I do not own any of the characters from the series Hogan's Heroes.
Written for the Short Story Challenge. The first sentence is from Darling Adolf by Ray Bradbury
They were waiting for him to come out. Well, let them wait. There was no hurry, not today. No matter that a chill wind was making the prisoners shiver in their tattered uniforms, nor that the guards were cursing him in soft, savage undertones. He was still the Kommandant, pending the handover of authority. Until he went out there, and officially relinquished command, this was his Stalag.
He studied his reflection in the mirror, making sure he at least looked the part; straightened his tie, smoothed his lapels, and brushed an almost invisible speck of dust from the row of medals pinned to his chest. Under no circumstances would he allow any of those men out there - guards, prisoners, General Burkhalter - to see him as anything other than the efficient, ruthless Kommandant he had tried to be.
Of course, he knew he'd fallen short of the mark. It had been made obvious to him. The prisoners hardly bothered to hide their contempt; their senior officer treated him like an idiot. The guards laughed at him behind his back. Even General Burkhalter now took his incompetence for granted.
This posting had been his opportunity to prove himself. Well, he had tried, and he'd failed. He wasn't quite sure how, although he was convinced it wasn't his fault. But it didn't matter anyway. What mattered was how Burkhalter saw it, and the general's opinion had been made clear with one dark, furious glare and one sharply worded reprimand. There was no doubt, and no second chance.
A timid knock at the door broke in on his unhappy thoughts. For a moment he wondered if it would make any difference if he ignored it; but he sighed as he remembered that for the next few minutes, at least, it was his duty to respond.
"Come in," he said.
It was Corporal Langenscheidt; of all the guards at Stalag 13, probably the least suited to the job.
"If you please, Herr...Herr Kommandant," he stammered, "General Burkhalter sent me to tell you...that is, to ask you if you are ready to join him on the parade ground."
Tell that idiot not to keep me waiting any longer than he has to. That was probably close to what Burkhalter had actually said. But Langenscheidt was hardly going to quote the general verbatim.
"I'm not ready yet. Tell him I'll be a few minutes."
Langenscheidt went pale, and his voice trembled as he replied. "But...but, Herr Kommandant...I can't..." He broke off at the glare he received, mumbled, "Jawohl, Herr Kommandant," and started to withdraw. But he stopped, as the Kommandant spoke again.
"Langenscheidt, tell me something." He hesitated before he asked the one question that mattered now. "Have I been a good Kommandant?"
The corporal hesitated, his eyes wide with consternation at the question. "Bitte," he faltered at last, "bitte, it's not for me to say, Herr Kommandant." He made a rapid escape, avoiding any further unanswerable questions.
"I must have been out of my mind to ask him," muttered the Kommandant under his breath.
He started to look over his desk - still his desk for a few minutes, anyway - making sure he hadn't left any outstanding paperwork. It was unlikely anyone would notice, or give him credit for it, but at least he'd have the satisfaction of knowing he'd been an efficient administrator. As a matter of course, he emptied the humidor, slipping the cigars into his pockets. Then he poured himself a glass of brandy, drained it at one go, and poured another.
Glass in hand, he strolled over to the window. Yes, there they were, still waiting for him. Burkhalter, inflexible in mind as in body, stomping back and forth, with Schultz scuttering nervously behind him. Standing to one side, the man who would take over command of Stalag 13. His expression couldn't be seen at this distance, but his upright stance, the little, almost unconscious waggles of his head, the way he rocked back and forth on his heels, all spoke of his satisfaction at the way things had turned out.
Beyond, as relaxed as if awaiting the start of a ball game, stood the prisoners of Barracks 2. Their senior officer, Colonel Hogan, was watching Burkhalter, doubtless with a lazy smile on his face.
There was no question, Hogan and his unruly bunch of criminals were to blame for this. They'd undermined him, made him look like a bungling idiot in front of General Burkhalter; and he was sure they'd done it on purpose, for reasons he couldn't begin to fathom. If only he had the time, how he'd love to wipe that smirk off Hogan's face. It wouldn't take much; a reshuffle of the barracks, to split up that little gang of his; maybe even a couple of transfers, to get rid of the worst offenders, and Hogan would stop looking so damned pleased with himself.
But it was too late now.
