Author's note: I can't believe I'm posting my fourth Hogan's Heroes story (if indeed the Stalag by Starlight snippets count as one) when four months ago I believed I would never be able to write anything again. Goes to show you should never listen to your inner drama queen! And I still find it completely unbelievable that Soul Food got nominated for the Papa Bear Awards – and in the "Best story of 2011"! Thank you so much. I mean, really. Saying it made me happy would be like saying the Atlantic is slightly wet :o)
I can't shake the habit of using song titles for chapters, and the 1930s are such a gold mine in terms of fantastic songs that it was too tempting not to dig into it. So the first chapter title is courtesy of George and Ira Gershwin, who wrote it in 1937.
Thanks a lot to Emily, as usual. You're the best :o]
Disclaimer: I own exactly five characters (six, if you count Puss in Boots) mentioned in this chapter. The rest is property of (I guess) CBS, and possibly the surviving family of Bing Crosby.
Into the Woods
Chapter 1: Just Another Rhumba
All in all, Sergeant Ronald Dickins reflected as he looked down at the ground far below his feet and up at the tree he was currently hanging from, this whole thing could have gone a lot better.
Of course, it could have gone a lot worse, too – he could have been killed, and while he knew it wouldn't mean the end of the world, per se, for him it certainly would. After all, when you die, whether you believe what they tell you in church or not, you can't see your mates and your family again, you can't go to the pub and buy a round, or go to the movies and everything, so your world good as ends, right?
For the moment, though, Dickins felt very much alive; the dry, hot August night air was starting to make him sweat, his shoulders were aching from the pull of the parachute, and something was itching like mad under his right foot.
"Right," he said aloud, if only to hear something else than the creaks of the trees, the rustling of the leaves and the weird little noises you just aren't used to when you hardly ever left Chillingham Street, Liverpool. "Anybody here but me?"
If his parachute hadn't been so well stuck in that tree, Dickins would have fallen to the ground in surprise when a voice hissed back, "Quieter, Sergeant. The Krauts might hear you."
Dickins had never been so glad to hear a Manchester accent. It meant that Squadron Leader Bannister was nearby, and right now he could heartily forgive him his city of origin. For a Scouser, Mancs were the natural enemy, right after the French and the Germans.
"Is there a patrol nearby, then, sir?"
"I don't think so, but let's be cautious. Where are you?" A pause. "Dickins, are you stuck in a tree?"
"The one that's got a parachute in it. Those trees all look the same to me, sir."
He heard a sigh.
"Sergeant, can you reach your knife?"
"Oh." Right. "Right away, sir."
One painful tumble – during which he got closely acquainted with what seemed like every possible branch on the bloody tree – and one equally painful thud later, Sergeant Dickins was standing before his commanding officer, brushing leaves and dirt from his uniform and gazing about with interest at their surroundings.
"Did you find the others, sir?"
"McBride is out reconnoitring. We'll proceed to the Underground rendezvous point as soon as he's back."
Dickins' mouth suddenly went dry. "What about Flight Sergeant Murray and Corporal Berkowitz?"
Squadron Leader Alec Bannister was a terse, sharp-tongued man at the best of times, and now clearly was not the best of times.
"We'll meet them there if they haven't been taken," he said curtly.
Dickins barely refrained from asking what would happen to them if they had been. No sense asking questions you already know the answer to, after all.
A slight rustle to his left announced the arrival of Flight Lieutenant McBride, who looked none the worse for wear after his landing, not one close-cropped red hair sticking out, uniform as impeccable as ever. He could have been back at Farnborough airfield sipping a cup of tea – except he did look paler than usual under his freckles.
"Sir," he said calmly, snapping a short salute, "Murray and Berkowitz have been taken by an enemy patrol."
"Alive?" Bannister asked sharply.
"Unharmed, as far I could tell."
Dickins breathed out. Bannister nodded.
"Good. Maybe we'll be able to come back for them later. Our priority, though, is to reach the rendezvous point –" he unfolded a map while McBride provided a small torch, "– here. Now, we were just north of Hammelburg before we got shot down – that's there – and the wind isn't too strong, so my guess is we aren't too far. A few hours' walk southwest and we'll meet them."
