Lieutenant Garrison waited as the four men of his unit wandered into the former salon. They casually took their places at the table each in their usual spot. He knew that to try to hurry them was counter productive. It was their way of taking some measure of control but as long as they did not try to push it then he was willing to let it go.
"So, where we off to this time?" asked Casino with as much enthusiasm as he would in considering a trip to the dentist.
"We, have two objectives this time." That got their interest. "Actor, do you remember a man who goes by the alias of Bertrando Agapito Peruginon?"
"Yes, very good thespian but as a chef he was abysmal. His .."
"You are to contact him in Genoa," interrupted Garrison. "Rumour has it that he's up for grabs. You are to contact him and persuade him to our side. Failing that, … "
"I do not fail," asserted Actor indignantly.
"Failing that," said Garrison with a little more force while glaring at the equally hostile conman, "you convince him to remain neutral." His glare remained for a moment then he moved on. "Meanwhile the rest of us will make our way to Asti where the German command has scheduled a retreat for some key personnel. The thought is that any plans, notes, maps, etc will be stored in the buildings safe."
"Where we can just walk in and take them," said Casino looking heavenward. "Just like that."
"Yes, Casino, just like that. We fly in tonight, transfer to a fishing boat and land in Genoa. Actor, you are to go to the Hotel Agnello d"Oro where the 'Baron' is staying. You will have three days at least to work your magic. I take it that you know the city?"
"But of course." Actor smiled with pleasure. "I will need money, clothes, passport …"
"You will be provided for. The rest of us will make our way to Asti."
"Do we know where this meeting's gunna take place?" asked Chief quietly?
There are two possible places. We'll have to scout them both. We'll have two days. That should be enough time.
The trip there was less peaceful than they hoped. The first leg was by plane with a drop outside of Marseille in France. Casino's dislike of parachuting was aggravated by a short bout of hide and seek with a German fighter plane. He was very happy to be on the ground in one piece. From there they made their way to the coast where they met up with a fishing boat. This time it was Goniff's turn. He was not a sailor in the best of weather but the sea was running high. By the time they landed in Italy he had to be carried off the boat.
It was late morning when they arrived. Actor took his bag and disappeared into the crowd. "What're the odds he don't come back?" Garrison heard the comment but refused to consider it. He could not afford to worry about something he had no control over.
Making their way to the train station he bought tickets for their journey. Their wait was fairly short but they spent the time feigning nonchalance as they watched the other passengers and the few soldiers. They were probably going home or just returning from being on leave. When their train arrived they boarded and found enough seats that they could be together. Casino sat closed to the aisle in case they were questioned. Chief was not comfortable on trains so was glad to sit beside the window. Almost at once Goniff, still not recovered from the sea voyage, fell asleep. Initially the ride was pleasant but as they entered the mountains the grade increased and when they entered the first tunnel it was Chief who was the first to worry. Then when the train started over the first of several bridges it was Casino's turn. It was a straight drop. Finally they reached the highlands and the land levelled out and they could see vineyards and fields.
The train stopped in Alessandria for a time and then continued. Finally they reached their destination, Asti, where they left the train. It was a beautiful city, with stone buildings and narrow streets. Off in the distance they could se the hills with vineyards and forests. It was a mild day with lots of sunshine. If only they did not have a job to do.
"So, where's our contact?" muttered Casino so as not to be overheard even though they were alone.
"Just great, so how we supposed to find these guys."
"I have a list of possible hotels. We check 'em out." And that was what they did. Except they did not find any proof that a meeting was going to be held in any of them.
"You know, Warden, if they're not staying in a hotel then where ever they go, there gonna have caterers." Casino was tired of snooping through hotels.
"Unless they go out for their meals," offered Goniff.
"What's Italian for caterer?" asked Chief. He was also tired of spying on Hotels.
"Not sure, ah, fortitore di cibo, or something like that."
"Cause I saw a coupla guys loading food into a truck."
"Where?" ask Garrison. Casino's idea was worth checking.
"Down that way. Bout two blocks. The truck went down another block then turned left."
