actually done them a favor by overacting. The extra time had turned out to be a blessing in disguise considering their present circumstances. But he wasn't about to point that out to Newkirk. He didn't want to encourage the Englishman's habit of running away with himself. The next time, it might not work to their advantage.
"But what does he do with the food that he takes to the cells each day? How does he explain when the meals return untouched each time?"
"There's no need to explain, since there's no food to return," Hogan quipped. Sensing Kurt's puzzlement, he explained patiently, "He's eating the food himself."
"Food for three men?" Kurt's voice climbed in disbelief.
"It's not like we're being served three-course meals, so there's not a whole lot there to clean up." Shrugging, he added, "Besides, Schultz has a very healthy appetite."
"Amazing," Kurt muttered before falling silent again. He turned his head and looked across the open yard to the black line of trees beyond. Moments later he turned back. "It occurs to me, that all that I was concerned with in the beginning, was getting the children out of the country and to safety. I had not given any thought beyond that. But I am now. What will become of them once they reach London?"
Hogan rested his head against the back of the swing. He'd wondered when they were going to get around to that subject. "Well . . . they might be placed into an orphanage, but I have a hunch that Miri's got her own ideas on where they'll be taken."
"Yeah. I'm not sure what, exactly, because we haven't discussed it yet, but a guess is that she'll try to get them taken in by friends, or possibly even family. Knowing Miri, she's had a plan in mind since I told her of the kids."
"Either of the two possibilities you mentioned would be much better than what was in store for them here."
"I also realize that while I may not know Miriam as well as you, I am confident that she'll see them well cared for."
Kurt went back to staring at the trees, trying to imagine the children grown to adulthood. Imagining German accents changed to English and empty eyes brightened by hope, laughter, and freedom. Not so difficult to do, since some changes had already become apparent. Maximillian, for one, was starting to act more like a nine-year old boy, finally releasing some of the burden of fear for Erich and Liselotte's safety. Erich had also shown improvement by talking more often. Occasionally, he even managed to string words together into longer sentences. But Liselotte, while showing more animation, had yet to speak.
Gazing wistfully at the sky, Kurt felt hope briefly warm his heart. Perhaps one day, he would have the chance to see them again. It would be interesting to see the results of freedom upon their lives.
Enjoying the companionable silence, Hogan stretched his hands to either side on the swing's back and slid into a loose-limbed sprawl. Not even feeling the chill in the air, he felt his eyelids droop in relaxation. Languidly turning his head to the right, he stared at the barn. The first time he'd seen it, he and Carter had been on the run. They'd been captured by the Gestapo and Carter wounded. Though they'd eventually managed to escape, Carter had been unable to travel far. The large building had literally saved their lives. If not for the warmth and rest they'd gotten in the shelter of the barn's loft of straw and the food taken from the Metzger larder, they might never have made it back to camp at all.
Thoughts of Carter caused Hogan to lift his head and look hard at the spot where he'd left the young man. Carter was nowhere in sight, but Hogan was confident that he was alert and on guard. Carter could be flighty at times, but once he put his mind to business, there was no swaying him.
He shifted on the swing and looked back to Kurt perched on the porch railing, staring at only he knew what. As far as Hogan could tell, his friend hadn't moved a muscle.
Hogan started at the hissed demand, surprised that Kurt had been aware he was being watched. A question suddenly popped into his brain and out of his mouth before he could stop it. "Do you ever wish that your parents hadn't gotten involved in the Resistance?" The blond head jerked toward him.
Kurt hesitated, feeling slightly unsettled that the question had touched upon the very subject that had kept him from sleep. "I worry about them, especially now." Against the whitewashed backdrop of the house, he saw Hogan's head dip in silent agreement. "But this is what they wish to do, Robert. And in all honesty, I would not try to change their minds. I respect their choices, just as they do mine." Remembering the short-wave set, he added ruefully, "Of course, respecting their choices does not necessarily mean agreeing with them."
"The radio." Hogan observed quietly, remembering Kurt's expression when Josef had made his announcement.
Kurt goggled at him. "Stop that!"
"Huh? What?" He glanced about, completely at a loss as to what he'd done to rate the admonition.
"Oh, never mind," Kurt moaned, then paused to collect his thoughts. "When we decided to join the Resistance, it was a decision that we made together. We discussed it at length before making the choice. Lately, choices are being made without any discussion. I only wish that they had consulted with me before installing the radio. Though I understand their reasoning, I cannot agree with it."
"Just like you consulted them before taking on this mission, or bringing us all here. We're not exactly school friends you asked home for a sleepover. Our presence is a damned sight more dangerous than any radio."
A lengthy silence followed, eventually broken by Kurt's harsh sigh. "I thought it best."
"Uh, huh. That's probably what Josef and Romie thought about the radio."
Suddenly remembering his promise, Kurt bit back a groan of despair. He had vowed to protect his parents, but instead had literally brought danger to their door.
Hogan tensed when his friend's breath hitched in what sounded suspiciously like a sob. What the --?
The moonlight-tipped head bowed. Hogan sat bolt upright. "Was ist los mit dir?" He was halfway off the swing when a whisper floated across the porch.
"Nichts." Kurt drew a deep breath, and forced himself to calm. What was done, was done. And now he would live with his choice – just as his parents had to.
Hogan was far from convinced, but slowly relaxed back against the swing's wooden slats again. He watched Kurt rearrange himself until he was leaning back against the post, both legs lying stretched atop the railing, crossed at the ankles. Hogan kept silent for several moments, then, not wanting to startle his friend into a fall, softly questioned, "Isn't that uncomfortable?"
Kurt gave a little shoulder wiggle against the post, sending Hogan's heartbeat bounding in nervousness. From the rail, there was a good five-foot drop to the rock-strewn ground below.
"Nein. I actually find it very comfortable. When I was a child, I used to sit like this for hours on a branch in a tree behind our house."
Hogan shook his head fondly. My friend, the monkey. "It's not enough that Miri, Newkirk and Ryker are hurt? If you lose your balance and fall off of there and break your neck, who's going to fix you? You're the only doctor around here, remember?"
"Physician, heal thyself?" Kurt snickered, fatigue making him zany.
"Would you get down from there?! You are really making me nervous!" Hogan jumped to his feet, setting the swing in motion. "C'mon. We're going back inside before you do something really foolish like trying to do a headstand up there or something."
"Well, that is certainly the pan calling the skillet black," Kurt snapped in affronted tones, swinging his legs off the rail and placing his feet back on the porch.
"That's 'pot calling the kettle black,'" Hogan shot back. He grabbed Kurt by the shoulders and aimed him toward the door.
"I know the way, Robert, there is no need to push!"
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
"You can't be serious!" Kurt yelped, only minutes after entering the bedroom the next morning. His temper, severely shortened by lack of sleep, ignited.
"I'm completely serious," Miri, lying comfortably propped in bed, favored him with a calm look over the remains of her breakfast. "We must leave by tonight." Unmoved by his anger, she daintily licked a spot of jam from the tip of one finger.
"That is entirely too soon! Your shoulder must have time to heal, without unnecessary movement. Which means no travel for a few more days, at the very least!" He turned toward Hogan, who was slouched against the far wall, listening with a pained expression. The officer refused to meet his eyes.
"Oh, vielen danke, Robert, for your support!"
Hogan sighed heavily and pushed away from the wall. "As much as I agree with you, Kurt, I have to side with Miri. That information is way overdue."
"You," Kurt pointed one finger accusingly at Hogan, "are bad enough at ignoring your own health and safety, but I had hoped, Miriam, that you would have better sense." He looked from one to the other. "On second thought, I suppose I should not be surprised. Your mutual stubbornness is probably what drew you to each other in the first place."
"Kurt," Miri started to rise from the bed, then moaned when the movement sent a bolt of pain racing through her injured shoulder. Hogan flew to her side, beating Kurt by two full steps. He spun away, and jerkily stalked back to the foot of the bed, where he pinned the couple with a glare that would peel paint.
"THAT is exactly what I'm talking about!" He leaned forward and braced his hands on the bed's footboard. "Multiply that pain, Miriam, and that is what you will feel while riding in the back of that verdamnt truck!"
"I've dealt with worse," She countered stiffly, drawing her body upright against the pain.
Kurt glared at her in icy silence.
Hogan straightened at Miri's side, leaving one hand resting on her good shoulder. "Kurt, we're not being stubborn just for the heck of it, and we're not belittling your concern. We're not suicidal, we're not looking to be heroes, and we sure aren't masochists. This isn't just about us. We have duties that we can't turn our backs on no matter what the personal costs may be. You're overlooking the big picture and ignoring how dangerous it is for everyone involved if we continue staying here." Come on, Kurt! We just talked about this just a few hours ago!
Kurt's glare transferred from Miri to Hogan.
"If we put our personal safety first, before our duty and the lives of others, then we are not fit to be officers," Miri snapped, her own patience all but gone.
Kurt's chin dropped to his chest. After a moment, he cleared his throat. "I will make a deal with you," he said, looking up. "Stay today, leave first thing tomorrow morning."
Hogan started to reply, then remembered Miri.
Seeing his hesitation, Kurt decided to throw in a little incentive. After all, it had worked before. Grinning mischievously, he said, "If you agree to this, I swear never to say anything to anyone about having seen both of you naked."
Hogan choked, folded his arms, and pressed one hand over his eyes. The gesture failed to hide the faint blush that touched his ears.
Miri's curiosity was piqued by his reaction, but she turned her attention to Kurt and said, "Let me set a few things straight right here. First, your threat of blackmail does not impress me in the least. I'm a widow, so you are not the first man to have seen me naked, nor will you be the last. After all, my personal physician is a man. I have no doubt that you'd get along famously with him, since he shares your sentiments regarding my lack of concern for my own safety. Finally, though I agree to stay until tomorrow, it is only because I choose to do so."
She paused, awaiting his response. He held his tongue, returning her stare unflinchingly. Miri nodded, satisfied that the point had been made. "Now, I want out of this bed." She shifted gingerly on the mattress. "I have had quite enough of lazing about on my arse."
"Very well" Kurt sighed in resignation. "Even though you do not mind being seen naked, Miriam, I'll nevertheless call Mother to help you get dressed."
Romie quickly appeared at his call. More than happy to help, she started sorting through the closet and dresser for suitable clothing. After a few minutes of rummaging and muttering, she was finally satisfied with her selections. She placed the clothing on the foot of the bed, then gathered the two men and shooed them out the door.
Miri accepted her gentle assistance, grateful that the older woman didn't make a fuss over every moan or whimper that slipped out. Nor did Romie react to the curses that Miri vented while attempting to brush her hair into something that didn't resemble a bird's nest. Gently taking the brush from her hand, Romie soon had the black hair gleaming and silky smooth once more.
Fifteen minutes, several muttered pleas for strength and four curses later, Miri was dressed and ready to face the world. Romie patted her good hand in comfort before calling the men. They ambled into the room, neither looking particularly pleased. Romie went up to Kurt and lightly chucked him under the chin, coaxing a smile to his face. Mission accomplished, she went back to her kitchen. Kurt smiled after her before moving to the side table to gather the supplies he'd left the night before.