"Meet who, sir?" Dickins asked, catching a meaningful glance between the two officers. It was McBride who answered, as expressionless as always.
"An Underground team who'll send us back to England if we can reach them. Their code name," he added, only continuing after Bannister silently allowed him to, "is Papa Bear."
Dickins' eyes went round. "Papa Bear? The Papa Bear? I thought the guys were having me on! Thought it was some legend going 'round the airfield!"
"Well, it's not," Bannister said, picking up his parachute bag. "And you're about to meet them. But, Sergeant?"
"Do me a favour, would you, and don't ask for their autograph. It's strictly classified. Not to mention dashed embarrassing."
Perhaps a lesser man would have taken offence, Dickins reflected. He decided on a good-natured shrug.
"No problem, sir. I'll settle for a ticket home."
No words were exchanged after that while they traipsed through the trees, but as he trailed after Flight Lieutenant McBride, Dickins couldn't help wondering what kind of code name was Papa Bear, and who on Earth picked it in the first place.
"So that's your mission for tonight, fellas." Colonel Hogan paused and took a minute to survey his men. "Any questions?"
"Yeah, I got one – what kind of code name is 'Puss in Boots'?" Carter asked, a thoughtful look on his face. "I mean, it sounds kind of – kind of –"
"Don't worry, Carter," Newkirk retorted, crossing his arms with a deadpan look on his face. "Next time there's a war, I'm sure they'll ask you pick the code names."
LeBeau hid his grin behind his mug of coffee, privately noting that the slight but noticeable tension that usually hung in the air right before a mission – any mission – went down a notch. It was nice to know that you could always count on those two for a well-timed, necessary bit of comedy to alleviate the tension; sometimes it felt as though he was at the cinema, watching La Grande Illusion with some Laurel and Hardy sketches thrown in for good measure.
As usual, the sarcasm flew well over Carter's head – unless he just decided to ignore it and keep what suited him. He answered the Englishman's smirk with a grin.
"I mean any question that's actually relevant to the downed airmen we're picking up, and I don't think it includes new Underground code names," Hogan said with just the right amount of warning in his voice. "Now, if –"
He was interrupted by Kinch climbing out of the tunnel under the bunk bed with a serious look on his face.
"Colonel," he said as everybody in the barracks turned to look at him, "two of the downed airmen have just been captured by a patrol – I intercepted their signal. They're bringing them here for questioning."
That made Hogan stop in his tracks to think. LeBeau could almost see the cogs turning as he digested this new bit of information.
"That B-26 that got shot down, London did say it was a five men crew, right? So it leaves us with three guys who must be making way to rendezvous point P–05 right now, assuming they're not hurt or anything." He was wearing the keen, calculating look in his eyes he got when he was coming up with a plan – or trying to, at the very least. "Okay. We'll still proceed as planned. Newkirk, Carter and LeBeau, you'll pick up the guys and take them here. They'll need fitting up for the trip back. Be as quick as possible, and try not to miss roll call. Yes, Newkirk – put your hand down, you're not in class – what d'you want to know?"
"Well, what if there's a snag and we do miss roll call, Colonel?" Newkirk asked, equal parts cheek and genuine apprehension if LeBeau knew him at all.
Hogan stared at him, poker-faced.
"That's what I like about you, Newkirk. You always see the glass half full." It was a pretty good point, though, and the men were still looking at him, so he went on. "We'll think of something. Just be sure to come back in one piece, and don't talk to strange men along the way."
"Except for English flyers," Carter pointed out, covering a mutter from Newkirk that sounded suspiciously like "Yes, Mum."
Hogan nodded, the grin that wasn't quite showing on his face dancing in his eyes. "Except for English flyers. Now, you all got your fake dog tags? Jack McPhearson, Antonio Cavelli and François Maillet?"
The three of them held up the dog tags. Carter looked at his with a slightly wistful expression.
"Yes, sir. 'Cept I would have liked to be McPhearson again. I kinda like the sound of that name."
"Carter, you were McPhearson last time – you gotta learn to share with the other kids. Besides, that way LeBeau can pass as Canadian, and Newkirk can pull off a Scottish accent."