"We need to check where that road goes."
Down that way three blocks and a left led them out of the city. Not knowing how far they would have to go Chief liberated a vehicle and they headed for the hills. It was a pleasant drive that finally led them to a large villa back in the trees. Set back as it was Chief almost missed it before seeing the Nazi flags displayed out front. He drove past far enough so they could hide the vehicle. Garrison signalled to Casino and told the others to wait.
They crept in as close as they dared and watched. It was a good sized house, strongly build, with a sweeping drive in front. Two soldiers guarded the front entrance. The only vehicle evident was a staff car. A check of the back revealed another entrance, also guarded, plus two motorcycles and a large truck. The two men backed away until it was safe to talk. Garrison explained his plan and after a suggestion from Casino which Garrison questioned but acquiesced, the two retreated. After meeting up with the others they moved off about a kilometre, following the electrical supply. Along the way they made a short stop at a wood shed where they "borrowed" two axes. Once a suitably positioned tree was located they began to chop. The two men were covered with sweat but they worked well together and soon had the tree teetering. They stood back and waited until finally in frustration Casino walked around behind the tree, lifted his boot, placed it against the tree and pushed. "Fall, dammit," he grunted. At first there was nothing then with a further push it began to lean, then with a crack, it slowly toppled. It looked like the wires would hold as they stretched slowing the tree's fall but with a pop and a shower of sparks, the wires whipped backed towards the poles like angry snakes being held by their tails. The tree continued it's descent, hit the ground, bounced once then lay still in a cloud of dust. Birds in the neighbouring trees had called in alarm and taken to the skies but after a minute they returned to their perches. The two men waited for the dust to settle before they made their next move. The tree had fallen only part of the way across the road so the two axe men cut some of the branches and dragged them into position blocking the rest of the road.
They had only to wait about half an hour before the pair of motorcycle riders could be heard approaching. They slowed as they saw the destruction. The men waited, two hidden on each side, watching. The riders remounted their bikes turned around and returned to the villa. Garrison had hoped for a staff car but they were still OK.
Finally the hoped for vehicle arrived with four soldiers armed with ropes and axes. Garrison and Goniff were waiting just down the road out of sight. They quickly moved onto the road and trudged onto the scene. The soldiers were immediately on the alert until the men raised their hands. Garrison, in his best pigeon German explained that they were on their way home and they would cut up the tree if they could have the wood. The soldiers were not about to work if they didn't have to so they agreed and moved off to the side where Chief and Casino were waiting to relieve them of their lives.
All four men walked to just within sight of the villa. Chief and Goniff stepped off the road. They would make their way in closer out of sight in case they were needed. Garrison and Casino walked up to the front door, where Garrison explained how the soldiers had come into town and found no problems. They were still looking but they had been sent to check the villa since the problem might be there. His friend was an electrician but did not speak German so he would translate. If someone would show him where the electrical panel was then his friend could check it. A soldier led them to a room off the kitchen where Casino made a great show of checking and tracing wires. The soldier hovered for a time until Garrison spoke to him. He looked surprised then vanished.
"What'd ya say? Thought he'd never leave."
"Told 'm the last assistant you had got electrocuted by a stray spark. Lit 'm up like a Christmas tree." Casino laughed. "OK, on to part two." The two men made their way back into the front of the house where Garrison explained that there was a short in the house so they would have to go room to room. Even Casino could tell the commandant was not pleased but what could he do. Another soldier was assigned to escort them. Part two was proceeding as planned.
Without a blue print the two men had to plan carefully, they did not want to find the safe too soon. Casino made a great show of checking the lights and switch boxes in the kitchen and dining room before moving on to the other rooms. Their escort was very attentive at first but the more wiring they checked the less he was interested. Finally they came to the room they wanted. Casino spotted the safe and nodded to his leader. He opened the box for a wall plug and exclaimed his pleasure. He motioned for Garrison and pointed. Garrison looked, then stood and motioned the guard to follow him to the basement. The guard hesitated, looking first from Garrison then to Casino and back. Garrison explained that he would remain here but they must go to the basement and watch for sparks. The guard obviously had no idea but he followed Garrison anyway. As soon as the two left, Casino went to the safe and had it open in minutes. He grabbed the contents and shuffled through them, the cash he pocketed. Old habits die hard. Garrison had described the papers they wanted so when he found them he shoved them in another pocket. He was just shoving the rest in the safe when the door opened. The sergeant was armed and had his gun out and aimed before Casino could react. There was no way out. Casino raised his hands and waited.
