Disclaimer: I don't own Hogan's Heroes or any of the characters.
November 1942. England.
If only it could have rained like this three days ago, thought Major Staller.
He hated the English rain. It set in with such stubborn persistence, and was so damned miserable. But it would have saved a lot of trouble, if only the weather had turned bad in time to prevent the bombing raid on Erfurt. Sure, that mission had gone okay, all the crews had returned safely. The problem had come up afterwards, when some of the airmen had wound down after their safe return. And Staller was going to have to fix that problem fast, before there could be any consequences.
He pulled into the hospital grounds, and parked as close as he could to the main entrance, but even so he was liberally splashed with rain by the time he reached the shelter of the reception area. He took off his cap, shook a few drops from his eyes, and smiled gravely at the nurse on the reception desk.
"Major Staller, 182 Squadron, to see Lieutenant Carter," he said. "I phoned the doctor this morning."
As usual - as he'd come unconsciously to expect - the nurse responded to his vague, undefined charm. "Certainly, Major," she replied. "The lieutenant is sleeping, but Doctor Ross said you could go in. Room 209, on the second floor."
She was a pretty girl. He would have liked to get better acquainted, but he would probably never see her again after today. Once he'd done what he had to, a line had to be drawn underneath the whole sorry affair. No loose ends could be left uncut, no matter how irrelevant or harmless they might seem.
He took the stairs slowly, thinking about what he had to say to the patient in room 209. He was confident he had the right angle worked out, given what he knew of Lieutenant Carter's personality. Not that that was much, Carter had only recently returned to the 182nd after escaping from a POW camp in Germany, and Staller hadn't seen much of him. But from what he'd been able to observe, he doubted Carter was anything more than he seemed: a straightforward, open young man who could surely be persuaded to listen to reason, one way or another.
Staller had no qualms about the course he was about to take. But as he entered the hospital room, he felt a pang of regret at the necessity. The patient appeared to be asleep, but so colorless was his face, in the pale grey light from the window, that he might have been beyond waking. He looked almost ridiculously innocent, but he'd already been through what nobody should have to endure.
It was a dirty business all through, and Staller's part in resolving it would leave him feeling contaminated. But the overall objective had to take precedence over individual cases. At all costs, the events of that night had to be kept under wraps, and to that end this man must be convinced, by whatever means were necessary, to keep quiet.
The major cleared his throat. "Lieutenant Carter? Are you awake?"
The only response was a slight tightening of Carter's forehead. He was awake, all right. Staller spoke more sharply. "Lieutenant, I know you can hear me. Please have the courtesy to give me your attention."
Several seconds passed before Carter turned his head slightly, and opened his eyes. He didn't look directly at the major, but at least he seemed to be listening. As Staller moved closer to the bed, he shrank away slightly.
"This is not an official visit, Carter," said Staller. "As I was passing near here on my way back from London, I thought I'd take the time to bring you up to date on your present situation. You're in quite a lot of trouble, Lieutenant."
A momentary look of uncertainty crossed Carter's face, and he glanced towards Staller for a second. His lips opened, then closed again, without speaking, but there was bewilderment in his eyes.
After a brief pause, Staller continued. "I'm afraid you will be facing disciplinary action, over your...let's say, disagreement with Captain Lewis."
"Disagreement...?" murmured Carter.
"Sounds better than unprovoked attack, which is how the witnesses described it. You will be required to face a court martial, in due course. I'm trying to arrange a bedside hearing, so we can clear the matter up as quickly as possible. I'm sure you want to put it behind you, and I know Lewis would prefer to get it out of the way so he can get back on duty." He waited for a response, but whether from confusion, or the natural reticence engendered by his ordeal, Carter seemed unable to answer.
"Now, I've been looking at your service record, Carter," Staller went on, "and up till now it's pretty well spotless. In view of that, you'll probably only get a minor penalty, if the court is convinced that you sincerely regret your mistake. A guilty plea might be considered proof of..."
"You gotta be kidding." Carter's voice, pitched low, was scarcely above a whisper.
Obviously he still had some spirit left in him. Staller pressed his lips together for a moment before speaking again. "Lieutenant, even allowing for your present condition, I'm not going to put up with any insubordination." Carter gave him a long, hostile look, then turned his eyes towards the window.
"It's your decision, Carter. But I strongly recommend you plead guilty." Staller turned as if to leave the room.
"Oh, there is one other matter I need to bring to your attention," he said, turning back as if it were an afterthought. It wasn't anything of the kind. He'd made the trip here on purpose to transact this part of the business. "There are a lot of rumors going round the squadron, rumors of a particularly distasteful nature."
He noted with professional satisfaction the dawning look of dread on Carter's face, as he realized just what the gossip around the base might be. This was going to be easier than Staller had anticipated.
"Of course, it's very unpleasant for Lewis, and for his crewmates as well, to be the target of that kind of filth. That's right, Carter. Not only are they accusing Lewis of indecency, they've dragged his whole crew into the story as well. And your name's been mentioned, too."
Carter caught his breath, and his eyes widened as he grasped what Staller meant. He tried to speak, but couldn't form a coherent word.
It was exactly what Staller was counting on. Even though Carter was entirely blameless in regard to whatever had happened that night - and Staller had heard some pretty horrific details which he had no reason to doubt - the last thing he would want was for the whole ugly story to get around. It was probable he wouldn't have talked anyway. But Staller couldn't take the chance. He had to give the blade a final twist, make sure the job was done.
"Now, I don't suppose for one minute you'd try to offer any defense based on that kind of hearsay," he went on. "But in case you had any ideas, I have to tell you we've already investigated the story, and there's no evidence that you were subjected to an assault of that nature. As far as the army is concerned, it didn't happen. So forget it."
He came right up to the bed, and leaned over the patient, who pressed himself back against the pillow, desperately trying to keep his distance.
"I'll make this as clear as I can, Carter," said Staller softly. "You try to make any kind of self-defense argument out of that dirty lie, and one of two things will happen. Either you'll be written off as a troublemaker, or people will start wondering whether you're as innocent as you look. There's some guys get their fun out of that kind of stuff, maybe you went looking for it. You understand what I'm saying?"
Carter understood. He turned his face away, his breath catching in his throat in harsh, irregular gasps. He looked as if he was about to be sick.
"I'm waiting for an answer, Lieutenant. Do you understand?"
It cost Carter an effort to reply. "Yes." Then, as Staller continued to wait, he managed a few more stammered words: "Yes, sir, I understand."
Staller straightened up. "As I said, this visit isn't official," he said. "So I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention it to anyone. But just keep that in mind, Carter. I'll be following your case with interest."
He kept his eyes on Carter for several seconds before leaving the room. He wasn't dissatisfied with the results of his visit. If Carter hadn't already been broken by what had been done to him, three nights before, the job was well and truly done now.