"I can ruddy well do it myself!" Miri groused, swatting Hogan's hand away when he tried to help her adjust the wool sweater more comfortably about her shoulders.
Hogan backed away from the bed. "Yes, dear." His muscles locked in surprise as the words left his mouth. Where had THAT come from??
Kurt sputtered, then doubled over with laughter. Face wreathed in disbelief, arms wrapped tightly around his ribs, he staggered over to a chair and collapsed into it. "YES, DEAR??"
Hogan rolled his eyes in disgust, then noticed Miri's expression. Her dark eyes were sparkling with suppressed mirth above the hand pressed to her mouth. Well, if it took your mind off your discomfort for awhile, then I guess I can put up with the hyena over there. Kurt's laughter finally faded into an occasional hiccupped chuckle. Hogan huffed a martyred sigh when his friend caught his gaze, mimicking 'Yes, dear!'
Ignoring their silent by-play, Miri critically studied her sweater, plucking here and there at its loose folds. While grateful for the warmth and cover, she nonetheless felt like a badly wrapped Christmas gift. She glared down at the empty sweater sleeve hanging limp at her side. It was certain to be a nuisance flapping loose; ready to get caught on everything she passed. With a mental shrug, she neatly tucked the cuff beneath the waistband of her skirt. That done, she looked about for her shoes. Only one was in sight, halfway beneath the bed. The thought of having to bend down to hunt for its mate made her shudder in dread. Gingerly, she stretched out her hand and tapped Hogan on the hip. "Robin, could you help me with my shoes?"
"ROBIN??" Kurt trumpeted in disbelief, vaulting out of the chair and moving closer.
Hogan backhanded him on the shoulder. Kurt yelped in surprise and jumped back, putting some distance between them. Through teeth clenched in a parody of a smile, Hogan asked him sweetly, "Do you enjoy breathing?"
Miri smirked. Turning to Kurt, who was vigorously trying to rub the sting out of his shoulder, she explained, "Robin is the English diminutive of Robert." Pure devilment caused to her to add, "Like a pet name." Hogan's head whipped toward her, eyebrows buried in his black hair. Miri placidly grinned up at him.
Anxious to avoid any more shots to his tattered dignity, Hogan got back to her request, questioning mildly, "So there is something you 'ruddy well' can't do yourself?"
She sighed and peered up at him. "Robin, I know you meant well, but I'm used to doing for myself. It's bloody difficult asking for help with something so simple as putting on my shoes."
"Well, get used to it!" Kurt snapped, brushing past Hogan to fix her with a penetrating stare. "Because you will need help with a great many things in the next six to eight weeks. You do not have to be strong or a stiff-necked officer every minute. It is not weakness to ask for help when you need it! So swallow your verdamnt pride, Miriam! It will make your recovery much easier!" Somewhat ashamed of the outburst, he ducked his head and quickly walked away.
Hogan looked down at Miri when she gently took his hand.
Voice low with contrition, she asked, "Would you please help me with my shoes, Robin?"
Kurt nodded, happy that she'd seen the truth of his words. From his seat across the room, he watched his friend drop to one knee in front of Miri. Ignoring her disgruntled expression, Hogan gently fit first one foot, then the other, into her shoes. Kurt fought the urge to laugh. She strongly reminded him of a cat having its fur rubbed the wrong way. Allowing someone to help her clearly went against the very grain of her independent nature.
Though attracted to Miri at their first meeting, he'd quickly decided that she was definitely not his type. Too mercurial, too complex. Full of fire and passion, she was a perfect match for Hogan. But his tastes ran more toward a woman with a more moderate temperament. A woman with a much safer profession. One who didn't make a habit of carrying a gun. He laughed silently behind his hand when Hogan finished the task with a flamboyant flourish, earning another long-suffering look from Miri.
The bedroom door suddenly slammed open, startling them out of the quiet moment. Carter and Newkirk rushed in, each with a boy in tow. Hogan and Kurt started forward only to jump out Ryker's way when he limped in carrying Liselotte in one arm, his mouth turned down in a grim line. He deposited Liselotte on the bed, then moved to the far side of the room. Maximillian and Erich detached themselves from Carter and Newkirk and clambered up on the bed to huddle with their sister.
Hogan grabbed Carter's arm, his expression question enough.
"There's a car coming up the lane." Carter answered breathlessly, having run from his sentry post to warn them.
Kurt thrust a hand against Hogan's chest, halting his progress for the door. "It is probably only one of our neighbors or friends simply stopping by for a visit." He patted Hogan, adding with a confidence that didn't ring true, "I am sure it is nothing."
Hogan didn't bother with a reply. He shot a glance at Carter and Newkirk, signaling them to be ready for anything.
Kurt entered the gathering room and saw that his parents were talking with someone just inside the front door. His heart lurched in his chest when their guest stepped around his parents and into view, arms held wide in greeting.
"Kurt!" Leidel watched Kurt's reaction closely, peripherally aware of Josef and Romie standing stiff with tension behind him.
The thick mahogany hair was a shade darker, the face more angular than before, and the voice held a richer texture, but there was no mistaking the man's identity. Kurt swallowed, quickly pasted on a grin to cover his shock. Hoping his hesitation hadn't been apparent, he stepped forward and into the waiting arms. "It is good to see you again, Klaus." Over the muscular shoulder, Kurt's eyes widened, silently asking his parents, What is he doing here, now?? Josef shrugged, while Romie wrung her hands in despair. She'd just noticed Liselotte's coat lying on the couch, overlooked in the confused rush to the bedroom. She saw no means of hiding it without drawing Leidel's attention.
Kurt stepped out of the embrace and smiled into steel gray eyes at a level slightly above his own. "This is a surprise, cousin. Pardon me for saying so, but it has been quite some time since your last visit." He paused in thought, scratching at one eyebrow. "Over a year, yes?"
Leidel's face clouded over with genuine pain. "Ja. Since Philipp's memorial service." He turned to include Josef and Romie in the conversation. "He was a fine man and a valuable officer who showed great promise. The Führer can ill afford to lose men such as Philipp."
A stifling silence settled upon the room. Kurt rubbed one hand across his mouth, physically keeping himself from blurting out exactly what he thought of the Führer and the circumstances surrounding Philipp's death.
Romie collected herself and linked Leidel's arm with her own. "Come, Klaus, have a cup of tea and tell us how you've been." She smiled up at him, noticing that he was thoughtfully shortening his strides to keep pace with her to the table.
Kurt and Josef looked at each other in disbelief. Kurt slowly walked to the table, forcing himself not to glance toward the bedroom door. He could well imagine Hogan's reaction to this latest development. A quiet sigh escaped as he lowered himself into a chair.
What next? Klink perhaps, stopping by for a cup of sugar?
Romie poured their tea, ignoring Kurt's wooden expression and arched eyebrow. Clearing his throat, he turned to Leidel. "So, Klaus, you are on leave?"
"Nein. I should have such good luck." Leidel grinned disarmingly, leaning back in his chair to cross his legs. "A day only. I had no plans, so I thought to do some visiting." The lies slipped like oil past his lips. He tilted his head to one side, giving Kurt a speculative look. "And you, Kurt? Isn't it a rare occasion for you to be off-duty at this time? I remember you telling me how difficult it is to get time away from the hospital."
Kurt winced inwardly. Of course, you would remember that conversation. "Normally, it would be so. But I arranged with one of the other doctors to exchange duty schedules."
"So that he might spend a few days with us," Josef prompted, putting a match to the bowl of his pipe. "Your visit is a bonus for us, Klaus." He gestured at Leidel with the lit pipe. "Kurt, Klaus was telling us just before you arrived that he has been promoted to captain and is stationed now in Hammelburg." Josef released a puff of fragrant smoke into the air and studied his nephew, comparing the handsome, athletically built officer with the awkward, gangling youth who'd spent hours at play with his older cousins. The three boys had practically been inseparable throughout their childhood. He sighed, sending another puff of smoke wafting in wisps about his head. Those days were long past.
"Congratulations, Klaus," Kurt responded softly. The promotion came as no surprise really, considering Klaus' intelligence and photographic memory, which would certainly make rising through ranks easier. Idly, Kurt wondered if his cousin had ever shared the secret of his ability with anyone other than himself and Philipp. As a boy, Klaus had never been uncomfortable with his talent. He'd spoken of it only once with his cousins, and only after they'd sworn a blood oath never to tell anyone. Kurt and Philipp had felt extremely honored that they'd been included in a secret that not even Klaus' parents or his sister, Risa, had been aware of. Yet, that was the way the three of them had been. They'd shared everything.
Leidel's mouth quivered in amusement at the stiffness of Kurt's reply. He watched his cousin push a spoon back and forth across the table, taking note of the scraped fingers and torn nails. An unusual condition for a man who relies on his hands for his profession. He wondered what Kurt might have been doing to put his hands in such a sorry state. Becoming aware of Leidel's scrutiny, Kurt casually withdrew his hands from the table.
Leidel broke the pregnant silence with a chuckle that obviously startled his guests. "It is difficult, isn't it?" He looked at them with hooded eyes. "There was a time when I lived in this house almost as much as I did my own. I felt as though I had four parents and two brothers besides my sister. Yet here we sit now like strangers, unsure of what to say to each other. Suspicion is so much a part of our lives since the war began." He stared down at his hands, folded loosely in his lap. His expression softened and his voice grew quiet. "And I am truly sorry for that, and for making you uncomfortable." He briskly brushed his hands down his thighs, then got to his feet.
"Thank you for the tea."
"Oh, Klaus, you needn't go so soon!" Romie hurried around the table, genuinely distressed at the all-too-brief reunion. No matter the circumstances, Klaus was family and their visits together few and far between. She turned pleading eyes on Josef, who gave a slight shake of his head while puffing on his pipe.
"Please, do not be upset," Klaus soothed, patting her shoulder. "There are others I wish to visit today. I also want to spend some time with Risa, if I can catch her at home. I will leave you to enjoy your time with Kurt." He headed for the door, but hesitated at the couch. Slowly, he leaned down and picked up Liselotte's coat, then turned toward them, curiosity written plainly across his face.
Josef sauntered over and gently took the coat from him. "Our friend's granddaughter's coat. Her hands have become too stiff for sewing. Romie offered to mend it for her." He turned the coat over, displaying a small tear near the pocket.
"Won't the little girl be cold without her coat?" Leidel asked, one eyebrow hovering near his mahogany forelock.
Kurt walked over, appearing totally unconcerned, though he felt a scream of panic building in his chest. "Mutter gave her several of her sweaters to wear in layers. They fit her nicely and will be enough until the coat is repaired."
"Remember, I sew very fast, Klaus," Romie chuckled, referring to the boys' childhood. Kurt, Phillip and Klaus had been like a trio of playful otters, with a penchant of getting into everything under the sun.
Leidel brightened with a smile. "Ah, yes. You were constantly having to mend our trousers."
"We were quite rough on them, weren't we?" Kurt quipped with false cheer, following him across the room. "You must be pleased to be stationed near home, Klaus. Perhaps now it will not be so long before our next visit, yes?" He offered his hand at the door. Leave, go away, get out!!