Garrison was to keep the guard busy until Casino worked his magic so he open the fuse box and stared intently. The guard stood back and watched over Garrison's shoulder. Foot steps on the stairs alerted Garrison to a new arrival but it was the order to "Hände nach oben! "that confirmed his fear. He obeyed the order with a heavy heart.
Chief waited patiently watching the road. He could just make out the Villa through the trees. He wanted to be closer but there were a pair of guards at the entrance. If he could see them there was a chance they could see him. Garrison had said to wait three hours. It had now been two. He knew Goniff was anxious, he could sense his nervousness, see the worried look. He worried too but if he tried to check on them, he could blow the con. There were times he hated being the wheel man. Sure, there was less chance of being shot or caught with your hand in the safe but the waiting was almost as bad. Carefully he stretched, rolled his shoulders, and flexed his legs. With a quick look at his partner he began to move.
Goniff was all for moving. This spot where Garrison had told them to wait was in a low area. He had tried to sit but when he checked, the ground was damp. There was no way he wanted to sit around in wet pants. He stood, or leaned. There was a log he found but what ever kind of tree it was, was awfully rough, and his pants too thin.
The two men withdrew and began to circle the Villa. Chief had never thought too much about strategy and planning. He had picked up a job or two as a driver on a heist and worked for a time as a chauffeur. Each time he had been told what to do and where to wait. It had not taken long to realized that thought Garrison ran the show he expected them to participate, in the planning, and the carrying out. He expected them to be able to improvise. So he had watched. He watched the way Actor could come up with stuff, the way he could walk into any situation and act like he was meant to be there. He watched Garrison too. From him he had learned how to read a map especially the topographical maps that he used. He had learned some of the military terms like take the point, and being on watch. He had also learned about strategy and troop movement and placement. Right now he needed to know what was going on inside. 'What would Garrison do?' First take a look around.
The two men moved slowly, watching. As they circled the building they stayed as close as they could with out being seen. They scanned the windows hoping to see something. They had made it three quarters of the way around with no sighting and Chief was starting to move again when Goniff grabbed his arm. Knee jerk reaction was to hit him but something stopped him.
"Top window on the right," whispered Goniff anxiously.
He saw nothing but raised the binoculars to confirm. His heart sank as he saw Casino walk past. That was not the problem. The problem was the rifle that followed eight inches behind him being carried by a German soldier. They had gotten caught. Now what?
Both men had similar thoughts. Damn. Actor was back at the coast living it up with another con man. They each probably had a fine looking lady on each arm. Didn't matter, he was back there and they were here and they needed him bad. There was no way they could walk in there and con the Germans like Actor could so they would have to come up with something else. Damn.
A diversion, they needed a diversion so either the guys could escape or they could get them out. They didn't have any explosives so that was out but maybe a fire. Chief hated fires. He had seen people die in fires and he hated them. There had to be another way.
Goniff knew better and what to do. He began back tracking to the garbage dump that they had passed. There would be bottles there and petrol in the truck. The two moved as quietly and quickly as they could. The greatest danger would come when they had to get close enough to launch the bottles. Goniff held his nose as he began rooting through the rotting pile which, fortunately for them was far enough away from the house to be out of sight. He returned to the trees where Chief was watching with six bottles and enough rags to do what they needed. The petrol was a lot harder. The two men waited until the guard was turned the other way then ran and ducked under the trucks.
