Notes: the characters aren't mine and the story is! This is my contribution to the Short Story Competition. I did my best regarding the research for this fic; from what I understand, variations of "Capture the Flag" have existed since before the 1920s, so it's not anachronistic to have Newkirk play it in his youth.
I'm an invisible man. I've done this before. I can do this again… The Englishman's thoughts trailed off. I have to do this.
Peter Newkirk didn't second-guess that he was an invisible man; he knew it. In fact, he'd been that way since birth. Then again, what else could a Stepney street urchin be other than invisible or a menace to society? Society wanted them to disappear and pretend that they weren't really there. Everyone was happy that way. The problem was, though, even the best invisible men inevitably had their moments where they are seen—and that was when disaster would befall them.
The penalties for being spotted weren't so bad, at first. Becoming visible was all a game when he and his mates were kids; they'd play Capture the Flag and Hide and Seek—often, they'd play at night in the cemeteries, trying to scare each other half out of their wits while stealing flags left and right. And Newkirk was always voted the most invisible of them all, earning the nicknames Peter the Prestidigitator and Newkirk the Nightlord. But even the great Newkirk the Nightlord had his bad days when he turned visible and had to run to avoid being tagged. If only that remained the worst to happen to the visible…
The games stopped when Newkirk's mother passed away—smallpox, it was. His father had taken off after that, and had taken every last quid with him. Newkirk soon learned that invisible men have no choice but to resort to desperate measures, especially when they have more than one mouth to feed. Mavis never approved of it, but she knew that her brother's pickpocketing ways were the only thing keeping the both of them fed—if they were lucky, that is. Times were hard all around, and, more often than not, Newkirk was only able to get ahold enough to feed just one. He'd give it all to her when that happened; a thin man may be hungry, but he's a lot harder to spot. But it wasn't pretty when he was spotted. That list of petty theft charges at the various London police stations remained a permanent testimony to that. But for every time Newkirk was spotted, there were dozens of times that the Nightlord remained invisible, leaving his targets scratching their heads in befuddlement.
But there was no hiding when wartime came about. The RAF spotted Newkirk first. The squadron he was with were nearly all reluctant soldiers—men who would have preferred to stay invisible, but hadn't been so lucky. And their luck grew even worse that day when the Germans spotted them. In fact, Newkirk was the luckiest one of all; he was invisible enough to escape the fate that befell most of his squadron mates that fateful day, but not invisible enough to avoid capture. Newkirk could still smell the schnapps on the breath of that overdressed private who laughed in his face. But the Englishman had the last laugh, though—the private never did find out where his precious hip flask ended up… But it didn't change the fact that the Englishman had become a prisoner.
If it hadn't been for Colonel Hogan, it might as well have been the end of the escapades of Newkirk the Nightlord, who would've gone into forced retirement. Thanks to Hogan, the games continued—only the stakes were much higher.
And tonight, the stakes were higher than they had ever been. If Newkirk lost the game tonight, not only would his own life be lost, but also that of his best friend. Louis LeBeau was somewhere out in the Bavarian forest believing that he was going to be meeting with a downed pilot.
They had all believed that the meeting was supposed to have been routine; a call for help over their radio had come from one of their Underground contacts—code name Huntsman— informing them of a downed pilot in the woods, stumbling in their direction. It didn't even seem like a challenge for this clever crew; LeBeau only volunteered because he claimed he had nothing better to do, though both Newkirk and Carter accused him of just wanting to get out of cooking ever since he heard that Klink was craving a gourmet meal.
Eager to get away, LeBeau had already gone by the time mealtime rolled around, and Newkirk had been deciding on whether to settle for yesterday's leftovers of some unpronounceable French dish or equally unpronounceable dishes in the mess hall. In the end, the Nightlord decided to go with the leftovers; at least he could stomach them, and, really, LeBeau's cooking was among the best the Englishman had ever tasted—of course, there was no way he'd ever let him know that.
But he never got a chance to eat. Kinch burst up from the trapdoor just as Newkirk had grabbed a plate. The horrified look on Kinch's face instantly banished Newkirk's appetite, and he knew without even opening his mouth that LeBeau was in trouble.