Leidel glanced down at the hand, then took it and jerked Kurt into another bear hug. Sensing the other man's reluctance, he quickly ended the embrace and pulled back. Kurt's utterly stunned expression warmed him with silent amusement. Surprising Kurt had always been one of his favorite pleasures.
He gave Josef and Romie his best wishes, assuring them that he would give his sister, Risa, their greetings, then took his leave of them.
Pausing on the porch to pull on his gloves, he remarked in a low voice, "Oh, yes. It will not be long until we see each other again, cousin. Not nearly so long."
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
"We're not waiting until morning," Hogan announced when Kurt returned to the bedroom. Josef and Romie, looking pale but calm, silently stepped in after him.
"You agreed . . ." Kurt sputtered
"That was before cousin Klaus showed up," Hogan shot back. "The deal's off. I'm going to contact Marc. We'll clear out as soon as he can get here. We're not waiting around until dark." He turned and pointed at Newkirk. "Get outside and keep watch. Sound a warning if you see anyone. And I mean anyone! I don't care if it's a ninety year-old grandmother picking wildflowers. I want to know about it!"
Newkirk snapped off a salute without any of his usual comments. He knew better when he heard that tone. Throwing on his coat and hat, he quickly left to take up a post outside.
Hogan resumed his pacing, occasionally shooting glances Ryker's way. He felt as if he were sitting on a ticking time bomb, just waiting for it to blow.
Ryker kept silent, but his eyes held malicious satisfaction at seeing Hogan caught off-balance.
Kurt looked to Miri for support. Immediately, he knew the argument had been lost. She returned his gaze calmly, the implacability in her expression allowing him no hope. There would be no more deals, no change of heart. Still, he decided to give it one more try and reached out to snag Hogan's arm, stopping his friend mid-stride. Hogan's head turned toward him, the intensity in his eyes so strong, Kurt stifled a shiver.
"Robert, it was just an unfortunate coincidence. An innocent visit with his family. Klaus is gone now. He has no reason to return for some time."
"That's one whopper of an assumption. Are you willing to gamble everyone's lives that you're right?" The soft voice made more of an impression than any shouting and stopped Kurt cold. He hesitated as they locked eyes. He simply couldn't believe that Klaus would ever do anything to harm them, or his family. Then he reminded himself that the war and passage of time had changed many things. In Hitler's Germany, parents spied on their own children, best friends turned each over to the Gestapo, and children informed on their schoolmates. At one time, Kurt knew without the slightest doubt that Klaus would've gone to his own death to protect them. But that had been a different time and a different man. That man had never worn the grey uniform of the Wehrmacht. Kurt sagged, feeling as though he'd just buried another brother.
"Nein," he quietly said over his shoulder as he walked past Hogan to the door, "I will not. Contact Zoellner."
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
With one shoulder braced against the doorway to the kitchen, Kurt watched Hogan finish signing off from his conversation with Zoellner. "How long?" he questioned softly.
Hogan looked up from the radio set. "A few hours. He has to arrange for his brother to cover the shop." Turning back to the radio, he checked that it was powered down, and that the antenna had been completely retracted. Once he'd closed the hinged wall, Kurt helped him replace the pantry items on the shelves.
"Miriam consented to rest for a short time." Kurt told him, after they'd finished and no sign of the hiding place remained. "I'm to wake her within the next thirty minutes."
"Congratulations. How did you manage that?"
"I would guess that the children's welfare was the cause." Kurt shrugged, rubbing at the base of his chin with the back of one finger. "She's not admitted to it, but she has to know that it will be a difficult trip and that her injury will cause her to tire easily. It is only wise to take precautions for the children's sake." He paused, the question he'd been ready to ask, dying in his throat.
Hogan was staring beyond him, through the kitchen doorway and into the gathering room. His body was unnaturally still, his expression closed and remote.
Kurt's arms prickled with gooseflesh. His friend, the man who had laughed with him, who had listened while he shared his grief, who had lain trusting and quiet, allowing himself to be cared for while severely injured, was gone; replaced by another he'd seen only once before and had hoped never to see again. Not for reasons of fear, but simply because mayhem usually followed in his wake.
Hurriedly, Kurt searched his memory, trying to figure out what could have led to the abrupt change. Miriam. We were discussing Miriam and the trip. He looked toward the gathering room, taking more time to actually trace the line of Hogan's sight. It led him directly to Ryker, seated once again in self-isolation before the fire.
Hogan was suddenly on the move, striding quietly and with determined purpose toward the Gestapo general.
Kurt followed slowly, then stopped well back and waited.
Ryker looked up at Hogan's approach. His eyes flashed with contempt before he returned to staring into the flames.
"I want to get a few things out in the open," Hogan began without preamble, lowering himself into a chair opposite Ryker. Vaguely, he noticed Kurt hovering at a distance, hands tucked loosely under his arms.
"So. This is where you demand payment of some kind for the debt I owe you." Ryker gave Hogan an oily grin. His fingers caressed the head of the cane propped between his knees.
"Maybe that's how you work, General," Hogan retorted, putting sarcastic emphasis upon the title. "but not me. What I'm here to say involves Major Broadbent."
"The gallant knight riding to the protection of the fair injured damsel. How very sweet."
A muscle jumped in Hogan's jaw. "Look. I expect certain things from you, and you better not fail the test. When you left that hospital with me, you officially left your rank and privileges behind. Major Broadbent will be in command on the trip to London. You'll answer to her. If word gets back to me that you made any kind of trouble for her, like trying to take advantage of her injury, I'll make it my personal mission to hunt you down and demonstrate my extreme displeasure at your lack of manners. Do we understand each other?"
"This mere slip of a woman should not have the responsibility of such an important assignment!"
"Even with a torn up shoulder, she can handle this assignment and you, just fine. But I don't want her to have to."
Ryker made a rude sound and banged the tip of the cane against the floor. "Your feelings for her have made you weak and stupid. Your compassion is a weakness. You are a disgrace." He quoted his father, the words as fresh as the first time they'd been screamed in his face.
Hogan smiled tightly. "Personally, I see compassion as a strength. As to the rest -- well, you're entitled to your opinions." He stood, closely watching as Ryker stood, also. If the German hoped to continue the discussion, he was about to be disappointed. He'd had a bellyful of the posturing and vitriol. Moving past Ryker, he quietly commanded, "Remember what I said."
Ryker waited until Hogan had gone a few paces. Then, bringing his cane up and back, he sent it whistling through the air toward the American's unprotected ribs.
Hearing the sound and recognizing it for what it was, Hogan pivoted in place, snapping his arm up and around, blocking the strike. His hand folded securely around the cane's shaft. Using the momentum of the spin, he tore the ebony stick from Ryker's grip and in a single fluid movement, flung it away and lunged forward. With both hands fisted in the front of Ryker's sweater and shirt, he propelled the German backward, slamming him hard against the wall, sending several hanging pictures rattling. Using the advantage of leverage, Hogan pressed the larger man up onto his toes.
Hyper-alert from the attack, he stared up into Ryker's livid face. Clearly, the German had intended to make a statement in a bid to re-establish the pecking order. Fine. He would make his own statement. But he'd waste no more breath doing it. He let the mask drop from his face, allowing every bit of the hatred he felt for Ryker to blaze forth.
Ryker looked down into eyes burning black with a hatred to match his own, and in the space of a heartbeat, completely changed his evaluation of Hogan's strength of will. This was not a man who would be easily broken. He must have telegraphed the thought in some way. The American's expression shifted subtly, his lips slowly peeling up and back, revealing a grin that sent a thrill of warning arcing through Ryker's nerves.
Movement pulled his concentration away from the silent battle of wills. Looking over Hogan's shoulder, he saw Kurt and Carter were now lined up at Hogan's back, looking more than ready to help. He sneered his contempt.
"So, Papa Bear. You make your stand when you have help to do so, eh? Would you be so willing if there was not an audience to play to?"
Hogan didn't even twitch. His hold remained rock steady, keeping Ryker firmly pinned like a bug on the wall.
Carter wasn't as immune to the goading. He started to move around his CO to get to Ryker, but a single, hard jerk of Hogan's head curtailed his advance. Reluctantly, he stepped back.
"Enough of this!" Josef rapped out, hurrying across the room from where he'd been a horrified witness to the attack on Hogan. "This is my home, and you are but a guest here. If I choose, I can and will ask you to leave." He lightly tapped Hogan's shoulder from behind, delivering an unspoken command.
Hogan slowly relaxed his grip and guided the general into a secure stance against the wall. Ryker's sneer intensified, but again, Hogan failed to react to the provocation.
Philipp's face suddenly appeared in Kurt's mind, first pleading, then disappointed, when Kurt had turned away from his plea for support. Anger and guilt swept through Kurt's heart in a painful tide, his breath hissing through clenched teeth.
He wouldn't turn away this time. This time, he would fight. He would not let his family down again. Never again.
"Father is right," he rasped, striding forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with Hogan. "It is only because of my parents' generosity that you have been granted safe haven until you are able to rendezvous with the sub. Yet you repay them by instigating a cowardly attack upon another of their guests. I warn you, if you so much as sneeze without permission from now on, I will be the first to show you the door." He gently nudged Hogan. His friend's gaze slid to him, and after a moment's hesitation, Hogan gave way and stepped back. Locking eyes with Ryker, a man who had commanded armies, Kurt snarled, "Do not think that because I am a doctor sworn to save lives, that I will not hold to my threat. While I may not be a soldier, I am not helpless. I refuse to allow you to attack my friends and terrorize my family in their own home. Push me, and you will find out that I am more than capable of pushing back."
Ryker studied him coldly.
"Be reasonable, Ryker," Kurt said in a flat tone, "it is extreme foolishness to antagonize those providing you shelter and to provoke the very man engineering your escape." A grim smile creased his face, falling well short of his eyes. "Not to mention the man responsible for seeing to your continued physical health." The threatening words felt unnatural coming from his mouth. But he refused to idly stand by without doing something. If force were needed to protect his family, then he would use force ... no matter how much it turned his stomach and blackened his soul.
Ryker hesitated a moment longer, then conceded with a stiff bob of his head. He still, however, couldn't resist lancing another derisive glance in Hogan's direction. The incident may have been over. But it was far from forgotten.
There had to be a way of getting to the American. A way of hurting him. Unseen by the others, his eyes slowly moved to bedroom door. His father had been right. In compassion there was vulnerability.
His mouth twisted with a cruel grin. He could wait a little longer.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Unaware of how close violence had come to erupting in the next room, Romie went about the task of preparing sandwiches in the kitchen. Placing a fresh loaf of bread on the cutting board, she began cutting it into thin slices, letting her thoughts wander where they might.
The voices in the next room eventually drew her attention. The sound was a comforting one. A houseful of guests had been an unexpected but welcome change from the solitude that she and Josef usually shared between Kurt's visits. Newkirk and Carter were on a first-name basis now, as well as Miriam. She would be sad to see them leave. Tears suddenly threatened as she thought about the children. She didn't even want to think about having to say good-bye to them. Ryker, however, was the one guest she wouldn't miss at all.