It took almost an hour before they were safely back in the trees. Goniff stayed at the back by the trucks and waited while Chief moved closer to the side. Launching the flaming bottles was going to be tricky but they had no choice. Chief located a suitable sapling and managed to pull it back, loaded his flaming bottle and released it. It fell short but got the guards attention. Goniff saw his chance and ran in closer to the trucks before he over handed his first bottle. It hit the mark, smashing against the cab door setting the side on fire. The guard hearing the second crash and whoosh as the flames caught hold of the canvas cover he ran back to the building to sound the alarm. Chief and Goniff each lobbed a second bottle then moved to the side of the building. Smashing a window, they leapt inside. There was not as much confusion as they hoped so seeing an unoccupied room Chief fired off two rounds breaking the window then screamed as if he had been shot. The two men waited until a soldier came to investigate. Chief grabbed him from behind, and knifed him. Garrison had shown them how to break a man's neck but Chief was running on basic survival instinct now. Besides, now was not the time to try something new. He dropped the body and pulled the coat clear, donning it as he ran into the hall. They could now smell the smoke.
Where were Garrison and Casino? The two men charging down the hall were stopped by an officer who suddenly appeared in front of them. He shouted off an order or a question, it didn't matter. Chief shot him before stepping over the body and looking in the door. It was empty. They moved on. The smoke was thicker and the confusion was growing. They charged on heading for the stairs. Chief was about to head up when Goniff, who had been following him, grabbed his arm and gestured to another door standing half open. It led to the lower level. Chief did not wait to acknowledge, he ran to the door, pulled it open and the two men began to descend. Two soldiers stood guard in what was obviously a wine cellar. The one of rank barked out an order and raised his weapon when he saw Goniff's lack of uniform. A knife appeared in his throat and he stumbled backward before falling. Goniff aimed his weapon on the remaining man who stood frozen in place. He was relived of his rifle. Moving deeper into the rows of racks Goniff found the two men they sought. By this time Chief had retrieved his knife and joined them. Cutting the bindings the rescuers helped the detainees to stand and walk to the stairs. It was slow going, Casino was limping badly, but they made it to the top of the stairs. Black smoke filled the hall as the four men made for the door. A muffled boom shook the building as the truck gas tank exploded, then another.
Chief and Garrison, with his arm over Chief's shoulder, were pushed aside as a panicked soldier pushed past. Garrison, his ribs already suffering, crashed heavily against the wall. Chief's only thought had been to get his leader out of the building so he was unprepared for the blow. Instinctively he dropped Garrison's wrist he had been holding over his shoulder and threw his hand out to stop their fall. He managed to slow their momentum but not enough to prevent Garrison from hitting the wall and sagging as his knees gave way. Chief staggered as Garrison's weight pulled him forward. He had to get them out. Ignoring the pain in his wrist when he grabbed Garrison's wrist he pulled the semi conscious man's arm over his shoulder and heaved him to his feet. It took forever but he finally got outside and to the trees. Only then did he look for the others. He had only a moment to search until he saw Casino leaning heavily on Goniff as they made their way out the door. Easing his leader to the ground he ran towards his team mates. As soon as they saw him they veered in his direction. Once they were safely together the four men put a little distance between themselves and the villa and then stopped to rest. Garrison had been beaten and Casino had fallen on the stairs when they had been taken to the cellar. He did not think anything was broken but his knee was very painful. Chief's wrist was sore from when he had tried to stop himself from smashing into his leader in the hall but it was minor so he said nothing. Casino saw Garrison still looking back and guessed the reason.
"The place is engulfed. There'll be nothing left but ashes."
"But the …"
"There's no way."
"With all the confusion, I could slip in .."
"No," said Casino with conviction. "The smoke is too thick. You'd never make it. Chief here, didn't bust in there to haul our asses out just so you could go back in and die. We head back NOW."
Garrison didn't like it but knew Casino was right. The mission was lost. If Actor had been there, they would have had a better chance. Chief handed him the map and after consulting it for a minute he stood up, stretched while bracing his ribs and got ready to leave. They would make their way to their hidden vehicle detour around the fallen tree and drive back to the city. All they could do was hope they were not stopped and that Actor would be there to meet them.