Garrison didn't often get the opportunity to go into the village. But today the sun was blazing down onto the glorious English countryside, activating the scents of the verdant meadows and pastures and sending the insects buzzing happily from flower to flower, adding their gentle music to the soporific atmosphere.
In a burst of decision that was characteristic of him, he rolled down his sleeves and settled his cap on his head. At the bottom of the stairs he called in at the Sergeant Major's office and told him that he was going to the post office and he'd be back in an hour. Then he was marching briskly down the drive, out of the gate, over the road and through the stile in the hedge that marked the start of the path to the village. Keeping up the brisk pace, he revelled in the assault on his senses: the heat on his face, the colours of half-hidden flowers, the variety of scents released by the sun's rays.
He went straight to the post office and straight to the display of birthday cards to choose one for his mother. Not being a great shopper, he was amused to see the word mum instead of mom, and impulsively decided he wanted a card with mum on it, but the verses weren't right, so he ended up with Mother instead. He pulled out his fountain pen and wrote the words he'd decided on, addressed the envelope and then took it over to where Mrs Johnstone was waiting. "Your mum's birthday, love?" she asked unnecessarily, taking the card and his half-crown. "I'll bet she's already watching the post waiting for this."
Not wanting to get in to a personal conversation, he just smiled as she put a stamp on the envelope and handed him his change. He left the card with her and, filial duty done, he left the shop and stood for a moment in the shade of the awning. To his surprise he found he was surveying the street, checking it out for exits, possible threats and areas of cover. But before he could get annoyed with himself his eyes caught a gesture, and he froze.
Actor's training kicked in, and he turned away from the group of three women which had caught his eye and whom he now thought of as a threat to his command. He appeared to be watching the door to the Doves, but his eyes were focussed on the women.
They were three women who had probably known each other all of their lives. They had happened to meet in the street and had stopped to pass the time of day. And they were happy. The two elder women were animated in their discussion while the younger appeared slightly bashful and quiet.
It was her gesture that had caught his eye.
He'd never seen her before, but he'd seen her photograph and knew all about her. Like most people, there was little to know. She was the only child of tenant farmers, she'd been an average student at the local school, and now she was helping out on the farm while the regular farm labourers were on active service. She'd checked out okay.
Even as he surreptitiously observed her, she repeated the gesture that had caught his attention. She smiled self-consciously, one arm folded across her abdomen and the other gently patted her stomach twice.
With the insouciant air of a practiced conman, Garrison slowly began to stroll along the village street, his pace quickening as he turned onto the path to the mansion. Instinctively aware of his surroundings, he registered nothing, his mind in turmoil. Half way up the hill he paused in a gateway and sat down on a large warm stone that must've acted as a gate-stop for at least two centuries.
Nowadays it took a lot to wrong-foot Craig Garrison. But he pushed his cap up off his forehead in gesture of bewilderment. How the hell was he going to deal with this?
Maybe he'd been wrong to leave out the briefing on fraternisation. At the time he'd felt it would be insulting, and after the barracking he'd taken over the film about sexually transmitted diseases he'd been unwilling to expose himself to a similar barrage about not getting women pregnant. Casino had been virulent, but it had been the quiet caustic words of Actor that had hurt most. And at the time he knew that if he could win Actor round then his job would become easier, and that had been a priority then.
He didn't know if he'd failed to take into account Chief's age, or if that hadn't become an issue yet. He wouldn't swear to it, but he thought it was only later that he'd begun to suspect that the young Indian was even younger that his file said he was. His experiences had aged him beyond his years, but his lack of teachers and mentors meant that he was both old beyond his years but also immature in many important areas. The change in him over the past two years had been amazing: naturally intelligent, he'd managed to overcome his understandable mistrust of outsiders and allowed himself to learn from the team members. He was now even able to smile in the face of Casino's goading.
With a quick shake of his head Garrison brought himself back to the present. Verification of facts. He'd had her vetted nearly a year ago: maybe they were no longer an item? Did Chief know? How would he react when he found out? Would the shock cause him to revert to the vicious killer he'd seemed to be when he'd left jail, or would his new maturity survive the surprise?