Initially, she hadn't been sure how to react at having him in her home. He was Gestapo. That was bad enough, but he was also very well known and very feared. He was said to be ruthless and cold-hearted. A demon without honor. Romie scorned gossip and rumor. But actions were another thing. She'd read for herself the atrocities that this man had been party to. Yet, she and Josef had allowed him into their home. Kurt wouldn't have brought him if he'd thought Ryker would be a danger to them.
She'd still caught herself scrutinizing him. To say she was surprised at his tenderness with the children was the grossest understatement. The man was a jumble of contradictions, swinging from darkness to light like a pendulum in the wind. It unnerved her. It wasn't natural.
In the back of her mind, she wondered. Ryker might be considerate and caring with the children now. But would he be so if they were older, in their teens? If they weren't quite as innocent? Only Maximillian was old enough to have an inkling of what acts Ryker was capable of committing.
Deliberately, she turned her thoughts away from Ryker. The other woman in the house immediately came to mind. A smile slowly spread across her face as she considered the small Welshwoman with the fiery temper and steel backbone. Though her time with Miriam Broadbent had been brief, she'd cherished every minute.
At first, she'd been shocked to the core of her Germanic soul by the other woman's language and temper. Miriam was unlike any woman she'd ever met! But then she'd sternly reminded herself that Miriam was Welsh, not German and it wouldn't be fair to compare the two. The ultimate determining factor, though, had been the emotion she'd seen in Hogan's eyes whenever he was with Miriam. Robert cared for her. And that was enough for Romie. She'd opened her heart to the younger woman and hadn't regretted it for a moment.
"I thought I'd find you in here."
Hogan sauntered into the room. Carter followed several paces behind with Erich happily perched upon his shoulders.
Jolted out of her thoughts, Romie squeaked and swung around, still gripping the bread knife.
Hogan let out a yelp and danced backward, narrowly avoiding being skewered. Carter stopped short just inside the doorway, horrified at the near miss. Having his CO end up with a knife buried in his ribs would be the final straw of the whole mission!
"Mein Gott, Robert!" Romie gasped, carefully laying the knife upon the counter. With it safely out of the way, she fisted her shaking hands on her hips and pinned him with a glare.
Hogan coughed, covering up a chuckle that had slipped out in reaction to her feisty stance. Now he knew where Kurt had come by that particular mannerism. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
She couldn't possibly hang on to her anger when presented with that crooked smile. She struggled to maintain a scowl, knowing she was failing miserably at it. "I have quite enough gray hair, Robert. Please see that you don't make surprises like that a habit."
"He does that all the time, you know," Carter proclaimed, advancing further into the room. He tipped his head in Hogan's direction. "Just about sends us through the roof sometimes."
"Carter!" Hogan's voice shot up the scale.
"Well, you do!" Carter laughed. Erich suddenly leaned to one side and grabbed a fistful of Carter's blond hair, diverting him from further commentary. He grabbed the feet dangling on either side of his chest and tugged the boy back into a safe, balanced seat. Erich reached down with his other hand and grabbed another handful of hair to use as reins for his ride. Carter winced, picturing a bald spot on each side of his head.
"Why don't you take Erich back into the other room where there's more room to roam," Hogan suggested with a meaningful lift of one eyebrow. Carter's mouth opened and closed soundlessly, pure devilment dancing in his eyes. Hogan scowled and took a single step in his direction.
"I think I'll just take Erich into the other room," Carter squeaked, quickly backpedaling. Before disappearing through the doorway, he leaned in Romie's direction and commented sotto voce, "He really does, you know." Having gotten in the last word, he beat a hasty retreat ahead of Hogan's playful swat. Erich giggled in delight as his ride picked up speed.
Romie chuckled, knowing Hogan hadn't truly been bothered by the teasing. Turning back to the counter, she took up the knife again and began slicing the remainder of the loaf.
Hogan leaned one hip against the counter and eyed the various items spread out next to the pile of sliced bread. "What are you doing, anyway? You just fed us breakfast."
"I am making sandwiches for Miriam, Marc, General Ryker and the children to take with them." Romie reached over and smacked his hand when he tried to snatch a piece of cheese. "They are certain to get hungry during their trip."
"You," He commented softly, leaning over and kissing her cheek, "are a very kind and thoughtful lady."
In reward for the compliment, she lifted a piece of cheese into his line of sight and waved it enticingly. His eyes lit up. He plucked the cheese from her fingers, popped it in his mouth and gave her another kiss. She smiled serenely and patted his cheek. "Danke, Robert, but you are not getting anymore cheese."
Laughter bubbled from his throat. Leaning back against the counter again, he folded his arms and watched her finish with the bread then move on to assembling the sandwiches. She worked quietly, enjoying his company. Occasionally, she would glance sideways at him, a knowing glint in her eyes.
"What is it, Robert?"
He shook his head, struck mute by a rush of emotion. He stared at the floor, not wanting to meet her perceptive blue eyes.
She put down the sandwich she'd just finished wrapping and devoted her full attention to him. "Robert?"
Still studying the floor, he sighed in resignation. "I haven't been this homesick since my first week at West Point." He felt his eyes widen in shock. The statement had come out of nowhere. He'd meant to say something general and unrevealing just to satisfy her. Instead, he'd given up more than he'd ever dreamt of saying. He couldn't figure out what it was about the Metzger family that made it easy to bare his soul.
"You are ill?" Romie asked in confusion, not understanding the expression.
He looked up, unconsciously squaring his shoulders. Since he'd revealed that much, he might as well go for broke. "No, not physically, so much as up here," he explained softly, tapping the side of his head, "and here," his hand moved to his chest and patted directly over his heart.
"I don't understand," she murmured, lifting her hands, palms up.
He struggled to find the words to describe the ache in his chest. "I miss my family. All this domestication," his hand swept through the air in an all-encompassing gesture, "you, Josef, Kurt, talking in the kitchen, sitting in the porch swing last night, the kids, even cousin Klaus' visit, has made me realize just how much I miss my own family." He broke off and walked a short distance away, running his hands through his hair. "When I'm at the camp, I can keep it in the background most of the time. But being here with you, it's just . . . really hard."
Blinking back tears, she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him. Her heart melted when he relaxed without hesitation into the comfort she offered. Intuitively, she sensed that he rarely allowed himself the luxury of dropping his guard and sharing his innermost thoughts or showing such vulnerability. She tightened her embrace, honored that he had felt safe enough to do so with her.
"It is the same for us, Robert." She reached up and gently rubbed her hands across the broad expanse of his back, smiling when she heard him sigh. "When you are with us, we wish that you did not have to leave. But we are also reminded of how it was before Philipp died . . . of what we have lost." A ragged sigh came from her own throat. "To see you and Kurt together is both painful and comforting. The laughter and even the arguments between the two of you . . ." her voice cracked with emotion. ". . . If only you could have known Philipp. I'm certain that the two of you would have gotten along so well, just as you do with Kurt." Her lips trembled into a smile even as she felt the sting of tears. "He would have been sorely tested had the two of you joined forces."
Still clasping her arms, he gently pulled back and looked away. A response was expected, but words just wouldn't come. The subject of dead brothers was still too painful, the wound still too raw for him to discuss. Taking a deep breath, he turned his head to find her watching him carefully. He deliberately lightened his tone and changed the subject. "Speaking of Kurt, where did he go? I haven't seen him since . . ." he caught himself before the incident with Ryker slipped out. "Well, for awhile."
"He went outside about an hour ago."
"That long ago?" Right after Ryker's little tantrum. Concern washed through him. He turned for the door, feeling Romie touch his arm. He kept walking despite it.
"Robert, I'm certain he is nearby," she sighed, dropping her hands into her apron pockets. "He sometimes just needs to get away to think."
"Or brood," he remarked ruefully from the doorway. Despite her explanation, his friend's prolonged absence still made him twitchy. "Believe me, I understand. But right now, I'd rather know exactly where everyone is." He started to leave again, then paused and turned back once more.
"Any idea where to look for him?"
While her expression remained bland, a mischievous twinkle sparked in her eyes. Pointing one finger toward the ceiling, she told him, "He likes to go up."
"Up," Hogan repeated tonelessly. "Right."
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Unable to sleep as she'd promised Kurt, Miri rose from her bed. She struggled into her sweater, making certain she tucked her Webley into one pocket, then joined Carter and the children in the gathering room. Sitting on the couch one-handedly helping Liselotte unknot her piece of red yarn, she almost missed Hogan's exit from the house. After a few quiet words with Carter, he was out the front door before she could react. Capturing Carter's attention, she asked, "Where is the colonel going?"
"He said he was going to track down the doc, ma'am," Carter answered in a distracted tone, batting Erich's fingers away from his ear. Maximillian decided to play devil's advocate and started tickling the other ear. Carter tried evading both sets of fingers and came close to toppling out of his chair, much to the boys' amusement.
Miri stared at the front door, annoyed that Hogan hadn't bothered to inform her of what he was doing. I am still a part of this mission, Robin. Inwardly seething, she went back to helping Liselotte.
Several knots later, she reached a decision. Getting carefully to her feet, she held out her hand to Liselotte and called to Erich and Maximillian. The two boys immediately abandoned their pestering, and joined her and Liselotte as they headed for the door. Carter shot out of his chair, just making it to the door ahead of them. Miri pulled up short to avoid a collision, hissing under her breath in pain.
"Uh, ma'am . . . I'm not sure the colonel would want you and the kids outside." Carter tried not to quiver beneath Miri's stern glare.
"Nonsense. The children need to get fresh air and work off some of their energy. We're going to be stuck in that truck and other cramped places for a good deal of time. The trip is going to be hard on them, and I intend for them to enjoy their freedom as much as possible before we leave. Now stand aside." Seeing his hesitancy, she stepped forward and added in a clipped voice, "I can make it an order if need be, Sergeant."
Carter reluctantly moved aside and even opened the door for her and the children. After a quick count of fifteen, he followed, determined to keep an eye on them whether she wanted him to or not. As he stepped off the porch steps, he looked around, catching Newkirk's eyes when the Englishman stepped out from behind a tree. Newkirk jerked a thumb in the direction the major had taken, his expression clearly asking What's up? Carter grimaced and hunched his shoulders into an exaggerated shrug.
He'd never figure out officers.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
This is ridiculous!
Hogan slapped the palm of his hand against a tree, then turned and planted his back against it and folded his arms over his chest. He absolutely refused to look up anymore tree trunks calling Kurt's name like he was 'it' in some insane game of hide-and-go-seek. It would have been so much simpler if Newkirk had seen where Kurt had gone. But the Englishman had confessed to not seeing which direction their friend had taken once he'd walked out of sight around the corner of the house.
Glowering at the farm's idyllic scenery, he tried to decide where Kurt would seek solitude, other than up a tree. He briefly considered, then discarded the smokehouse and the granary as possibilities. Both were much too small and confining. His gaze finally fell upon the barn. Definite possibility. He started toward it, hoping against hope that his friend would be there. Otherwise, he'd be back to looking up trees.