"What 'appened?" he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
"On a whim, I double-checked the frequency of the radio message," the sergeant said. "The frequency isn't the usual one that Huntsman uses, and it wasn't the emergency signal, either."
"You mean…?" Carter asked, his eyes wide as Hogan's eyes narrowed.
"It was a fake message—a trap, and Louis is walking right into it," Kinch finished for him. "Hochstetter was ferreting around here earlier today; he probably got the idea to set a trap because we'd lower our guard after he left."
"We have to stop LeBeau before he makes contact!" Carter replied.
"There are bound to be his men in the woods everywhere," Hogan said, rapidly sizing up the situation. "We can only send one person—someone who has the best chance of sneaking around out there without being seen."
"Guv'…!" Newkirk exclaimed, looking to Hogan.
"The job's yours," the colonel said. He knew as well as the others that Newkirk, cat burglar that he was, had the best chance of getting around unseen. More than that, with LeBeau in trouble, Hogan knew that the only way he could possibly stop Newkirk from getting involved would be physical restraint.
By the time these thoughts had fully gone through the colonel's head, Newkirk had already gone; changing to his usual black night-gear and hastily applying the dark grease to his face, he emerged out of the tree stump exit and vanished among the trees and shadows of the night.
The games had begun again.
Newkirk had still been running when he stopped to catch his breath. Yes, it was precious time that he was wasting, but an invisible man would be just as visible if his gasps for air were audible, and that wouldn't help LeBeau in the slightest.
It was as he neared the rendezvous point that he realized that there were voices all around them—German soldiers, some from Stalag 13 and some sent by Hochstetter, had crossed paths and were angrily enquiring as to why the others were in the woods. Newkirk took their squabbling as a good sign—no one had found LeBeau. But where was he, then? He had to be nearby; he had been given enough of a headstart to have reached the rendezvous point already, but Newkirk had expected that he must have been forced to take a longer, roundabout route in order to avoid the guards and secret police.
The Englishman's ears caught the snap of a nearby twig; someone was close by, and he wasn't going to chance on the possibility of it being LeBeau versus the possibility of it being one of the enemy. In the fraction of a second, Newkirk worked gravity to his advantage and pressed himself to the forest floor, working slowly to the cover of some shrubbery.
He was only partially concealed by the foliage as he saw the black boots of one of Hochstetter's men. He silently exhaled, pressing himself further to the ground so that the very smell of the grass and soil filled his nostrils.
He didn't move; even the one unstoppable thing that could give him away—his breathing—was perfectly timed to the breeze. The rustling leaves and grass near his mouth and nose would be indistinguishable from those moved by the wind. He was, truly, invisible, despite being in plain sight. All the enemy mercenary had to do was aim a flashlight in his direction, but he never looked twice.
The mercenary now walked right by him. For the briefest moment, Newkirk the Nightlord felt the same triumphant rush of adrenaline he used to feel in his younger years when a rival player, eyes wide open, yet still managing to walk right by him as though he wasn't even there.
The game had never changed, he realized. More than the training he had undergone in the beginning of his Royal Air Force career, more than all of the lessons that Colonel Hogan had given him on how to avoid being seen, it had been those simple children's games that had prepared him the most for tonight.
In the past, when they had been on teams during their games, everyone had wanted Newkirk on their team. His team never lost. During one game of Capture the Flag, they had come very close—everyone except Newkirk had been "captured" and held in the "dungeon" behind the enemy flag.
The opposing team had expected Newkirk to forget about his captured teammates and go directly for the flag. But they had been wrong; Peter Newkirk never abandoned his best mates—not then, and not now. His plan had been brilliant; he had snuck into the middle of the "dungeon," and waited. As the opposing team members guarding the flag began to get antsy and search for him, he tossed a rock to a point away from them. Their instincts kicked in, and they had gone off in that direction.
That was when Newkirk "tagged" his team members free—and, in the ensuing confusion, seized the flag and won.
The memories of that day flashed in Newkirk's mind as he grabbed a small rock from his hiding place. Swiftly and silently, he tossed rock several yards away, where it clattered as it landed.