And how would the Army react? The official line was co-operation in all things, but unofficially they were already looking forward to an influx of mismatched partners in a strange country: the unofficial line was to refuse permission to marry wherever possible, and where a reason couldn't be found, enforce a delay followed by an immediate posting out of the area, preferably abroad.
Garrison buried his face in his hands, as if he could hide from the confrontations he knew were on the cards.
Despite his dire forebodings, the sound of that warm, familiar accent filled him with heart and made him feel as though he could cope with this.
He'd been right about Actor: now he was onside he was the best lieutenant any officer could have. On missions he'd found himself facing what seemed like insuperable problems, and then that voice would be at his shoulder suggesting a course of action that was outrageous in its conception and impossible in its execution – and then the owner of that voice would be in the midst of the Germans, attracting attention to himself, getting away with worse than murder, and all based on the strength of his personality and his ability to manipulate people. And they'd emerge from their quandary unscathed. Again.
Incongruously Garrison wondered if Actor ever suffered from nerves. Even as the thought coalesced he knew that answer was yes. Maybe that explained the women. And the type of women.
He moved his hands from his face to pull his cap back down and looked up at the tall figure in front of him. Much as he trusted the man, he needed to maintain confidentiality. "It's my mother's birthday in a couple of weeks. I've just sent her a card."
The disclosure of such personal information set the alarm bells ringing, but the conman's face didn't alter one whit. He mouthed the platitude appropriate for the occasion: "Perhaps this time next year..."
"Yeah. Maybe." He looked past Actor to the farm in the distance, the old farmhouse surrounded by barns and byres and sheds. The hedges were taller than they should be: the people who knew how to lay them were either in the forces or overworked at home, and that was one of the jobs that could be neglected without serious impact on the food production statistics. With a pang he realised he was becoming fond of this place.
What the heck. He knew this man. This man was his friend.
Slowly Garrison stood up, his eyes still focussed on the farm in the distance. With studied casualness, he said, "Chief still seeing that girl from the farm – Jennifer?"
Actor's laugh was rich. "Yes, he is. But you're not supposed to know about her. We are sworn to secrecy."
With a sidelong glance Garrison asserted his rank. "You'd be surprised what I know."
"I am sure I would," Actor replied, enjoying this multilayered exchange as much as Garrison was.
With a comradeship born in the need to survive, they both turned to walk back to the mansion in a convivial silence that served to consolidate the Warden's call for help and the conman's willingness to assist.
In the common room Casino swept up the cards in his blocked patience and began to shuffle them. On the other side of the table Goniff manipulated a playing card from one finger to the next. With a flash of understanding Casino's hand moved with lightning speed to snatch the card from Goniff's fingers: as he suspected, it was the card he'd needed to unblock the last game.
"Why, you lousy..!"
Goniff smiled beatifically back. They both knew the exchange so well that they no longer needed to say it.
At the window Chief cleared his throat. "They're comin' back."
Casino and Goniff hurried to join Chief and the three cons watched the two men slip through the stile, cross the road and exchange a few words with the guard on the gate before marching up the drive looking for all the world like the two SS officers they so often impersonated. On home ground now, they seemed unaware of the power they manifested by their confident and puissant bearing.
Casino shook his head in acknowledgement of the affinity that had grown between those two. When he'd agreed to join the team Casino had visions of his taking on the real power, like the older guys of the Tradition did. A few hours with Actor had convinced him that he was completely outclassed – which didn't do his ego any good but he had the sense to realise that he could learn a lot from the guy.
Then the Warden had started to show his true colours. When they'd done their first mission and were told they were in it for the duration, he'd taken them out on a survival exercise that lasted 36 hours. He'd sprung it on them, so no-one had time to stash any little extras, and the memory most vivid in Casino's mind, apart from the wonderful feeling of soft, warm hen in his arms, was the Warden demanding again and again that they share their prior experience. Digging in – what did anyone know about it? Anyone have any experience in mixed woodland like this? His experience was in the desert, so not really relevant here. Finding and storing water – that was when they found out that Actor always carried condoms. The love-lorn milkmaid was now a standing joke.