LeBeau, who had heard a Québécois speak exactly once before, and briefly at that, carefully avoided mentioning that French and Québec accents sounded nothing alike. With a bit of luck, if they were indeed caught, the Germans would never have seen a real Canadian before, let alone heard one speak.
Carter shrugged. "I mean, I only know 'Buon giorno'. I'm not gonna go very far with just one word."
"Let's hope you don't have to use it, then," said LeBeau, putting down his mug and heading for the tunnel.
Before he had both feet on the ladder, he heard Newkirk say (almost) seriously, "You know, Andrew, if that makes you feel better, I think 'buon giorno' is two words."
Sneaking out of camp in the dead of night, no matter how often they got to do it and how routine it got, never failed to make Newkirk's heart beat faster. Of course it was dangerous to the point of insanity, and of course it was for a mission (as opposed to slightly less serious outings where a lovely little Fräulein was involved), but there was something about being on the right side of the barbed wire that always felt good – and right.
Even the air they breathed when they climbed out of the hollowed-out tree stump tasted better. But that was probably due to the stifling heat that made everybody slightly jealous of Kinch and Baker, the only two men who, as radio operators, had a good excuse to stay down in the tunnels, where it was marginally more bearable.
The trio quickly retreated to the safety of a nearby thicket, far enough from the camp borders to avoid detection by the odd patrolling guard.
"Right," whispered Newkirk, "let's take a look at the map. Carter, get the torch."
"The what?" Carter frowned, looking confused. "Look, I don't even have a lighter – what do you need a torch for?"
LeBeau shook his head, chuckling. "'Divided by a common language'. He means the flashlight, Carter."
"Oh – right."
Carter turned on the small lamp, Newkirk unfolded the map and LeBeau craned his neck to look.
"Think the quickest way is along the road – not too close, mind," the Englishman amended, "and then across the Adolf Hitler bridge right there."
"Say, didn't we blow this one up in February? And May?" Carter asked with a wide, slow smile, as though Newkirk had mentioned an old friend he hadn't heard of in ages. Newkirk shrugged.
"How should I know? They named half the bridges in the bloomin' country after that barmy bastard. Sometimes it feels like all we ever do is blow up Adolf Hitler bridges."
"Well, not tonight anyway," LeBeau piped up, still peering at the map. "We need it to be standing when we cross it. Good thing they rebuilt it again."
"So we can blow it up later." Carter's eyes lit up with the peculiar enthusiasm explosives always brought up in him. Sometimes it unnerved Newkirk a little. Just a little.
"Andrew, has it ever occurred to you that you're a funny sort of fellow?"
"Jack Benny funny or 'Don't be funny' funny?"
"… Never mind."
Both map and lamp went back inside their respective owners' jackets, and the three men started walking, grateful for the breath of wind on their faces, however slight it was. Newkirk caught himself thinking they probably had it better than the others; granted, they would probably be out for the major part of the night, but at least they wouldn't be crammed with a dozen other men in too-close quarters, gasping in the dry heat and trying in vain to get some sleep.
Maybe thanking the airmen for getting shot down would be a little bit bad taste, though.
The distant but closing sound of a motor made them freeze in their tracks; they dropped to the ground and lay there for a full minute, hardly daring to breathe.
"Did you see who that was?" LeBeau whispered when the forest fell silent again – or as silent as Bavarian wildlife could get. Newkirk shook his head.
"No. Sounded like a car, though."
"Are you sure it wasn't a truck?"
"Didn't sound big enough for a truck," Carter put in, still looking in the direction of the road that stretched somewhere behind the copse of trees. "Besides, Schultz only comes back from his furlough with the new truck tomorrow morning, right?"
"Only if he doesn't stop for breakfast in Fuchsstadt." LeBeau smirked. "If he does, he'll probably be back in camp in time for lunch. Or dinner."
Newkirk stood up quickly, brushing dirt off the front of his uniform. "Forget Schultz – I'd like to be back in camp for breakfast," he said evenly. "Let's pick up these flyers and get back home." His words belatedly registered, and he shook his head, adding fervently, "And I just can't believe I said that."
They started off toward the bridge again, careful to make as little noise as possible; after four or five minutes Carter's voice broke the silence, making the other two jump out of their skin.
"You're right, though, it does feel like it sometimes."
