Author's note: the characters aren't mine (except for the OCs), and the story is! This is the first of nine vignettes based on nine aspects of Newkirk's character (I chose nine because of the old adage of a cat having nine lives, and the fact that Newkirk is a cat burglar), this one focusing on his loyalty—to the Crown, and also to his friends. The title of the vignette collection comes from another one of my fics where a character described Newkirk as "a paradoxically pure-hearted thief."
This particular vignette was also inspired by the prompt "This night, thy soul may be required of thee" at the 31 Days community on LiveJournal.
Just outside of London, England; May 30, 1940:
The newly-promoted corporal, Peter Newkirk, snapped to attention with the rest of his colleagues as Squadron Leader Clive Rawles stalked into the room. Newkirk held a significant deal of contempt for his Squadron Leader; the man saw it his duty to browbeat his squadron and treat them with force at every turn. It was the East Ender's previous life that allowed him to grin and bear it; he had been treated no better by his father.
Rawles surveyed each of his men. The fear in their eyes did not escape him; it was particularly obvious in the hazel eyes of that corporal from the East End. They all knew of what was going on in France, and that their mission was going to be covering the retreat of the infantry as they headed to Dunkirk. The unsympathetic Squadron Leader, however, saw no reason to coddle his men. They had a duty to perform, and he would see to it that they would perform it.
"Look alive, Men," Rawles barked.
That's a tall order, even for an officer, Newkirk thought, derisively. We might not even be alive after tonight.
"Our lads on the ground need help getting home, and you are going to see to it that they do," he went on. "I don't expect that all of you will return here tonight. You know that, as well. But acting like a bunch of cowards isn't going to help you or the lads on the ground."
He glared at them.
"I want to see my squadron fighting for those men as though each and every one was a blood relative of theirs," he said. "Do so, and I promise furloughs for everyone who returns here."
Newkirk's eyes shifted. The word "furlough" registered in his head as a chance to see his sister again. He had only seen her a few times since being drafted into the Royal Air Force. On the other hand, though, there was every chance in the world that if things went wrong, he would never see her again.
Is there no way of turning down the mission? he half-wondered.
As Rawles began to talk again, Newkirk forced himself to listen.
"We will convene again at 2100 hours," the Squadron Leader said. "Three hours from now." He cast one more eye over the men. "At ease."
The men did not relax; they cast nervous glances around the room. Newkirk's eyes were particularly mobile, and he gave a start as Rawles addressed him.
"Sir!" Newkirk exclaimed, snapping to attention again.
"What are you afraid of, Corporal?"
"Well, Sir, I'm rather fond of living, as it were," he said. "And me sister—I'm 'er only provider—"
Newkirk snapped to attention again.
"You may have a duty to that sister of yours, Corporal," Rawles said. "But you've got a duty to those men on the ground—a duty to England!"
"I… I know, Sir," Newkirk said, realizing that he shouldn't have said anything.
"I expect to see you at the front of the line tonight, when we convene, Corporal," Rawles said. "I'll stamp all of that cowardice out of you, or I'll know the reason why! Do you understand me, Corporal?"
"Yes, Sir," Newkirk said, staring straight ahead.
Satisfied, Rawles dismissed him and left the room. Newkirk waited to make sure that he wasn't coming back before breathing out a sigh of relief.
"That was rather unnecessary, if you ask me," a voice said.
Newkirk looked behind him to see Senior Aircraftman Nigel Talbot, his closest friend in the squadron. Talbot, who was a few years older than Newkirk, was from a wealthy family, but had taken a liking to the East Ender.
"You don't have to tell me that I should've kept me mouth shut," Newkirk sighed, leaning against the wall.
"No; I meant that Rawles shouldn't have singled you out like that," Talbot said, with a smile. "He knows we're all afraid of going out there. Why should you be any different?"
"Because I'm supposed to be a ruddy Cockney with nothing to live for," Newkirk answered. "You've got a lot more to lose than I do, Nigel."
"That may be, Peter, but there's every chance in the world that we might lose everything no matter what we do tonight. You know what they're saying? After the Germans are done with France, we're next."
Newkirk cursed at the thought.
"But if it's tonight you're worried about, there may be a way out of it," Talbot went on. "You can always go over Rawles' head and ask, though that might not do you much good at this point. I suppose if you were really desperate, you could get an injury."
"That'd be easy," Newkirk said, dryly. "There would be no shortage of blokes who would love to give me some broken bones."