"Who is there?" the mercenary demanded, pointing his weapon in that direction. "Surrender to me, and I will spare your life!"
Newkirk shook his head in amusement as he slowly crept away in the opposite direction, still unseen.
This wasn't over, of course. He still had to find his lost team member—and free him if need be.
But where was he?
LeBeau hadn't had the same sort of background that Newkirk had. LeBeau's family had been well-off; he had spent most of his boyhood learning those cooking skills that did help to keep them all alive, but those skills would do little good out here. LeBeau was no expert at being invisible.
Newkirk now strained his ears, trying to discern the different kinds of footsteps around him. That was something else that he had learned in his younger years—learning the different kinds of footfalls that different footwear made could alert you to whether the people around were on your side or otherwise. It wasn't always easy back then; he and his friends all wore shabby shoes that sounded similar on the ground, but it was surprisingly easy here in the Bavarian woods; the Germans all wore heavy boots, while LeBeau's softer, leather shoes would be much more distinct.
At last, he heard a different set of footprints approaching the area; unfortunately, he could also hear boots everywhere, as well. The other footsteps were furtive; LeBeau was definitely aware that he was surrounded, but he didn't realize that he was on what was promising to be a collision course.
Newkirk edged his way out of the shrubs for a moment and then quickly pinpointed the direction from which LeBeau was coming from. Shouting to him was out of the question, and if he made himself fully visible by standing up, there was every chance in the world that he would be spotted along with LeBeau.
And that led to the dilemma that Newkirk had never quite been able to figure out how to solve: how to make a visible man invisible while staying invisible yourself. Many a time, Newkirk had seen his old teammates walk right into traps. Even when he was slightly older, on his capers, he had seen several accomplices end up getting caught. And then there had been his squadron mates from when he had been captured; there was a reason why he had been the only one to live out of all of them.
Newkirk's pulse rate quickened. He had only seconds to figure out the solution, for he was not about to lose LeBeau the same way.
And then, he felt the answer pressed against the small of his back: his throwing knife—his pencil sharpener, as he called it—the knife that had been given to him by his mother and, as such, the item he carried with him everywhere he went.
Swiftly, he reached down the back of his black night outfit and pulled the knife from the secret pocket he had sewn into the clothing for the sole purpose of concealing the blade in the first place. Listening to make sure that he was gauging the direction of LeBeau's approach correctly, he tossed the knife in that direction, where it embedded itself into a tree trunk, the moonlight glinting off of the blade.
As the knife found its mark, Newkirk, for a split second, saw the silhouette of a shorter man in the moonlight, halting in his tracks as the knife stuck into the tree, just feet in front of him. His lips parted into a silent curse initially, but then fell open as the realization dawned on him. He pulled the knife from the tree and withdrew into its shadow just as a squad of Hochstetter's men came into view.
Newkirk breathed a silent sigh of relief as he slowly crept back into the shrubbery. The soldiers started to bicker among themselves, arguing that they saw and heard someone here, while each assumed that what he saw had been one of the others. Still arguing, they soon left the area. The Englishman didn't move until he was certain that they weren't doubling back; he now, finally, got to his feet, as did LeBeau, who immediately returned Newkirk's knife to him.
"What is happening?" the Frenchman whispered, baffled to see Newkirk here. "I could not find the contact, and there were Hochstetter's men everywhere…!"
"It was a set-up, Louis," Newkirk whispered back. "They sent a fake message; if Kinch 'adn't taken a second look at the frequency, we wouldn't 'ave known until it would've been too late for you."
LeBeau cursed Hochstetter in his own tongue.
"Whatever it is you just said, I agree with you wholeheartedly," Newkirk said. "And now, we must return to camp before the Guv'nor gets too worried."
LeBeau nodded and now followed Newkirk's lead as he ran as swiftly as he could while keeping as low to the ground as possible.
"One thing puzzles me, though, Pierre," the Frenchman whispered. "I saw how many of those men were in that clearing—they came from all directions. How on earth did you manage to avoid being seen?"
Newkirk responded with a knowing smirk.
"Louis…" he said. "It was merely child's play."