At first Chief had been rebelliously silent, his face stony hard and unforgiving. The Warden hadn't seemed to notice. He had taken them to set rabbit snares, and when Actor had asked what they were going to do with the rabbits if they caught any, the Warden had shot straight back with, "Well, you'd better hope we do catch something, because otherwise we won't be eating until twenty hundred tomorrow."
Chief had straightened and for the first time that day looked the Warden straight in the eye. Then he'd led the group to set another three snares, using wire that was hidden under his wrist harness. In a quiet voice and using minimum words in abbreviated sentences he'd explained why he was placing the snare in that particular place. The fact that the only three rabbits caught were in Chief's snares underlined the Warden's lesson.
Then came the cleaning of the rabbits. Since there were only three, the Warden went to a particular oak tree and, very aware that he was on trial, swung up into it with far more showy agility than was strictly necessary. He retrieved a basket and returned to the group. He opened the basket to reveal three rather dazed looking hens. Immediately Chief challenged him. "How long they been there?"
"Oh, about an hour."
Casino turned on the taciturn Indian. "You know where we are, dontcha?"
With just the hint of a smile, Chief nodded once.
Later they sat around their campfire eating rabbit and chicken while the Warden did everything any veteran could do to prepare his rooky men for the horrors of CQB. He didn't ask if they'd ever killed a man – he just told them what it would be like to stick a knife into an unsuspecting guard – and when to use the garrotte in preference to a knife. He told them about lining up a man in your sights, watching that man chatting to his friends – maybe even on the telephone to his wife. And the next minute your bullet ends the conversation forever. That was when Casino had first heard Actor feeding the Warden questions. That was when he'd first felt the chill of real, cold, all-pervading fear. Two days later, in Norway, he'd started to learn how to deal with it.
Sitting down at the card table again brought him back to the present and he started to deal cards. His patience game was flowing once more as Actor walked in. When the Italian firmly closed the door behind him all three knew that they had a problem.
"Come on, mate, don' keep us in suspenders," Goniff said quietly.
"Chief, he knows about you and Jenny."
The Indian's head jerked up in an instinctive challenge to Actor's words. "What does he know?"
The conman had made his reputation on the quickness of his wits: without missing a beat and without a change of tone he replied, "How much is there for him not to know?"
A silence fell on the room as Chief tried to parry their looks. Actor took pity on him. "We have all kept our word to you, Chief. He did not find out from any of us."
Again, that single nod, but now accompanied by a verbal acknowledgement. "I know." The dark eyes looked around at the men who waited for him to respond. They were the nearest thing to friends he'd ever had. Most of the time he liked it here. But there was one of 'em missing.
The three men watched as emotions tried to chase across the undemonstrative face. Then the hint of a smile started, but oddly it began in the Indian's eyes, spreading to twitch the corners of his mouth as he got to his feet. "Let's go see the Warden."
Garrison's head lifted from the file he was annotating as his office door opened. As he watched the four cons amble into his office and take up comfortable leaning positions around the room, he slipped the file into his top drawer and closed it. He watched as Chief took the guest chair and, significantly, Actor parked a haunch on the corner of the desk next to him. The fact that Actor was "backing" Chief made the Warden feel better.
"What is it?" he asked abruptly, never one to give away an advantage.
"Warden, hear you been listenin' to village gossip."
Garrison heard the humour in Chief's voice, and it suddenly struck him that this could be the making of the man. Acceptance, friendship, the protection of the villagers – the man looked happy. Suddenly the problems that the situation created for him as a US Army officer were forgotten – all that mattered was that the man in front of him had an opportunity to make something of himself.
"No. No gossip." He sat back in his chair, and when he was sure that he had their complete attention he copied the gesture that he'd seen Jennifer make – the arm across the abdomen and the gentle double pat of the stomach.
Actor was the first to catch on and begin the stream of congratulations that showered onto the slightly embarrassed but evidently happy Indian. The questions fell thick and fast.
"How far gone is she?"
"So when's it due?"
"You old rogue – how long have you known?"
Garrison's fist hammering on the table restored a kind of order, but the exuberant mood was suppressed rather than dispelled. Garrison reached across the table and offered his hand to the Indian, who shook it properly for the first time ever.
