AN: Like everyone else here, I don't own any of the characters, except for my OCs.
A full-grown man in the grip of uncontrolled panic is not a pleasant sight. Especially when that man holds your destiny, and the destiny of men you're in charge of, in his hands.
Take a few weeks ago. The boys and I were supposed to deliver a package, 10 prisoners who escaped from Stalag 9, to our contacts in the Underground. Unfortunately, we couldn't borrow a truck for the rendezvous, as Klink threatened the motor pool guards with a transfer to the Russian Front if any vehicles left camp without his authorization. (I couldn't really blame him, since Newkirk bent the fender of his staff car when we borrowed it for our last mission, which, I've got to admit, was a nice change of pace. I terrorized a couple guards with the combined IQ of a banana as Major Hoganhopper, General Kinchmeyer's trusted aid, while Carter snuck a scientist working on the German's V-2 rockets out the back of the hotel the Germans detained him in after he declared his intention to defect.)
Since there weren't enough coffee or cigarettes in the world to convince anyone at the motor pool to risk experiencing a Russian winter first hand, we did the next best thing. We got a message to Oscar Schnitzer, asking him to stop by camp a couple hours early and pick up our package. He sent word back that he'd oblige, a lucky break since the sub only had a short window where they could pick up the men.
Things were going too smoothly. I should've expected the hitch that came when Oscar's truck showed up on the appointed Thursday afternoon. Instead of short, salt and pepper-haired, beer-gutted Oscar, I got a blond hulk of a kid behind the wheel.
"Hi there," I said, waving as he got out of the driver's side, his gaze darting around the compound. "Beautiful day isn't it? Personally, I like it a little warmer, but beggars can't be choosers in the middle of January. At least it's not snowing."
Though he looked like a statue of a Roman God, the kid startled easier than a wild deer. I grabbed his dirty plaid jacket and lowered my voice before he could bolt. "What's going on? Who are you and where's Oscar?"
The kid shook in my grip. "I'm Johan, his nephew," he stammered. "Uncle Oscar came down with the flu this morning. He told me to bring the truck here, tell the guards I had some dogs in the back and do whatever Papa Bear said."
I folded my arms, preparing to question him, when a sharp 'Colonel Hogan!' reached my ears. I glanced at Schultz, who started toward us. "Okay, get in the back, but don't leave the doors open too wide. Start the record player and pretend a pack of hungry dogs are going to leap out and chew on your throat. You got all that?"
Johan's cheeks flushed as he dashed to the back.
"Act naturally," I hissed. "Make him think you've been handling dogs all your life."
The kid tripped as he scrambled into the cab, the doors knocking him over as they snapped back on their hinges. "Looks like Carter's got a rival for the Klutz of the Year award," I muttered as Schultz removed his gun from his shoulder. I just hope no one else noticed.
"Colonel Hogan!" Schultz shouted. "Get away from the truck! You know prisoners aren't suppose to fraternize with the dogs."
I leaned against the cab as causally as I could. "Yeah, I know, but I can't help myself. I'm a dog lover."
Schultz's lower lip jutted out as he put a hand to his ear. "These ones sound awful quiet, don't they? I wonder if they're alright." He jumped back as a chorus of nasty barks answered him.
The noise must've startled Johan too, as he flew out of the back as fast as he'd climbed into it.
"Ah," Schultz said, extending his hand as Johan headed for me. "Guten tag, Herr…."
The kid's eyes widened. "Johan Schnitzer, Oscar's nephew."
He nodded. "Of course, Herr Schnitzer. But where is Oscar? He usually delivers the dogs."
Johan started trembling again. "Oscar's sick. I'm making his deliveries for him. "
"I see. Tell me, how's the dog business these days?"
That's when the really uncontrolled panic set in.
"Well," Johan mumbled, tugging at his sleeves. "I only help my uncle sometimes, so I'm not really sure."
Schultz smiled. "We have a new guard here who wants to become a breeder after the war and he was wondering if you would tell him a few things." Schultz turned toward a guard patrolling the fence. Believe it or not, his head would've only come up to LeBeau's chest. "Corporal Murr!"
My pulse quickened as Murr marched toward us. I hadn't had a chance to find out where his loyalties lay or how willing he'd be to look the other way with the right persuasion. Oh well, may as well find out now.
Murr stopped a few feet from Schultz and saluted. "Yes, Sergeant?"
"Oscar's nephew is here. He works with the dogs."
Murr's face lit up. "Wunderbar. I have so many questions about grooming and feeding."
I slapped Johan's tense shoulders. "That's right. Tell him what you told me about the importance of feeding German Shepherds a well-balanced meal."