"Who's right? What does?" asked Newkirk, turning around to the American in order to properly glare at him through the dark, his heart still pounding. He hated being startled like that.
Carter shrugged, completely unruffled. "The camp. I mean, I know it's a prison, and boy do I miss my family and everything, but it's almost kinda like a home now. 'Specially with you guys."
Newkirk opened his mouth to offer a sarcastic retort, but for once decided against it. The American's candid honesty usually brought out the old cynicism in him, but every once in a while it just plain disarmed him. He was perfectly aware that wild horses couldn't drag such a comment from him, because God forbid Peter Newkirk should ever say something maudlin or likewise damaging to his reputation … Why Carter seemed completely fine blurting out things like that was beyond him, but oddly, they didn't feel wrong coming from him, as such. Probably something to put down to cultural differences.
He glanced at LeBeau – who had been staring at Carter with an odd look on his face as well as the hint of a smile – and saw his own thoughts reflected in the dark eyes. No surprise there.
In the end, he looked back at Carter, tilted his head a little and said with his usual crooked grin, "Andrew, that's either awfully nice of you to say that, or incredibly disturbing."
"Thanks," Carter said uncertainly, "I think."
"Don't think about it too much," LeBeau said with a grin as they started walking towards the bridge they could finally make out behind the trees. "Newkirk just doesn't know how to pay a compliment."
"Oh, because that was a compliment? Gee, I would never have guessed."
Newkirk snorted, biting back an unsavoury comment. If I didn't know for certain Carter's typically impervious to sarcasm …
They stopped for a second when they finally got to the bridge – the area surrounding it was mostly open ground, and they would lose precious cover from the trees for a little while – and Carter prudently walked up to inspect the masonry. "Now that's a sweet little bridge. I hope they rename it when the war's over, though."
"Assuming we haven't blown it up – again," muttered LeBeau from his spot near the trees where Newkirk and him were keeping an eye out for patrols. Newkirk grinned.
"They'll probably rebuild it again. Hey, who knows, maybe they'll name it after Cart—"
The world exploded.
No, not the world, pointed out a small part of Newkirk's brain that was still functioning while he was thrown to the ground by the blast, half-blinded by the sudden glare and the roar in his ears got so loud it filled his whole head.
Just their own little part of it. Or possibly just Germany.
It took him what felt like ages to be able to move even just a finger again. His head seemed to weigh about as much as Tower Bridge and it occurred to him that it was probably not a good thing that everything he could see when he could crack his eyes open was shaky and blurry, like a child's drawing.
He suddenly became aware that somebody was gripping his shoulder; the hold was strong but shaking badly.
"Pierre! Ça va? Réponds! Combien j'ai de doigts? Pierre!"
His eyes finally gained a bit of focus, and he realised LeBeau was crouching next to him, dishevelled and pale as a ghost under a layer of dirt. His beret was gone and he looked about as bad as Newkirk felt.
"Oi, stop yer bloody nattering, or do it in a language I understand," he groaned, trying to get his jumbled thoughts to make sense again. This answer seemed to reassure the Frenchman, who closed his eyes and let out a shuddering breath.
"Nom de Dieu."
"Yeah, you can say that again."
If we'd been just a little closer …
Ice seized him up to his throat at about the same second LeBeau's eyes popped open again and locked on to his, filled with the same mounting hair-raising horror Newkirk felt growing in his gut. The still-burning ruins of the bridge drew both gazes as though of their own accord, and both men whispered the same word – essentially.
Ça va? Réponds! Combien j'ai de doigts?: Literally, "Are you okay? Answer (me)! How many fingers do I have?"
Nom de Dieu: "name of God", literally; equivalent in terms of language to "bloody hell".
La Grande Illusion is a 1937 war drama about a small group of French POWs trying to escape during World War 1. There are no bad guys in the film – both Allied and German officers are depicted as human beings who have their own duty to accomplish – and at the heart of the film is the idea that nationalism and racism are a profound mistake, as what separates people (nationality, religion, culture, class) can also bring them together. It was a great success at the time, until the Nazis banned it from cinemas when they invaded France, and it remains one of the great classics of French cinema.
French and Canadian French accents, speech patterns and idioms are wildly different. Scottish accent/Texan accent different :o)
Next part next week! Hope you liked :o]