Author's Note: This ficlit is for the Short Story Speed-Writing competition, and was slightly inspired by the Genesis song "Home by the Sea." As always, the characters aren't mine, but the story is!
Long ago, he had given up trying to estimate what he would find in any house merely by looking at the outside of it. But Peter Newkirk, experienced cat burglar, hadn't cared in those days, as long as he managed to get something for his efforts that could fetch enough money to put food on the table for himself and, more importantly, for his sister.
And now, he was on another life-saving mission, and everything depended on what was inside that house he was about to enter. And the lives he was seeking to save were those of his closest friends, in addition to his own. It was not to put food on the table for them, however; the Underground had recently been betrayed by a man who had worked with the men at Stalag 13 on several occasions. Their names, a map of the tunnel system, and more information on the rest of the Hammelburg underground were all in a sealed envelope somewhere in the traitor's bedroom. Major Hochstetter had been given a key and specific instructions on when to come to the house to pick up the information.
The Heroes had a lucky break, however; Schnitzer, by a sheer stroke of luck, had managed to see the traitor earlier, in the morning. A truckful of German shepherds later, the turncoat had surrendered and revealed about the information drop, and that Hochstetter would be coming for it in the evening.
Hogan had wasted no time. Drawing up fake information papers in another envelope, he had given them to Newkirk, instructing him to switch the envelopes. A spring storm started to descend upon them that evening, and the dark storm clouds had brought an early night. The Englishman had been drafted; Hogan was counting on his skills as a thief to get him through this mission.
Almost as an afterthought, the colonel stopped Newkirk before he had gone, insisting that someone else go, too, as backup. Once again, the others looked away, and Newkirk even offered to go alone, saying that he never had "backup" during his days as a thief; it was a task that was best done alone—especially for someone like him, who tended to worry for his companions.
In the end, Hogan chose LeBeau; the Frenchman would be the best backup in a case like this, having known the Englishman the longest and subsequently being able to read him better. And that was how it transpired that Newkirk and LeBeau were standing outside the back of the house. The chef was waiting for the magician-thief to figure out the best way to gain entry into the house.
"That looks like the bedroom up there," the Englishman said, pointing to a back window on the second floor. A flash of lightning illuminated the house and themselves.
"We need to get inside," LeBeau said. "We are likely to get struck by lightning if we stand out here."
"I've got to worry about that a good deal more than you do," Newkirk countered, unable to resist making a crack about his friend's height—or lack thereof.
LeBeau countered with a retort in his own language before asking, "Should we try picking the lock on the front door?"
"Too risky; 'ochstetter might be coming from that way at any ruddy moment, and with the two of us in civilian clothes, 'e's likely to kill us on sight." Newkirk's eyes turned to a gnarled tree standing near them. Forming a plan, Newkirk climbed up the tree and maneuvered along the upper branches to reach the window of the bedroom.
Within moments, he had the window unlocked and opened. Slipping inside, he took a look around the room, pulled a couple of sheets from the bed, tied them together, and sent the makeshift rope down for LeBeau to climb up, once again wondering if he wouldn't have been better off taking this as a solo mission.
"Right; 'elp me look for that envelope," the Englishman instructed. "That blooming turncoat didn't say where in the room it was; we're lucky that we found out about this at all."
"Oui, but it is as you said; we do not have much time before Hochstetter arrives," the Frenchman said, beginning to look into dresser that was against the wall. A large mirror was mounted on the wall above the dresser.
Newkirk grunted in agreement, crossing to one of the bedside tables. Pulling the drawer open, he saw nothing, except for an expensive-looking pocket watch. Discreetly, Newkirk slipped the watch into his own pocket; it was true that he was not proud of his penchant for thievery, but a traitor, in his opinion, warranted this treatment.
The theft didn't escape LeBeau, but the Frenchman decided to keep silent, thinking along the same lines as Newkirk was.
"He better have been telling the truth when he said it was in the bedroom," the Frenchman said, darkly. "But my intuition tells me that he might have been lying just to stall long enough for Hochstetter to get the information and seize us all."