He entered the barn's spacious interior and froze in place, every sense alert. Something felt wrong.
Suddenly, he realized the position that Newkirk had taken at lookout. It didn't take a stretch of the imagination to envision someone sneaking up on them unseen from behind the cover of the barn.
His hand slipped into his jacket for his gun as he glanced around. He couldn't see anything out of the ordinary, other than the cow's empty stall. But even that wasn't unusual, since Josef had released her into the pasture after finishing the morning milking. Besides the chickens roosting in their boxes, he appeared to be alone.
Cradling the reassuring weight of his gun, he took a few steps, calling softly, "Kurt?"
The chickens clucked and muttered, tilting their heads from side to side to stare at him with beady black eyes. A few seconds later, they quieted, leaving the eerie silence of before.
The hair on the nape of his neck bristled to attention. Something definitely wasn't right.
Without warning, a flood of straw cascaded down from the loft and over his head and shoulders, leaving him looking like a demented scarecrow. Sputtering and spitting curses, he brushed at the stuff, but only succeeded in driving brittle pieces further into his clothing. Chaff worked beneath his collar, making him snarl and squirm with discomfort. The scratching and prickling on his neck and back felt like an entire nest of ants had taken up residence in his shirt.
Laughter floated down from the loft, causing him to pause mid-swipe. Slowly raising his head, he slanted a baleful look upward, catching a glimpse of Kurt's ice-blond hair disappearing from view. Up. I should'a known. A growl rose in his throat as more straw slithered and skittered down his chest. A roll of his shoulders sent another foray of chaff sifting down his back. He shoved his gun back into its holster. If it remained in his hand, he'd be seriously tempted to use it.
A calculating smile appeared on his face as he listened to the rustling above his head. Kurt was probably readying himself for retaliation. A wise move, since that retaliation was coming. Keeping a wary eye on the loft, Hogan crossed the barn floor in a few quick strides. This isn't exactly what I'd have made my first choice in getting you to blow off steam, but if it works? Okay then. You asked for it, Kurt.
Moving like the cat Carter often claimed he was, Hogan climbed the ladder, stopping just below the loft floor. A quick peek over the edge revealed not the smallest trace of his attacker. Quietly, he pulled himself into the loft, and then paused to kneel and listen. Nothing. Even the mourning dove that nested in the rafters was silent as she peered down at him. He studied the heaps and mounds of golden straw as he cautiously rose into a standing position.
The loft bore little resemblance to what he remembered from his time in hiding with Carter. For one, there was a great deal more straw, allowing for more cover. And the dim sunlight that shone through the cracked walls made the loft seem brighter and cheerier than when they'd huddled together while Carter regained his strength from a shoulder wound. In his memory, the entire disastrous mission seemed shrouded in darkness.
Instinct guided him two slow steps to his left, before he whirled and pounced upon a mound further back into the loft. The mound howled at the unexpected assault, the straw falling away to reveal Kurt's prone form. Hogan bared his teeth in a wolfish smile of triumph.
Straw flew everywhere as the battle was joined in earnest. Though Hogan outweighed Kurt by close to fifteen pounds, Kurt had the greater agility. After a few minutes of wrestling and grappling where neither really gained an advantage, Kurt finally managed to slam a handful of straw down his friend's collar. He had a second to enjoy Hogan's strangled bellow before being lifted and slammed face downward into a larger, deeper mound of straw.
Every bit of the fear, anger and frustration that had been building in Kurt over the course of the mission erupted from his throat in a guttural roar. Spitting out a mouthful of straw, he shoved upward onto his hands and knees, completely taking Hogan by surprise. An instant later, Kurt allowed himself to pitch face downward. It momentarily left him in the undignified position of having his rear sticking straight up in the air, but it also threw Hogan forward and down over top of his head. With a quick backward shove, he slithered free from between Hogan's legs, leaving the other man floundering in loose straw.
He threw himself forward, making a two-point landing between Hogan's shoulder blades. There was a pained grunt of surprise, followed by a litany of vulgar German that spewed out of the straw from the vicinity of Hogan's buried face. Shaking his head in mock sorrow, Kurt grasped a fistful of jet-black hair and lifted.
"Robert! Such language!"
He released his grip, dropping Hogan's face back into the straw, cutting off the blistering reply.
Somehow, the world abruptly turned upside-down and he found himself sprawled flat on his back, with brown eyes smugly beaming down at him. He swore, sparing no breath in his anger. One of the black eyebrows arched and the cocky grin splitting Hogan's face grew wider. The reaction infuriated Kurt even more. Drawing upon every dirty trick he remembered from countless wrestling matches with Philipp and Klaus, he renewed his attack.
This time, he didn't pay the slightest bit of attention to Hogan's commanding grasp of German swear words.
Below, the barn door swung open and Miri entered with Erich, Maximillian and Liselotte at her heels. Hogan continued voicing his complaints, loudly, clearly and in no uncertain terms. Miri laughed at the scorching language. The children looked up at the loft, then glanced at each other in shock. Their parents had strictly forbidden them from ever using such words! Maximillian giggled first, which started Erich, then Liselotte. Miri looked on in amusement as they burst into full-blown laughter.
She glanced upward when a gargled cry split the air and the loft vibrated with a resounding thud. Apparently, it was Kurt's turn to be on the losing end of the battle. Squawking and movement to her left drew her attention away from the fight. Protesting loudly at the uproar above their heads, the chickens abandoned their boxes in a flutter of feathers, and fled willy-nilly for a calmer location. Miri smiled, imagining Josef would find the quota of eggs drastically reduced in the morning.
She walked across the barn floor, calling sweetly, "Robin? Kurt? Exactly how far back into your childhoods have you regressed?"
Silence descended upon the loft. The children's giggles slowly tapered off in anticipation of what would happen next. Miri waited patiently and was rewarded moments later by the sound of rustling straw. Hogan popped into view, wisps of straw clinging to his hair. His eyes briefly registered his surprise at seeing them, then danced with mischief.
"Robin." She waited, but he said no more. With a sigh of martyred patience, she asked, "What have you done with Kurt?"
"Kurt?" Hogan echoed, quickly checking over his shoulder. His smile, when he looked back, was loaded with feigned innocence. "Oh, he's here. Somewhere. I'm just helping him . . . work off some steam."
Kurt suddenly surged into view behind Hogan, feral anticipation on his face. Miri caught a fleeting glimpse of Hogan's eyes widening in alarm before he was grabbed by the shoulders and forcefully yanked backward into the straw.
More laughter and shouts filled the air. She shook her head and glanced down at the children gazing wistfully up at the loft. "There's no reason why you can't join them, children," she prompted. "Just be careful to stay away from the edge."
Her words sent them bolting to the ladder. Moments later, the barn echoed with their shrieks of glee at being included in the impromptu wrestling match.
Miri slowly ambled over to a discarded bucket and turned it over. Checking to see that it was firmly planted on the dirt floor, she carefully settled herself upon it. Despite the merriment filling the air, a frown of unhappiness formed on her face at being unable to join in the activity. As Kurt said, get used to it, Miriam.
She looked up at the loft again and her temper rose in rebellion. Poppycock! Getting to her feet, she strode over to the ladder and gripped a rung with her good hand. She paused a moment to be certain of her balance, then carefully pulled herself up the ladder, one rung at a time. It was awkward, and her shoulder sent out occasional messages warning against the action. Determined, she relegated the pain to the background. Nothing was going to keep her from reaching the loft.
She finally reached her goal and peered over the edge. Pandemonium was the word that immediately sprang to mind. Bodies large and small tumbled over and around each other, intermittently disappearing and reappearing in the straw. As much as she wanted a better view, she wasn't stupid. To get into the loft would mean risking further injury to her shoulder from a flying body. She'd content herself with watching from the ladder.
Kurt's lean form suddenly separated from the tangle of bodies. "Verdamnt, Miriam!" He jumped up, narrowly avoiding tripping over Hogan, who'd risen into a sitting position at his feet. "Do you have absolutely no common sense at all?" He threw his head back and stared upward, taking a moment to get a grip on his rapidly slipping temper. He barely noticed Hogan stand and take up a position at his shoulder.
Wondering what the fuss was all about, Maximillian clambered out of the straw to take a peek. One quick look told him that the adults were at it again. He heaved a dramatic sigh, then guided his brother and sister toward a distant corner of the loft, as far away as possible from any unpleasant discussions.
"I'm perfectly fine, Kurt," Miri stated cooly. "I know my limitations. I'm not a mewling newborn needing to be cosseted."
Kurt's lips thinned into a hard line. He turned to Hogan and in a slow monotone said, "You deal with her." Muttering beneath his breath, he threw himself into the straw with even more vigor than before. The children piled on top of him, shrieking and giggling in delight at his enthusiasm.
Hogan dropped into a seat on the edge of the loft, just inches from where Miri's hand gripped the topmost rung of the ladder.
"What are you trying to prove?"
Fire kindled in her eyes. "I'm not trying to prove anything, Robin, nor is my ego so tender that I need to."
"It seems to me that you're doing everything possible to provoke Kurt. Or is it just me you're trying to get a rise out of?"
"Stuff and nonsense. I refuse to sit like a useless lump on a log when I'm perfectly capable of a measure of activity. Though I may need help with a few things, climbing a ladder is not beyond my capabilities. Furthermore, I fully intend to keep up my duties as much as possible, just as you would were you in the same situation."
Deciding not to answer for the moment, he lifted his gaze and focused on the hay hook hanging from the peak of the roof. He was fairly certain that what he was hearing was frustration and anger at the loss of her independence. She needed to lash out and blow off steam just as much as Kurt did. Only she didn't have the luxury of doing it physically. Hence, the verbal jousting. He sighed inwardly. She was looking for a fight, but he wasn't about to provide it. At least not now and at the top of a ladder. He tilted his head down and made eye contact again. Defiance radiated from her petite form and he had to restrain another sigh.
He wanted her down, not perched over twelve feet in the air. But he knew better than to offer his help. That would just ignite the explosion he wanted to avoid. Mentally crossing his fingers and toes, he tried another angle.
"Since you got yourself up here, I guess you can get yourself down." It was a dismissal and watching the fire in her eyes flare even hotter, he thought he'd miscalculated. Instead, she gave a short, hard shake of her head and slowly started back down the ladder. To not help her went against every fiber of his nature. But somehow he managed it. His teeth might have been worn down by the grinding he'd put them through, but he did it. As soon as she had both feet planted solidly on the floor, he dove back into the straw with Kurt and the children.
He needed the release even more than Kurt did, now.
Miri returned to the discarded bucket, brushed if off, then settled in to await the children's return. Only a few minutes had passed when the barn door opened and Carter entered. Shooting an incredulous look up at the loft, he walked over to her, whistling softly under his breath.
"Holy cow," he breathed, hearing Hogan yelp and the children's squeal of laughter. "It sure sounds like they're having fun up there."
"Why don't you join them, Carter?"