"It'd be the easy way out," the East Ender admitted. "And believe me, it's getting more and more tempting as that ruddy clock ticks on."
"Sergeant Smith lifts weights; he can break your arm faster than you can blink," Talbot said. "Or dislocate it, at the very least."
"I can't," Newkirk said, with a shake of his head. Yes, he feared the thought of never coming back home; the thought of heading off to his possible death was utterly horrifying. And he also feared the thought of Mavis living the rest of her life alone. But he also feared the thought of the enemy swarming England as they were doing to France. He wouldn't deny the fact that he was a coward.
But he would also not deny the fact that he was an Englishman. What was the point in living in an England that likely would no longer be England by the time the enemy was through with it?
"I've got to fly tonight," he realized.
"That's the spirit, Peter."
Squadron Leader Rawles was most surprised that night when he saw Newkirk standing determinedly with the others.
However, Peter Newkirk and Nigel Talbot did not return to England. Talbot lost it all, while Newkirk lost his freedom. He did not regret his choice to go on the mission; he did, however, regret that he hadn't been able to do a thing for his friend.
Bavaria, Germany; December 15, 1943:
The commanding officer Newkirk now served was American, and much more compassionate than Squadron Leader Rawles had ever been.
"Sir," Newkirk said, as he usually did before addressing an officer. He was not at attention, however; he was sitting at a table in a tunnel underneath Stalag 13—the same prisoner-of-war camp he had been thrown into not too long after his capture in 1940. Only now, he was part of a resistance unit made up of fellow prisoners.
"Sir, I don't think it's such a good idea."
Colonel Hogan's eyebrows arched.
"Care to elaborate, Newkirk?"
"I'm all for making contact with that Underground girl at the 'ausnerhof Sir," Newkirk began.
"No surprise there," Carter murmured, though he sounded amused.
"But I really do think we'll be trying our luck with getting pictures of that General Whatsit's plans," the corporal finished.
"You don't have to go out tonight if you don't want to, Newkirk; we've been sending out a lot lately," Hogan said. He turned to the short Frenchman. "LeBeau, do you think you've learned enough from the Newkirk School of Lock-Picking and Safecracking to pull this off? Getting General Wahlzer's plans will mean a lot to London."
"I believe so, mon Colonel," LeBeau said. Newkirk noticed the nervous look in the Frenchman's eyes—one that he himself had on several occasions.
"Sir, you can't send Louis to the 'ausnerhof all alone!" Newkirk said, turning to the colonel.
"London's been asking for those plans; we've got to try to oblige them," Hogan said. "If LeBeau feels that he's confident enough to break into the room and take the pictures of those plans, then it's only fair to try."
Newkirk mulled over the words in his head.
London's been asking for those plans; we've got to try to oblige them…
For a moment, Newkirk wasn't in Germany; he was back with his fellow squadron members that May evening in 1940, debating on whether or not to go on the mission that ended up landing him here in Stalag 13.
"You need two men out there, Colonel," Newkirk said, after he brought himself back to the present. "As instructor and 'eadmaster of the Peter Newkirk School of Lock-Picking and Safecracking, I say that this pupil, star pupil though 'e is, 'asn't completed the last necessary graduation requirement."
"And that requirement would be…?" Hogan prompted.
"A detailed report of an observation of the process of picking a lock and cracking the safe with documents owned by a German general," Newkirk said. "Process done by the 'eadmaster of the establishment, of course."
LeBeau looked back at Newkirk with a bemused expression.
"Sorry, LeBeau; looks like you need a chaperone until you earn that diploma," Hogan said, with a mock sigh.
The Frenchman responded with a mock scoff.
"You two get ready," Hogan said. "Head for Hammelburg right after lights out. It is a dangerous mission, so don't take any unnecessary risks. You know the drill; do what you have to in order to make it back here."
The two corporals agreed, preparing their civilian clothes. They knew that each mission, however different, had one thing in common—there was a chance they might not return.
"It's going to be beastly cold out there," Newkirk murmured, as he selected the thickest coat he could find for himself.
"You were the one who said that I was not ready," LeBeau reminded him.
"Of course," said Newkirk. "Don't forger—London wants it. And when London wants something, a good Englishman does 'is level best to get it!"
"And a Frenchman does the same for la belle France!" LeBeau retorted. He clenched a fist. "For France!"
"For England!" Newkirk countered, also clenching a fist.
And for all of us, he added silently to himself.
This time, he vowed, he'd be able to help his friend.