"Well, you 'eard what the colonel said," Newkirk replied, glad that Hogan had thought of everything. "They're waiting for us until the appointed hour; if we don't find the letter, we don't go back. We go straight to London via the escape route, and they'll meet us there."
The thought of going home seemed… odd. Perhaps he had been too used to the missions he undertook here, but he was hoping that the he and LeBeau did end up finding the letter in time.
"You know what would really 'elp?" the Englishman continued. "Better light; if the envelope is in this room, it's likely hiding somewhere that requires more than these ruddy flashlights."
"Too bad the air raid yesterday knocked out all of the power in the area," LeBeau said, disapprovingly. "And if it hadn't, light would draw Hochstetter here, as well."
"All I said was that some bright light would be nice," Newkirk countered.
Mother Nature chose that moment to oblige Newkirk by illuminating the room with a flash of lightning. Their shadows projected on the wall beside the door for an instant.
"Not quite what I 'ad in mind…"
In spite of himself, LeBeau chuckled, but his humor was short-lived. They still had no idea where to find the envelope.
"Did he say it was in the master bedroom, or the guest bedroom?" he asked.
"Wouldn't 'urt to look there," Newkirk agreed, heading over to the guest room to look through the cabinets and dressers there. A few more flashes of lightning illuminate the rooms, casting more shadows on the walls.
As his search ended up being no more fruitful than it had been in the other room, Newkirk sighed to himself, considering the possibility that they had been lied to, and would have to evacuate Stalag 13.
It was an oddly bittersweet feeling—one that he thought he was crazy for feeling. Though the freedom of London and the very thought of seeing his sister again for the first time in years were powerful forces pulling him homeward, there was the feeling of not wanting to run away like this—running from Hochstetter, as opposed to the triumphant exit through the front gates that Carter had always gone on about.
Newkirk had just given up the search of the room when the sound of gunfire erupted from outside, followed almost immediately by the sound of shattering glass in the other bedroom—twice, accompanied by a loud thud.
"Louis!" Newkirk yelled, running to the other room.
The window had shattered, littering the floor with glass, and a spiderweb of cracks were now in the mirror. LeBeau lay amidst the glass shards, but looked up as Newkirk knelt beside him; he was unhurt, but extremely shaken.
"Louis?" he whispered.
"Je ne suis pas blessé," the Frenchman whispered back, his voice still laced with shock from his near miss. "But it missed my ear by that much."
He held out his finger and thumb about a half a centimeter apart.
Outside, Major Hochstetter's voice could be heard barking orders over the storm. Booted feet squished through the rain-soaked ground outside; by the sound of things, Hochstetter was getting his men to surround the house.
"Cor, 'e must've seen your shadow on the wall from the lightning," Newkirk whispered. "The place will be swarming with goons in a minute; let's scarper."
"What about the envelope?"
"Forget it; there's no time!" the Englishman retorted. "The Guv'nor would rather 'ave us come back from a failed mission as opposed to not returning at all!"
He placed the fake envelope on the ground, hoping that Hochstetter would mistake it for the real one as more shots came through the window. Both corporals pressed themselves to the ground.
"Right," Newkirk went on. "If we can make it to the corridor, we can try going out one of the ground floor windows."
"They are guarding the windows, too!" LeBeau retorted, pulling the weapon he had brought with him. "Pierre, we are surrounded, and I intend to shoot my way out."
The Englishman bit his lip, taking in the Frenchman's words. LeBeau might be the one to pull it off and make it back, but the risk of LeBeau getting shot himself was too great. And Newkirk would sooner take the bullet himself than let that happen; LeBeau had already dodged one bullet too many that night.
"Louis, it won't 'urt to take a look at our escape options," he said. "Follow me."
Bullets were still zooming over their heads, but Newkirk continued to crawl forward on his stomach, with LeBeau right behind him. Once he had made it to the hall, he stood up, waiting for the Frenchman to join him.
"Well?" LeBeau asked.
"Give me a minute," Newkirk said. "That was just step one."