His head jerked down. "Oh, no, ma'am. I'd much rather stay down here with you." His face clouded over as he glanced up at the loft again and muttered, "Besides, I don't have very fond memories of that place." Memory supplied phantom sensations of pain and cold, sending a shudder through him.
Miri had no idea what he was referring to, but it didn't really matter. He needed to face his fears. "Then that is exactly why you should go back up there." Her voice was soft, but she got his attention, nevertheless.
His head snapped down again. "Ma'am?"
"We still have a bit of time before Zoellner returns. Go back up there, Carter and replace the bad memories with good ones." Understanding flickered across his face. He gave her a grin, then started up the ladder. Moments later, his voice joined in the loud chorus of laughter. Miri smiled in satisfaction, listening to the barn literally vibrate with happy noise.
It wasn't long before she felt frustrated again. Never one to be a bystander of any kind, the inactivity was driving her to distraction. Movement of any kind was better than sitting. Especially when she considered the cramped quarters that she and the children would soon be sharing.
Stiffly, she got up from the uncomfortable makeshift chair and wandered outside. From across the barnyard, Newkirk's hand popped into view and delivered a wave. She waved back, then went to the house to make certain that nothing would be left a mess. Romie's energy had visibly waned and the skin beneath her eyes had darkened from fatigue. The last thing Miri wanted was to leave the older woman with a house full of chores.
Upon entering the house, she did a quick circuit of the gathering room, tidying on the go. Ryker's eyes followed her every move. Miri frowned in irritation. If not for the information locked in his brain, she would gladly see him booted over the side of the sub. His only redeeming quality appeared to be his gentleness with the children. But she didn't trust it, nor did it change her opinion of him.
She finished the gathering room and moved on to the bedroom. It would take longer. But there was plenty of time and she actually welcomed the work. With a brisk nod, she set herself to the task, beginning with straightening the bed linens.
Ryker silently entered the room and closed the door. A malevolent grin twisted his features while he watched her fuss one-handed with the duvet. Holding the tip of his cane off the floor, he slowly limped across the room and came up behind her.
Despite the silence of his approach, Miri stiffened and spun to face him. She grimaced at the too-quick movement, but made no sound to indicate her surprise at his nearness.
He stared down his nose at her, taking in the pale, yet determined face and alert eyes. His lips curled into a superior grin. "Just as I said. You are not worthy of the responsibility of seeing to my safety. You were completely unaware that I was in the same room. It is utterly ludicrous to believe that you could protect me, when you cannot protect yourself." He struck out, backhanding her hard across the cheek. Miri gave a choked cry of pain and fell back upon the bed.
Sneering in contempt, he stared down at her gasping, prone form. "You are even more worthless than he is." He was so wrapped up in enjoying her helplessness that he failed to notice her hand slide to the pocket of her sweater. A second later, he was staring down the barrel of a Webley revolver.
"You blackguard," Miri snapped, struggling into an upright position. Pain exploded in the joint of her shoulder, momentarily making her eyes swim with tears. The gun, however, remained steady and fixed upon him. "I would so love to shoot you and spare everyone your whining."
A wave of crimson began at his neck and swept upward with lightening speed. He lifted the cane at his side, readying to deliver a crippling blow. Miri shifted her aim and neatly shot the ebony stick in two. Ryker's eyes swung in disbelief to the shattered wood in his hand. Not only had the shot been accurate enough to destroy the stick, it had splintered the wood mere inches from his fist. Tiny droplets of blood beaded around the many slivers now decorating his trembling fingers.
"You . . ." Ryker snarled, taking a step toward her.
Hogan burst into the room; gun in hand. Kurt, Carter and Newkirk ran in behind him, with Josef not far behind. Despite the noise of their arrival, Miri's gaze never wavered from Ryker, the Webley still poised and at the ready.
"The situation is under control, Colonel," Miri assured him. "The general and I were just discussing the merits of good behavior and how it could be beneficial to one's health." Her voice smoothed to a silky purr. "Weren't we, Herr General?"
Ryker seethed with impotent fury. Never, had he been more humiliated. Being held at bay by a mere woman was unthinkable. Even worse was the fact that she was injured, but still able to turn the confrontation to her advantage. But the very worst, the part that made his stomach roil with nausea, was that the American was witnessing his humiliation. Hogan stood in front and slightly apart from the other men, his expression as cold as the gun in his hand.
"I anticipate Herr General will find the trip quite boring since there will be no need for him to worry about command decisions," Miri continued. "All he'll have to do is sit back and let me take care of everything. Isn't that right, Herr General?" Deliberately, she cocked the Webley again.
Ryker had an irrational urge to ignore their guns and attack her anyway. Calm suddenly descended upon him, bringing him to his senses. Let her think she has the upper hand - for now. Staring directly into her eyes, he snarled,"Ja."
She eased back on the Webley's hammer and lowered the weapon to her lap.
Without taking his eyes off Ryker, Hogan quietly said, "Newkirk, go back to sentry. Carter, you're with Ryker." Seeing the situation was well in hand, Josef followed Newkirk out, bound for Romie and the children.
"Wait," Kurt blurted, as Carter started forward. Carter hesitated, then at Hogan's nod, stopped.
Kurt walked up to Ryker and in a voice roughened by rage, told him, "You were warned. Leave this house this instant. Stay away from my parents. Go outside. I do not care if you sit on the porch or in the barn with the other animals. Just . . . GET OUT! NOW!"
Carter stepped in front of the German and jerked his thumb toward the door.
Kurt watched Ryker limp from the room, then bowed his head, catching sight of the splintered piece of cane at his feet. With a savage kick, he sent it flying into a far corner of the room.
Hogan tucked his gun away and went to Miri. "Are you okay?" Carefully, he reached down and removed the Webley from her lap.
"Yes," she admitted with a tired smile. "But some of Kurt's morphine wouldn't be unwelcome." She felt a twinge of concern when Kurt didn't react. Hogan had also noticed his friend's uncharacteristic silence. Quietly, he crossed back to Kurt.
"I hope that information is worth the hell that bastard has put all of us through," Kurt muttered, rubbing at his temple.
"It may well end the war."
Kurt briefly chewed on his lower lip, then forced a smile. "Why don't you join me in tending to our lady gunslinger?"
"Oh, good heavens!" Miri protested, watching them close in on her from either side.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Once Kurt had made up his mind, he wasn't about to be swayed. One way or another, he meant to have his say. Stifling a yawn, he leaned against the porch rail and stared across the yard, sizing up the situation. Hogan was occupied with giving Zoellner last minute instructions, while the others were gathering at the truck. A short distance away, Miri and his parents were talking. Ryker, exercising some wisdom, had separated himself from the group by climbing into the truck to wait. This would be Kurt's only chance. He trotted down the steps and across the yard.
He gave his parents a pointed look from beneath raised eyebrows and gently took hold of Miri's good arm. "Miriam, a moment of your time, bitte." He pulled her aside, not stopping until they were outside of hearing range of everyone, but still within sight.
"What is it, Kurt?"
"You may tell me that this is none of my business, Miriam, but I heartily disagree." His voice was quiet, but sharp enough to cut glass. "Robert is my friend. I count his friendship an honor, especially in times such as these." Intrigued, Miri remained silent. Kurt plowed ahead, determined to finish. "As his friend, and I hope, as yours, I feel I cannot let you go without saying this."
Miri sighed. "I hear another lecture coming."
"Nein," Kurt squinted one eye, then cocked his head. "Ja." A grin flashed across his face as she laughed softly. "But the small difference is that it will not be made with raised voice this time. There have been enough fireworks around here. I do not want our last moments together to be spent in anger." He glanced over his shoulder at Hogan. The officer was still talking with Zoellner, but Kurt could tell that he had one eye trained on them. His window of opportunity was narrowing fast.
"Understand, Miriam, I am not speaking to you as a doctor now, I'm speaking to you as a friend." He broke off, adjusting their positions so that he had a clear view of his friend. He didn't want Hogan silently approaching and overhearing what he had to say.
"You are to take care of yourself." His head took on a warning tilt when her eyes flashed with indignation. "I am not just referring to your shoulder and this trip. I am referring to ALWAYS, Miriam! Because that is what I see in his eyes when he looks at you. I see forever. Not just today, not just till the end of the war, but after and always."
Miri's gaze flickered to where Hogan stood.
"Whether he's admitted it to himself or not, he is in love with you. That means that you have the ability to hurt him more than any bullet ever could. I want you to consider that very carefully, Miriam, the next time you decide to pull some foolhardy stunt or risk your health." His voice gentled, and he reached to cradle her good hand. "It is my most sincere wish, that when this cursed war has ended, that I might have the pleasure of seeing the two of you standing whole and together, side by side." His eyes crinkled with a smile. "Hopefully, at a wedding ceremony." He lifted her hand and bestowed a kiss upon it.
Miri shook her head in amusement. "You are a hopeless romantic, Herr Doktor Metzger."
"And you are a most aggravating woman, Major Broadbent," he countered softly. "There have been moments in the brief time that we have had together, when my blood pressure has suffered from your stubborn Welsh temperament." His smile widened. "But it has also been a pleasure. I will miss you, stubbornness and all."
"Major," Hogan called, striding toward them. "You've got to leave now if you're going to make the rendezvous."
She nodded an acknowledgment, then looked up at Kurt. "I'll keep your advice in mind." After giving his arm a light pat, she strode away to walk side by side with Hogan to the truck.
Kurt blew out a slow breath of relief and joined his parents. Together, they watched Newkirk and Carter finish their good-byes with the children at the back of the truck. Both men wore stiff smiles, neither wanting to make the departure scary or sad for the children. But the bleak looks in their eyes gave away their true state of mind. Carter, in particular, kept blinking as he finally released Liselotte from a hug, allowing Miri to lead her further into the truck. Newkirk stepped back from the tailgate, waving at Erich once more. The little boy waved, then went to Miri's side. Maximillian peered at them from his seat, his blue eyes wide and filled with sadness. Of the three children, he alone knew exactly what their leaving meant.
"I can't do it. I just can't watch them leave," Carter mumbled brokenly. Turning away from the truck, he trotted past them and into the silent and empty house. Newkirk bit his lip, glancing from the house to the truck, its motor rumbling louder as Zoellner prepared to leave. A moment later, the clutch was released with a growling shudder, and the truck began to move. Newkirk thrust his hands into his pockets and walked hunch-shouldered past Hogan. "I'll just go and check on him, colonel."
Hogan's gaze followed the truck's slow progress, peripherally aware of Kurt's arrival at his side. By squinting his eyes, he could just make out Liselotte grinning back at him, one hand still waving in choppy side-to-side motions. Finally, the truck and its human cargo disappeared through the trees. After a few moments alone with his thoughts, Hogan softly cleared his throat.
"I don't suppose you'd care to share what it was that you were discussing with Miri?"
"Nein," Kurt replied, still staring toward the lane. "It is finally over. The mission is accomplished."
"No," Hogan bit out, turning to look at him. "It's not over until I hear that they made it safely aboard the sub and that Ryker's delivered on his end of the deal. Only then, is it over."