Garrison had the good grace to feel guilty as he said, "You two going to get married?"
Concentrating as he was on Chief, he missed the triumphant looks that flashed between the other cons.
Chief was silent.
"I won't pretend it's going to be easy, but I'll do everything I can. You're still cons. Remember?" he asked gently.
"What do you mean?" Chief challenged him.
"You're on loan to the Army. In the Army you can't get married without your CO's permission."
"But we aint in the Army," Casino protested.
"If you're not Army, you're cons. You know the regulations about getting married in the pen."
For a moment the silence was profound. Actor broke it, his rich voice calm. "You are our CO," he said.
"Yes. But I have my orders. Anything that could affect the status of the unit has to be reported."
"Such as?" Casino asked warily.
"Friendships – with both sexes. Your girlfriends have been checked out. They're not security risks." Garrison could feel the rumble of discontent that this announcement caused.
It was Goniff who turned the tide. "Bleedin' 'ell – they got a bloke checkin' out Actor's women? 'E must be knackered!"
"I believe they have assigned a whole platoon," Actor said phlegmatically over the laughter, "and I am given to understand that they find the work demoralising. Too many try to compete and they are disappointed when they are rebuffed."
Garrison joined in the laughter. As it died Actor continued, "Are you quite serious about our inability to marry?"
"Didn't think that'd concern you," Casino interjected with a grin.
"It doesn't," Actor said gently, waving his pipe as if to repel the hordes of ravening women who besieged him. He turned to his CO. "Warden, I would say that the prison system can physically prevent weddings. But while the Army may try to prevent marriages taking place, it can do nothing when faced with a fait accompli."
"What's going on?" Garrison demanded, alerted to danger.
"Am I correct?"
Garrison trusted his second. "Probably. I don't know." He glanced around the table. "This is another of those situations where I don't want to know about it so nobody gets to know it's a problem. If they don't know there's a problem, then they won't make up any regulations." His expression hardened as he surveyed his men, knowing that they'd just put another nail in the coffin of his military career. Not sure he still wanted a military career, it would've been nice to have the option.
With a grin Casino took up the task of taunting the Warden. "Don't you ever look in your safe?"
Ever cheerful, Goniff swaggered over to the safe, twisted the dials to the combination and pulled the heavy door open. He peered inside and selected and extracted a pale blue file. He turned and smiled at the Warden. Garrison wanted to ask how long Goniff had known the combination to his safe, but he knew that was a dangerous question, so he turned what he hoped was an accusatory eye on the one he knew to be the real culprit.
Casino defended himself with gusto and élan. "Warden, you change the combination on the first of the month. So I come in, crack the safe and tell the guys the numbers. That way we don't have any problems accessing the intel."
Goniff placed the blue file in front of Garrison, and when the Warden just looked at it, Goniff obligingly opened it. On the left was affixed a mugshot of Chief. Under the mugshot was his name and putative date of birth, and underneath that was a line that began Next Of Kin. The previous entry, "none", had been crossed out, and a new entry had been added: Jennifer Sands nee Knox, Hollowtree Farm. Relationship: wife.
His gaze lifted to rest on Chief, and the Indian straightened in his chair, meeting the Warden's look with a boldness that almost caused sparks to fly.
Once again the cons had rendered the Warden speechless.
It was nearly eight o'clock when Garrison slipped into the library. Actor put down his book and reached to pour a brandy for his CO.
"When did you guess?" Actor asked inquisitively.
"When you backed him. But I felt I had to go through the palaver about the Army not letting him get married."
"So that he would be justified in not inviting you to the wedding."
"He has come a long way in the past two years." Actor sipped his brandy. "At the time it was a matter of great concern to him that you – or more correctly, the Army, - would stop him."
"They could still try."
"No, I don't think so. Brian Knox, Jenny's father, is quite a forward thinking man. He is already training both of them to run the farm. I find I am having some very interesting conversations about soil PH balances and crop rotations." He paused reflectively. "Obviously we do not see the family much socially, but we try to offer support. They are yeomen of England – the salt of the earth."
"He's going to be alright, isn't he?"
"Yes, Warden. With God's good Grace, I think he's going to be alright."