LeBeau was about to reply, but froze as he heard Hochstetter's voice, coming from the foot of the stairs. He was on his way up.
"I will choose step two," the Frenchman hissed, raising his weapon again.
"Louis, wait!" Newkirk whispered, noticing that there was a storage room just a little bit ahead. "This way!"
He slid inside the storage room, hoping that Hochstetter would head straight for the bedroom they had been searching. LeBeau slipped in beside him, shutting his eyes to stave off claustrophobia.
The major's familiar voice was barking orders to the pair of men accompanying him.
"That trespasser could not have gone far!" he snarled. "I want you to search every inch of this house until you find the perpetrator and the envelope!"
"Are you absolutely certain you saw someone, Herr Major?" one of the men asked.
"Of course I am certain!" Hochstetter snarled. "Find him, now!"
LeBeau cursed under his breath; if Newkirk hadn't been standing right next to him, he wouldn't have been able to hear him, but the Englishman elbowed him in the ribs to quiet him, anyway.
"Right, 'ere's what we're going to do," Newkirk whispered, even more quietly. "As soon as they go into the room, we're going down to the bottom floor and slip out that way."
"You make it sound so simple…" LeBeau said, sardonically. "Have you forgotten that the windows and doors will all be watched?"
Newkirk shushed him again, and neither of them moved so much as a muscle as Hochstetter strode past them, flanked by the two men with him.
"You go first," Newkirk whispered, his voice hidden from those outside by a rumble of thunder.
"What?" the Frenchman hissed. "Pierre, if you think—"
"I'll be right behind you," he said.
"That is what they always say—just before they disappear," LeBeau responded, decidedly not sold on Newkirk's plan.
Newkirk gritted his teeth, trying desperately not to let his true colors as the team's worrier show through, and trying not to think of how close LeBeau had come to being killed only minutes ago.
"You go first," he insisted again. He opened the door a crack, seeing Hochstetter and the two goons enter the bedroom. "Now's your chance!"
He shoved the Frenchman out, who threw a few, quiet insults the Englishman's way before heading down the staircase. Newkirk took a moment to make sure that the coast was clear and stepped out, as well.
A bolt of lightning illuminated the bedrooms, the light falling on a second, full-length mirror at the end of the hall. Newkirk caught a fleeting glimpse of his own reflection and jumped, startled.
He had not been the only one to see it, however; one of the trigger-happy men in the bedroom saw the figure reflected in the mirror and fired, shattering the glass and sending the Englishman fleeing back to the shelter of the storage closet. He had hidden himself just in time; Hochstetter stormed out of the room, the fake envelope in his hand, and proceeded to yell at the man.
"I suppose you are going to tell me that you saw a ghost in the mirror?" he fumed. "Find that man you saw! Schnell!"
Hochstetter headed to the guest bedroom, assuming that whoever had cast the reflection had ducked into the room. The two men who had been following the major exchanged glances with each other and began feeling the walls of the corridor for other doors.
Newkirk paled; it would only be a matter of time before they found the storage closet. Once Hochstetter identified him, it would take an instant to link him back to Stalag 13—and the major would act before the others had a chance to leave…
"Herr Major!" a new voice said, coming up the stairs. "I've spotted the man, Herr Major! He is downstairs, trying to elude us by hiding in the cellar!"
The cold sweat running down Newkirk's face ran colder; LeBeau had been spotted and had tried to hide in the cellar? Why would he choose a place that wouldn't even have a way out?
And why was Newkirk standing in that Heaven-forsaken storage closet questioning it instead of coming up with a plan to do something about it?
"He will not elude us for long," Hochstetter vowed, storming out of the room and heading down the stairs. The two men accompanying him followed, shrugging again.
Newkirk waited for them to leave before he slipped out again; he traced the sound of the three sets of footprints as they retreated. Now, he tried to form a plan to somehow rescue LeBeau; Newkirk was not going to be able to enter the cellar from within the house, so he would have to hope that the cellar had an exit that opened outside.