"And for the children, it has only just begun," Kurt murmured.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Leidel flipped the pages of the report closed and tossed it onto a pile on one corner of the desk. Allowing himself a soft sigh of satisfaction, he scanned the room before him, idly taking note of the positions and activities of each of his fellow officers. His gaze briefly hesitated upon Nuechterlein, who was speaking and gesturing vehemently in response to the person on the other end of the phone. He made a mental reminder to do a follow-up on whatever had raised the normally calm, levelheaded officer to such emotional heights. Quickly, he checked the others, but found nothing worthy of note. Other than Nuechterlein's ranting, a low hum of everyday activity blanketed the Wehrmacht post.
He felt a grin forming and nonchalantly propped a hand across his mouth to cover it. Even though he appeared unobserved, it wouldn't be a good idea to let his pleasure show. Good humor was rare in the post, so his was sure to be noticed. And explaining his amusement over a report detailing the disappearance of a highly ranked Gestapo officer from a hospital would be next to impossible. His smile faded as he considered the sidebar of the report, confirming that three children had also gone missing from the same hospital. Written in the usual egotistical prose that he'd come to hate, it concluded their disappearance at the same time as Ryker's could be nothing more than sheer coincidence.
The general's disappearance had caused consternation throughout the hierarchy of command, ranging from Hammelburg clear to Berlin. A massive and thorough search had been made, starting in the hospital and branching out into the town. All hospital personnel had been rounded up and grilled extensively and repeatedly, but no one could give them any clues.
Despite every avenue pursued, Ryker's mysterious disappearance remained unsolved.
The children's disappearance, however, resulted in only a ripple of concern and a cursory search. What cause for alarm over three missing orphans who had been bound for Aplerbeck in the first place?
Just one less problem for the Third Reich.
Smoothly stretching forward over his desk just far enough to reach the folder, Leidel pulled out the photos that had been included with the report. The picture of the craggy-faced general was tossed aside without a second glance, the remaining photos spread upon the desk blotter. Three children, two boys and a girl gazed up at him, solemn and obviously frightened at the moment their images had been captured. These weren't pictures taken for a family album, precious memories stored, waiting to be pulled out years from now and exclaimed over. No. These were pictures taken in the sterile environment of a hospital ward, for purposes of identification only. Cold, unfeeling records in grainy shades of gray of children tragically orphaned by fire.
He cradled one of the pictures on his palm and slowly lifted it closer. His photographic memory had already permanently stored the child's image in his mind, but he wanted to hold and see the physical evidence again. A little urchin-faced girl, all eyes and shoulder length dark hair, stared accusingly at him from the two-dimensional record. Sadness and anger warred for dominance in his heart. Unnoticed, his fingers and thumb clenched inward, buckling the photo into a stiff curl within the span of his hand.
Ah, liebchen. Wherever you and your brothers have been taken, I pray you will be happy. At the very least, you will have a chance, now.
Minutes skipped by unnoticed while he studied the photos, ignoring the activity around him. Finally, he thrust the pictures back into the folder and banished it once again to the corner of the desk. Propping his elbows on the desk blotter and steepling his fingers beneath his chin, he stared into the distance, considering all that he'd recently learned.
An unpleasant gleam appeared within the depths of his gray eyes. After years of patiently waiting and listening, bowing and scraping and cultivating sources and allies, he was finally right where he wanted to be; where he could do the most good.
Or the most harm.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Late April, 1944
At a table in the nerve center of the tunnel system, Hogan sat quietly cleaning his gun, totally immersed in the mundane but necessary chore. With ease born of experience, he finished with the cleaning and reassembled the weapon, then held it up for inspection. The oiled metal gleamed in the light, dully mirroring his reflection back at him. He was just wiping the weapon down when a sneeze came from the tunnel to his left, followed by sniffling and grumbling. One corner of his mouth twitched, then settled again. He gave the gun another wipe of the cloth, then set both gun and cloth aside and waited. Moments later, Kurt walked into view, still carrying on a rambling monolog beneath his breath.
"In a good mood today, aren't we?" Hogan commented with some amusement. Kurt wrinkled his nose at him and took a seat at the table.
"There are several lamps out just before the juncture to tunnel 3."
"I'll see they're replaced." Hogan studied the look of disgust. "Wow, blown bulbs really get you in a dither."
"It's not that!" Kurt snapped, a scowl drawing his brows into a sharp line. "It's the fact that even in complete darkness, I was able to find my way through the tunnel without so much as a bump!"
"And this is bad, because?"
"It proves that I have finally turned into a mole like the rest of you!" Kurt lifted his hands in front of him and flipped them back and forth. "At least they have not yet turned into claws." He squinted over at Hogan. "Do my eyes appear smaller to you?"
Hogan squinted back at him. "Well . . . only a bit. Nothing really noticeable. Yet."
"It was only a matter of time," Kurt intoned sorrowfully, lacing his fingers together upon the table.
"Well it hasn't happened because of recent exposure. You've been pretty scarce."
Kurt studied his clasped hands. "I had much to think over. Ryker brought out aspects of my personality that I was not aware I possessed. They not only surprised me, they frightened me." His gaze wandered to Hogan. "I did not know that I was capable of such violent emotion."
"Hold it," Hogan snapped, jabbing a finger at him. "Everyone's capable of extreme anger if driven far enough. Just because you're capable of violence doesn't make you a violent man. Ryker's a violent man. He doesn't hesitate to use anger and force to try and get what he wants, or to prey on anyone weaker than him. He's a coward and a bully. You, however, would only resort to physical force if pushed into a situation where you had no other choice. And then you'd agonize over it later." A grin teased one corner of his mouth. "Like you're doing now."
Kurt tipped his head back and slowly pulled in a breath.
"What else?" Hogan prodded.
The shadowed eyes slowly dropped to his. "I've also been thinking about Ryker, himself."
"Don't waste your time."
"Hear me out, Robert," Kurt said, taking another deep breath. "The man has a terrible cruel streak . . ."
"That's putting it mildly," Hogan snarled.
Kurt stared at him, momentarily taken aback by the force of the answer. Hogan stared back, expressionless. "Yet," Kurt continued, "We all saw his gentleness with the children."
"Yeah, well, even Frankenstein liked that little girl. But he still ended up killing her."
Kurt plodded on, undaunted by the fury now boiling just below the surface of Hogan's expression. "Have you considered what a lonely man he must be? For all his power and position, his existence must literally be hell."
"You're unbelievable!" Hogan exploded out of his chair. "Who gives a damn what he feels?" He moved away, then stalked back and braced his hands on the table. Kurt looked up at him calmly. "How can you possibly care what he feels after everything he did? I'm not talking about his attempt on me. I was capable of defending myself. But he attacked Miri! Who knows how far he would've gone if she hadn't been armed? I don't care if he started saving kittens and puppies, feeding bread to the birds, and donating millions to the care and feeding of orphans! I STILL wouldn't trust him!"
"I agree. I would never trust him either nor would I ever allow him in my parents' home again. But at the same time, Robert, I cannot forget that he is still a human being. His compassion and gentleness toward the children give me reason to believe that for all his cruelty, he is not completely a monster." He looked down, muttering, "I cannot help feeling just a bit sorry for him."
Hogan groaned and dropped into his chair. "You're unbelievable."
"And you are repeating yourself," Kurt teased, then sobered once more. "What kind of doctor would I be if I refused to treat people simply because I allowed my personal feelings to get in the way? I cannot choose to treat this person and not that person based upon the deeds they commit. If Hitler was wounded and dying and I was the only doctor present, despite my hatred for him, I would try to save his life." He shrugged uncomfortably, his gaze dropping to the table. "Perhaps I tend to look for any small goodness I can find in order to make my treating animals like Ryker easier to accept. Otherwise, how would I ever continue in my profession?"
Mouth open to continue, Kurt suddenly focused upon Hogan's hands, lying flat upon the table. He surged forward, his eyes widening as he demanded, "What did you do?" Reaching out, he grabbed his friend's hands, keeping them in view. Gently, he examined the badly torn knuckles. His jaw tightened in concern at the extent of damage. He looked up, silently demanding an answer.
"I got a little carried away working out on the punching bag." Hogan refused to meet his eyes, his voice low.
Kurt shook his head, simultaneously shaking Hogan's hands. "This is not working out. This is destruction!" He released his hold, then slapped the table hard. Hogan's head jerked up. "Tell me," Kurt coaxed softly. "Tell me what would cause you to get so carried away that you would inflict this much damage upon yourself."
"Ryker, dammit!" Hogan jumped to his feet and paced away from the table. "The bastard went after Miri, again!"
"Mein Gott, Robert," Kurt breathed in horror.
"Miri pulled a few strings and got a letter through," Hogan rasped, coming to a stop and staring into the distance. Receiving an uncensored letter had been quite a novelty. The envelope had been grimy and crumpled from the lengthy trip across sea, but intact. He'd opened it eagerly, anxious to hear of the trip and how she was doing. By the time he'd finished reading, he was consumed with a rage he hadn't felt in years. Unable to retaliate against the object of his hatred, he'd isolated himself in the camp's weight room. Not bothering to don gloves or tape, he'd attacked the bag, throwing punch after punch until his knuckles were raw and bloody.
Hesitantly, afraid of the answer, Kurt asked, "What happened?"
"I don't know exactly!" Hogan ground out, running a hand through his hair.
Kurt shook his head, confused. "What did she say?"
"It's not what she said, it's what she didn't say! Miri's never evasive, Kurt. But she was tap dancing all over the place whenever Ryker was mentioned. He tried something and I can damned well guess what it was!"
"He wasn't successful," Kurt whispered, the statement sounding more like a plea.
"No." Hogan sighed, paced a few steps, then turned back. "He made it to London alive." A cold grin swept across his face. "But I doubt that he came away unscathed. Miri's got all sorts of nasty weapons that he wouldn't have known about. He paid for the attempt."
Kurt propped his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. A moment later, he felt a hand fall upon his shoulder and squeeze gently. He looked up.
"She's fine," Hogan stated quietly.
Kurt's eyebrows shot up.
Hogan gave him a nod. "Trust me. She's fine." But, that doesn't mean I still wouldn't like to put a bullet between Ryker's eyes!
"Is that supposed to make everything better, Robert?"
Hogan winced as the comment struck home. "Let it go, Kurt."
"Can you?" Kurt waited, watching the struggle going on behind the brown eyes.
Hogan had never lied to him and he wasn't about to now. "No."
Hogan took a good hard look at the misery in his face. It would be a long time before Kurt would be able to leave the mission's events behind. Just another item to add to the list of experiences that they shared.
It was time for some good news. Forcing cheerfulness into his voice, he patted Kurt's shoulder and said, "Hey, let me tell you about the rest of the trip."
Kurt was grateful for the change in subject, but nonetheless got to his feet and headed toward the ladder to the barracks. "I would like that. But not here, Robert. I can feel my fingernails growing longer as we speak."
"That's nothing," Hogan chuckled, moving to follow. "It's when you get a sudden craving for some nice juicy grubs that you should start worrying."
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
A shirt flew in a graceful arc across the barracks, floating to rest upon Carter's bare head. LeBeau smiled triumphantly. Direct hit. His aim had definitely improved.