Johan took a deep breath. For a moment, he looked like he was going to faint. "Alright. I suppose I can do that."
I pulled him to the front of the truck. "Why don't you talk over there, in the shade? You were just saying how easily you get snow burned."
He nodded vigorously. "Yes, it's rather terrible."
Schultz's gaze flicked from me to Johan before his eyes narrowed. Thankfully, he didn't say whatever opinion he'd formed, and followed Johan as I led him away.
"Now," Johan said. "It's very important the dogs be fed well or they won't live to a ripe old age."
I waited for Schultz and Murr to give him their attention before I edged back to the cab's doors and opened them. I scoped out the compound to make sure no one was watching before motioning to LeBeau, now peaking out from under the doghouse tunnel entrance.
LeBeau nodded and emerged, murmuring to the dogs when they whined and pawed at him. "Mes amis, shush. We need quiet."
He looked down the tunnel as the dogs lay down at his feet without further protest and waved to the men below. On my signal, each man, now in civilian clothing, climbed up and snuck into the back of the truck, which turned out to be no small feat. Johan's semi-sensical speech made Klink look like the Jack Benny of anecdotes. I worried Schultz was going to see a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye, but, thankfully, neither he nor Murr noticed I'd been gone when I closed the doors and rejoined them, pretending to look fascinated.
"So you see, gentlemen, that's why it's crucial to use a good brush for grooming," Johan finished.
Murr grinned as he offered his hand. "You've done me a great service. If I can ever do something for you, let me know."
I looked up at the sky as a cloud passed over the sun. "Gee, time really flies in a prisoner of war camp, doesn't it? I imagine Herr Schnitzer needs to get back to work."
Johan headed for the driver's door. "Yes, I do. Corporal Murr, were you sincere about your offer?"
He nodded. "Of course. What do you require?"
"I'd like to take this prisoner with me if you wouldn't mind."
"What?" the three of us said in unison.
Johan's voice rose to an almost inaudible squeak. "Well, I have a difficult dog I have to deliver to the next Stalag, and…." He stared at me.
"Colonel Hogan," I supplied, suddenly feeling like I'd swallowed a desert's worth of sand.
"I noticed Colonel Hogan has a way with animals. I would be most grateful if you'd allow him to assist me."
Schultz shook his head. "The Kommendaunt would not allow it."
"He wouldn't have to know. We won't be gone more than an hour or two. Bitte, Sergeant. I would really appreciate it."
Murr tapped Schultz's back. "Bitte, Sergeant, but I don't think the Kommendaunt would mind. Roll call's a few hours away yet, and Herr Schnitzer has been very helpful."
Schultz straightened, his face screwed up with resolve until he saw Johan's desperate expression. Then, he sighed the way he did when he was going to go along with one of my plans. "Alright, but remember, he must be back in three hours."
My kidnaper opened his door. "He will be, I promise."
I started to protest until Murr jerked me toward the truck. I shrugged at a frowning LeBeau as Johan revved the engine and got in the other side.
"What's the big idea?" I snapped, slamming the door behind me. "Everything was going great until you shanghaied me!"
The transmission buzzed as Johan turned the key in the ignition again. "Look at me! I'm a mess. I thought I was going to be ill when that fat oaf called the midget over. I don't know how you or my uncle can do this day after day without going mad. I keep expecting the Gestapo to walk up and shoot me every time I look over my shoulder! I need you Colonel. I don't know where I'm going or what I'm doing."
I groaned. "Okay, okay, I get it. Do you have any spare clothes?"
He nodded. "Look under the seat."
I waited until we'd left the guards at the gates, who let us through once Schultz bellowed at them, well behind us before I reached down and pulled out a brown jacket and cap. I changed and bent down to shove my clothes underneath when the car shot forward, almost knocking my head into the dashboard.
"Will you watch what you're doing?" I growled. "Relax! The worst part's over."
Johan grinned sheepishly and slowed for the checkpoint ahead of us. "Sorry. I guess I'm what you'd call a scaredy cat. Dogs, guns, guards. It makes my stomach turn just thinking about them. The only thing I hate more is confrontation." He shuddered. "I've always admired the way my uncle stares the Gestapo down without even blinking. Who knows what I'd do if I were him. I'd probably tell them everything they wanted to know and more if they so much as looked at me the wrong way."
It was my turn to fight a sense of panic when I spotted a familiar figure in black approach us. "Well, we're about to find out. You see the creep surrounded by all the goons with the big guns? That's Major Hochstetter, the friendly neighborhood Gestapo agent who likes to breathe down my neck. You're going to have to talk your way past him. He'll shoot us on the spot if he sees me in civilian clothes."