He moved back to the bedroom in the hopes of being able to see the setup of the grounds from the window, but he had completely forgotten to take the new soldier into account—the one who had told Hochstetter about the man in the basement. Newkirk only remembered him when he heard the floorboards creak behind him.
Before the corporal could react, a hand clamped over his mouth, causing him to emit a muffled scream. He winced, preparing to feel the handcuffs close upon his wrists.
But the handcuffs never came.
"'Right behind me,' you said," a voice snarled in his ear. "I knew it. I knew it. There are times I can believe you, but this was not one of them!"
Newkirk relaxed, but then frowned as he saw LeBeau in the enemy uniform. The realization dawned on him, at last—the voice he had heard moments ago, speaking in flawless German, was the Frenchman's, whose normal accent was famously thick.
"Louis, that was you speaking German—accent and everything!" he exclaimed, baffled. "Louis, you can't; you've never been able to do that before! 'ow did you suddenly learn?"
"Necessity is the mother of invention," LeBeau said, with a casual wave of his hand. "Come; I had all the guards go to the cellar; they'll be busy for only five minutes—ten if we're lucky."
"Right," Newkirk said, still baffled. He paused on his way out, seeing something sticking out of the pillowcase.
The Frenchman also turned, staring at the object.
"The blooming envelope!" Newkirk whispered, swiftly pocketing it after ensuring that it was the right one. Taking one last look out in the corridor to make sure that the coast really was clear this time, he headed down the hall and stairs, LeBeau pulling ahead to double-check the area downstairs.
As LeBeau had predicted, there were no guards near the front now; they were determined to find the man in the cellar. What they would find would be the tied-up man, sans his uniform, in a cellar closet.
The corporals successfully ran out into the stormy night; they were well out of sight of the house when Hochstetter came barreling through the front doors, yelling something about an impostor. But LeBeau had ditched the uniform shortly after departing the house, and the duo looked back, amused.
"I'll admit it," Newkirk said, at last. "I didn't think it was necessary, but I am glad the colonel decided to send you along." He sighed. He wasn't any good at swallowing his pride, and he only realized now just how flawlessly LeBeau had managed to save his life.
LeBeau just grunted in agreement. Normally, he would have put up a greater fight against Hogan and tried to stay, but, for some reason, he had not this time. It hadn't been being cooped up in the kitchen that had convinced him to go along with Hogan's plan—not directly, anyway. It had been too difficult to explain then, and he doubted he would be able to explain it even now about how he had just had a feeling that he should go; there was no rhyme or reason to it in any way—he had blamed it on the long hours in the kitchen stressing him out until he started getting odd feelings or impending trouble. And Newkirk apparently didn't realize that as much as he worried about the others, the others were worried about him.
The Englishman, in the meantime, was thinking about their narrow escape. He owed his life to Louis LeBeau, he realized, and it wasn't just tonight.
"Louis," he said. "You fancy a drink when we get back? You know—just to celebrate the mission's success?"
The Frenchman gave a nod at the Englishman's offer; after their narrow escape, he could use a pick-me-up.
"You think you'll be able to imitate a German like that again?" the Englishman queried.
"I highly doubt that," LeBeau said, biting back a smirk. It had been a fluke—albeit a well timed one.
Newkirk chuckled, amused, but then quickly sobered. He sighed to himself, only partially satisfied as they headed back towards Stalag 13. It wasn't an adequate trade, he knew, having a drink as a way of thanking him for saving his life, but Newkirk would resolve to make it up to LeBeau someday.
He need not have bothered, of course. As far as LeBeau was concerned, he was just returning a favor tonight, himself. The operation was going to remain active, and they had both survived this mission—those, naturally, were the most important things. That they helped each other and the rest of their comrades was a foregone conclusion. As far as he was concerned, there was no such thing a debt between them in a case like this; in fact, there never had been one at all.
Pleased, the Frenchman quietly said a prayer of thanks in his own tongue as Newkirk listened politely. Above them, the storm still raged on, but despite the gallons of water it dumped upon the two travelers, their spirits burned brightly as they forged ahead.