"For crying out loud, Louis!" Carter yelped, abandoning his cards and yanking the shirt off his head. His hair stuck out in spiky tufts, making him look even younger. Throwing a curdled look at the little Frenchman, he combed his fingers through the strands of hair, taming them back into place.
"Three times this month you've torn a shirt. This time, you can do the mending!" LeBeau balled his hands upon his hips and tossed his head with an imperious sniff.
"Well, I don't keep getting caught on that nail on purpose!"
"There's an easy way to fix this," Kinch drawled from his bunk, where he'd been trying to catch some sleep. "Just pull out the nail. That way, you won't keep getting caught on it. No nail, no rips." He'd have pulled the piece of metal out of the tunnel beam himself, had he known that it would lead to this running argument.
Carter's face momentarily went blank, then brightened. "Hey! I never thought of that!" Newkirk reached across the table, took the shirt from Carter's hand and draped it back over the younger man's head. Muffled disgust issued from beneath it.
Kinch rolled onto his stomach and buried his head beneath his pillow, hoping to drown out the chatter. He shot out from under it seconds later as the bunk entrance opened. Hogan stepped out, then tugged his jacket back into place. Kurt hopped out behind him. Greetings and waves rose from around the room at his appearance. Kurt waved back, sniffed the air appreciatively, then scooted past Hogan to the stove.
"Ah, coffee!" Reaching his prize, he poured himself a cup and waved the fragrant brew beneath his nose. His eyes closed in bliss. A moment later, they snapped open again and turned toward Newkirk in a suspicious squint. Intent upon his cards, the Englishman was completely unaware of being eyed.
LeBeau bounced over and grinned up at Kurt. "You're safe. I made it."
"Hey, now!" Newkirk groused, catching the reference. "My coffee isn't that bad!"
"Yes, it is!" Everyone chorused.
Still holding the cup below his nose, Kurt laughed, enjoying the look of outrage Newkirk aimed around the room.
"You going to drink it or inhale it?" Hogan inquired from over his shoulder. Stepping around Kurt, he poured his own cup and carried it to the table.
Kurt ignored the jibe, perfectly content with the world and the hot coffee in his cup. Humming tunelessly in appreciation, he sank into a seat between Newkirk and Hogan.
Kinch sighed to the bunk above his head. Sleep was out of the question now. Levering himself to his feet, he gathered his own cup and joined the group.
After several minutes of listening to the ebb and flow of conversation around him, Kurt roused himself from the hot coffee and bumped against Hogan's elbow, knocking the other man off balance. Smiling sweetly into his friend's mildly annoyed expression, he prompted, "You mentioned in the tunnel you had news of the children."
Hogan started to answer, but broke off at Benson's call warning of Schultz's approach.
"Colonel Hogan," The sergeant of the guard burst into the barracks, then stopped dead at the sight of the non-prisoner. His eyes bounced from Kurt to Hogan as he slowly lumbered closer. "I did not see him come in the gate." Outrage and accusation marched across the chubby face. "He DID NOT come in the gate! WHAT is he doing here? HOW did he get here??" He came to rest at Hogan's shoulder, pinning the American with a wounded glare.
"Schultz, don't you know it's rude to interrupt?" Hogan chided.
"Oh, I am so sorry," Schultz said in a voice dripping with sarcasm, "I keep forgetting that this is just a country club, where you are free to come and go as you please and have guests arrive at any time of the day or night. Please . . ." he rocked back on his heels, tucked his chin and spread his arms wide, "pay no attention to me."
Hogan leaned back and looked him up and down. "What's got you in such an uproar?"
The sarcastic attitude disappeared like a puff of smoke. Schultz placed his hands upon his considerable girth and rolled his eyes, projecting every bit of pitifulness he could bring to bear. "The kommandant is in a ter-r-r-i-i-ble mood. All day, he has been growling and snapping. Poor Fraulein Helga has broken two fingernails trying to type all his reports and --"
"We got him that excellent rating with the inspector," Hogan cut in before the explanation could gain momentum. "We've kept our Tommy Dorsey music down, just like he asked. We even swept the place and lined up on time this morning for roll call. Geez, we keep this up, he'll expect it all the time!"
"Yeah!" Carter clamored. "That would be spoiling him! And a spoiled kommandant is . . . well . . . a spoiled kommandant," he finished lamely.
"What's got 'is knickers in such a twist, anyways?" Newkirk grumbled, doing his best to ignore Carter, who was still prattling to the room at large about the evils of spoiled kommandants.
"It is the new barmaid at the Hauserhof," Schultz whispered in confidence, throwing a furtive glance over his shoulder. "She turned him down again last night."
"No!" Hogan slapped a hand to his jaw, feigning surprise.
Schultz's vigorous nodding set his double chins jiggling.
"Ahem." Kurt leaned forward over his cup. "Is this barmaid perhaps about so tall," he held his hand at Schultz's eye level, "with shoulder-length blonde hair, beautiful green eyes, eyelashes out to here, an hourglass figure, and a wonderfully soft, husky voice?"
Schultz uttered a mumbled "Ja" to each question, his eyes bulging comically above his ruddy cheeks.
"Holy cow," breathed Carter.
"Amen to that," Newkirk sighed, dreamily staring into space.
LeBeau gave a drawn-out whistle, one hand waggling in the air in appreciation of the picture that had been painted.
Hogan thoughtfully regarded Kurt. His friend ignored him and smiled serenely into his coffee cup, looking like a cat with a bellyful of cream. Hogan put up with it for all of five seconds.
"Risa. My cousin." Blue eyes full of mischief, Kurt glanced from the cup to Hogan's stunned expression.
Kinch reached across the table and tapped the back of his hand with one finger. "Any chance all your cousins look like that?"
"Nein," he chuckled, taking another sip of his coffee. "Risa is one of a kind."
Inching closer to his side, Schultz plastered an ingratiating smile on his face and begged in a wheedling tone, "Perhaps you might ask your cousin to go out with Kommandant Klink? He would be much happier then, which would mean that WE would be much happier."
"I am sorry. This I will not do. Risa knows her own mind." The adamant tone brooked no discussion.
Schultz slumped in disappointment. After casting a woebegone look in Hogan's direction, he turned and left the barracks.
As soon as the door closed, a dozen or so pairs of eyes fixed upon Kurt. Eyebrows arched, he looked back in silence. When the study showed no signs of ending, he decided it was time to move on to another topic. He swatted Hogan on the shoulder. "You were going to tell me more about the trip."
Hogan smirked, quite familiar with that particular evasive maneuver. "Shortly after boarding the sub, Ryker made good and delivered the information. He also gave the major information on the new jet research, which made London even happier." He decided not to mention a few of the highlights Miri had mentioned in the letter. Like Liselotte and Erich's unsupervised exploration of the bowels of the sub and Maximillian's severe bout with claustrophobia.
"What about the children?" Kurt prodded impatiently. As important as the information might be to the war effort, the children came first in his mind.
"They're safe, settling in and adjusting fairly well. The major's sister and brother-in-law in Wales were happy to take them in, just as she'd hoped."
Carter and Newkirk eased back in their seats, noticeably relaxing at the news.
Hogan turned to Carter. "The major wanted me to tell you that Liselotte spoke her first word on the trip."
"No kidding?" Carter chirped, grinning from ear to ear. "What did she say?"
Hogan struggled to keep a straight face while repeating the word that Miri had explained to him.
"What does that mean?" Carter frowned. Judging by the look on Hogan's face, he wasn't going to like it.
"It's a Welsh swear word," Hogan explained, still putting up a valiant struggle not to laugh. "And according to the major, she says it like a native!" The thought of Liselotte, innocence personified, spouting the vulgar word over and over like a demented parrot to her foster parents' horror, was the final straw. Giving in, he dissolved into laughter, joining the others.
Carter and Kurt were the only ones who didn't find any humor in the announcement. They shared a look of disgust, then Carter squawked loud enough to be heard over the din, "How did she pick THAT up?"
"Well," Hogan wiped a hand across his smile, forcing his amusement into the background. "It seems that Major Broadbent had a difference of opinion with Ryker and Liselotte happened to overhear some of the major's more creative language."
In the letter, Miri had succinctly described how the German officer's bickering and antipathy had finally driven her into pulling her Langford. Only then had the complaints stopped, giving the entire crew a measure of peace. Hogan felt that the incident had probably occurred prior to Ryker's second attempt at harming Miri. The German wouldn't have been in any condition or frame of mind to do much complaining afterward.
"Of all the words she could pick up, it has to be a swear word." Carter grabbed his cards into one fist, blankly stared at them in annoyance, then threw them back down with enough force to scatter them in all directions. Folding his arms tight against his chest, he glared at Newkirk, who was still chortling gleefully. "Well, I don't think it's so funny!"
"Nor do I." Kurt shoved his empty cup aside, inadvertently knocking some of the cards onto the floor. LeBeau nimbly avoided the scatterings while passing by with an armload of laundry he'd gathered from the communal basket. Dumping the clothing onto one of the bunks, he set about sorting. He pulled out a shirt and started muttering vociferously beneath his breath.
"Oh, come on," Hogan leaned his elbows on the table, offering a smile to smooth their ruffled tempers. "Settle down you two. I'm sure the major's family is no happier about it than you are. They'll see that she understands that it's not a word to be used in polite company."
"Well . . . okay," Carter grumbled, still unhappy about the development.
Kurt shook his head, wearily wondering what other things the little girl might have picked up while traveling with the major. Several possibilities came to mind. Horrified, he hung his head and tried not to think about it.
LeBeau's muttering finally caught Hogan's attention. Turning his head, he watched the little Frenchman fluff and pull at some of the laundry. Upon looking closer, he saw that it was one of his shirts.
"What's the matter, LeBeau?"
"Je ne comprends pas," LeBeau answered, spreading and flapping the shirt in the air, then digging in one of the front pockets. "I do not understand. It is in the shirt, in the pants. I think I have it all, yet there it is again. Three washings and still there is more! Where is it coming from?"
"Where's what coming from?" Hogan got up from the table, wanting a closer look at what LeBeau was referring to.
"This!" LeBeau pulled his hand out of the pocket and dumped his find into Hogan's palm. By now, everyone in the room was curious, listening and watching the exchange closely.
Hogan stared down at his hand, then slowly returned to the table and held his palm directly below Kurt's face. Kurt glanced down at it, then up at him, then over at Carter. For a brief moment, they stared at each other, faces completely devoid of expression, and then they burst into laughter.
Cradled on Hogan's palm lay a tiny pile of straw.
I'm grateful to Kate Brown for allowing me the use of her original character, Major Miriam Broadbent, RA, and for all of her advice, patience, support and inspiration. My thanks also go out to everyone - most especially to Kathy M. & Kathy F. and Malisa - who wrote expressing interest and encouragement in my writing and who cheered me on when I faltered. Ladies, you're the best. And finally, to the actors, actresses and creators of Hogan's Heroes, for a show and characters that continue to provide hours of entertainment.
This story is dedicated to my husband, Dave. My soul mate, my friend, my heart.