In the yard, Burkhalter came to a halt, and turned to Schultz, barking out a command. Schultz glanced towards the office, then ventured a query, or possibly a protest; Burkhalter didn't say a word, just pointed, and with a sigh that was visible even at a distance, Schultz plodded across the compound and up the steps of the Kommandantur. A few seconds later, he entered the office.
"Yes, what is it, Schultz?" said the Kommandant.
"The General is getting impatient," replied Schultz heavily.
"And you think I shouldn't keep him waiting?"
Schultz shrugged, and didn't answer, just gazed back at him sorrowfully; and the suspicion suddenly dawned: Schultz is sorry for me.
That was just too much. To be pitied by Schultz, of all people, was simply insulting, and drew an instinctive, angry snub: "I'll be out when I'm ready."
Schultz continued to gaze at him. "If I might be permitted to offer an opinion..."
"You may not."
But the sergeant was not so easily discouraged. "Please, I was only going to say that it does no good to put off what cannot be avoided. You do not wish General Burkhalter to come in here himself to fetch you, do you?" Leaving that thought as a parting gift, he trundled out again.
For a moment, the Kommandant wondered if he should have asked Schultz the same question he'd put to Langenscheidt; but he knew in his heart it would have been pointless. Schultz would have dodged it just as Langenscheidt had.
He lingered briefly after Schultz had gone. Then he finished the brandy and placed the glass back next to the decanter. He put on his topcoat and cap, checked his reflection one more time, and went out to face his last official duty as commanding officer of Stalag 13.
Burkhalter met him with the genial smile which made seasoned, battle-hardened soldiers tremble in their shoes. "So kind of you to find the time to join us," he remarked.
Behind him, the prisoners sniggered. A quick glance - he dared risk no more, with Burkhalter looking like that - confirmed the suspicion which had been growing stronger all the time. Hogan's complacent smile and air of self-satisfaction were all the proof that was needed.
Burkhalter had turned to address the assembled men. "Prisoners of Stalag 13," he announced, "you will be aware, all of you, of last night's incident. The outcome will have made clear to you what you should already know - that any escape attempt is doomed to failure. However, as a result of the foolish, desperate action of a few men, further steps must be taken to convince you all of the hopelessness of your situation."
He fixed a cold, lizardlike eye on the outgoing Kommandant, then beckoned him forward.
"A few days ago, a new Kommandant took charge of Stalag 13. As it is obvious, from the failed escape attempt, that you are not prepared to treat him with the same respect as you did his predecessor, I have decided to reverse the appointment."
He smiled, the tight, cold smile of a man aware that the punishment he was meting out was going to hurt him just as much as it did the prisoners, and went on with his address. "Colonel Klink's transfer to the Russian Front has been cancelled. He will resume command of Stalag 13 effective immediately. Captain Gruber, who has held the position of Kommandant for the past two days, will carry on as adjutant."
An exaggerated sigh went up from the ranks of prisoners. Colonel Klink, beaming with ill-concealed smugness, stepped forward; and Gruber took a deep breath, unfolded his orders and began to read:
In accordance with staff order number 459885Q4, duly signed by General Burkhalter, I hereby relinquish command of Stalag 13 to Colonel Wilhelm Klink.
A brisk salute, which Klink returned with crisp malice, and the handover was complete. Gruber moved back behind Burkhalter, once again relegated to unimportance.
"Thank you, Captain Gruber," said Klink. "I hope you will learn from this experience. Running a prison camp requires more than iron discipline. The man in charge has to understand psychology as well. Once you know the human mind, you can make things run exactly as you want them to."
He turned to address the prisoners, and Gruber stepped back again, returning to his supporting role. But as he took one more look along the ranks of Barracks 2, for a second he met the quizzical eyes of the senior POW officer.
Then Hogan turned his attention to Klink. But that momentary, unintended exchange had opened Gruber's eyes. He hadn't failed, not in the way he thought.
He'd never be able to prove it. But he knew that the prisoners had deliberately set out to end his tenure; and they had succeeded. The man who was really in charge of Stalag 13, and who had been all along, had organised a perfect coup. And there could be only one reason for Hogan to want Gruber out, and Klink reinstated.
Gruber now knew the answer to the question he'd been asking himself; yes, he had been a good Kommandant. That was where he'd gone wrong.
Afterword: this story is a postscript to the Season 2 episode "Don't Forget To Write".