Johan gulped. "Oh dear. I wish you hadn't said anything. Now my palms are sweating so badly I can hardly hold the wheel."
I pulled the hat further down my face, breathing in the smell of greasy hair and sweat embedded in the band as Hochstetter knocked on the driver's window.
"Papers!" He demanded, snatching them away as Johan opened his door and handed them over. "I'll need your passenger's as well. And open the back."
Johan's voice resumed squeaking. "I don't advise it. I have some very angry dogs back there."
Hochstetter leaned closer. "Are you sure you don't have something else, like the men who escaped from Stalag 9?" He paused. "What are you waiting for, a special invitation? I said open the back!"
I held my breath, waiting for the kid's verbal diarrhea to start. Instead, Johan gasped, a smile spreading across his face. "Wolfie! Is it you? My dear friend, how are you?"
Hochstetter looked as surprised as I felt. "What?"
"Ah, same old Wolfie. Don't pretend you don't know me. My, you haven't changed a bit. You still have that radio star voice and those movie star looks. Speaking of good looks, how's that fraulein you used to go with?" He snapped his fingers. "What was her name? Gertrude, Gretel, Gretna! That's it, Gretna. Last I heard she was engaged to Goering's nephew."
He laughed. "Wunderbar, you do remember me. I knew I hadn't changed that much."
"Johan, I'm not interested in anything but inspecting your truck."
He ignored him. "Have you seen any of the old gang lately? You must have; you were the most popular boy in school."
Hochstetter's voice took on a threatening tone as he ground his teeth. "This is ridiculous. I'm looking for dangerous men and you're gossiping like a general's wife!"
Johan frowned. "That's no way to talk to your best friend."
"I have no best friends!" he barked.
"Really? Have you forgotten Josef Hunger, Bruno Seidenstuecker, Deiter Goehler, Klaus Jungnickel and Gustav Kempe?"
Hochstetter balled his hands into fists. "This is no time for a reunion!" He turned the two goons behind him. "Open the back!"
Johan babbled on as he chased after Hochstetter, who stomped off to watch his henchmen jerk the back doors open.
"Ah ha!" the major barked. "There are 10 men here, the same amount of men who escaped from Stalag 9."
Johan shook his head. "Oh, Wolfie, don't you recognize them? They're our old volleyball teammates." He grabbed a nervous man's shoulders. "Remember Otto Grieme? He's starting a new ball bearing factory next week."
Hochstetter made a disgusted grunt. "He looks nothing like Otto."
"Well, if your sister was pregnant with her eighth child at the same time your oldest niece was expecting her firstborn out of wedlock, you'd look thin and pale too." His voice faded to a whispered. "Can you imagine what the neighbours must think?"
Hochstetter waved at the men. "What are they doing in your truck? And why did you say they were dogs?"
Johan's cheeks reddened. "Do you remember Liesa Lindhorst? She married some old man who left for the Russian Front a week ago and she was wondering if we'd mind keeping her company this afternoon. She's been rather lonely." His eyebrows rose. "You know how social Ada is. Why don't you join us? I bet she'd love to see you. She was always sweet on you."
Hochstetter covered his ears. "I can't stand this anymore! Get out of here before I have you all shot!"
Johan's face fell. "Oh, I'm sorry. I guess you're busy. Call me sometime and we'll catch up. My number is…."
"I know what it is!" He screamed. "Just leave me alone!"
Johan motioned for the men to get back in and closed the cab before joining me up front. He leaned back in his seat and exhaled loudly as the electric crossing arm lifted for us.
I pulled my cap up once we started moving again. "For a guy who says he's lousy under pressure, you put on a great show. You actually had me believing you knew Hochstetter."
He gave me a puzzled look. "I do know him. Everything I said was true, even about our being on the school volleyball team." His eyes twinkled. "Wolfie was a great player. The other teams would scatter so they didn't get knocked on the head whenever he spiked the ball."
I laughed. "I'm sorry, I can't believe he was a sports hero, or had that many friends."
Johan shrugged. "I know he seems awful, but his bark is truly worse than his bite. He just yells to get attention. I think his mother didn't hold him enough as a child."
I shook my head. "So Hochstetter had a girlfriend? What did she look like, Eva Braun with a moustache?"
The kid snickered. "Yes, actually, she did."
I laughed harder, savoring how good it felt to release the tension that had built up in me as I pointed to the road that would take us to the rendezvous point in Hammelburg.