I do not own any of the characters from the series Hogan's Heroes.
Written for the Short Story Challenge; the events reported take place just before "Sergeant Schultz Meets Mata Hari" (Season 3).
The first sentence is from "Il compagno Don Camillo" ("Comrade Don Camillo") by Giovanni Guareschi.
"The bomb exploded on a Tuesday around noon, when the newspapers arrived. Do you think this detail might perhaps be significant, Kommandant?"
The Kommandant of Stalag 13 nodded vigorously. "Yes. It's very significant." He paused for a moment, turning the matter over in his mind. "Is it possible there was something in the paper that the Underground didn't want me to see?"
Major Hochstetter, of the Gestapo, spared him a contemptuous glower. His acquaintance with Colonel Wilhelm Klink was of recent date, but his opinion of the man had been formed within half an hour of their first meeting, and so far he had seen no reason to amend it. "An interesting theory," he remarked. "And what could be so volatile in the local Zeitung that they would go to such lengths? The lonely hearts column, perhaps?"
"No, that's in the weekend edition," said Klink. "Not that I read it, of course."
Hochstetter smirked faintly. "The newspapers are not relevant to the investigation," he concluded. "The time of the explosion means nothing, except that the criminals responsible for this outrage miscalculated."
He hooked his thumb into his belt, studying the smouldering ruins which, only an hour earlier, had been the enlisted men's mess kitchen. "It is my opinion that the Underground are involved in this. Their plan was to detonate the bomb in the middle of the night. The prisoners would then have taken advantage of the confusion, and made their escape from the other side of the camp. An ingenious plan, foiled only by their own incompetence."
Taking a few steps closer, and narrowing his eyes against the sting of the oddly sweet-smelling smoke still rising from the ruins, he turned over a blackened sheet of corrugated iron with the tip of his boot. A lick of flame danced out from beneath, prompting Klink to draw back behind the more than adequate shelter afforded by his sergeant of the guard.
"Put it out, Schultz," he whined.
"I have never seen anything quite like this," murmured Hochstetter thoughtfully.
"Nor have I, Major," added Schultz. "Or smelled it, either. Do you think it is some kind of chemical weapon?"
"Poison gas," squeaked Klink, and retreated even further.
Hochstetter took an involuntary backward step. "Don't be ridiculous," he snapped. "The Underground do not have access to such materials, nor would they use them where Allied prisoners of war might be exposed to them. No, this is merely some new, highly volatile explosive."
He paused for thought, and came to a decision. "I will start my investigation by questioning your senior prisoner of war officer. He is almost certain to have some knowledge of this matter."
"A very good idea, Major Hochstetter," burbled Klink. "Shall I have him brought to my office?"
Another curlicue of smoke, picked up by the afternoon breeze, drifted towards the major, and he edged further away. "No. Bring him to my car. I will take him to Gestapo headquarters in Hammelburg, and question him there. In the meantime, contact the chemical weapons laboratory at Weizenfeld, and have them send one of their scientists over to make a report. He will soon identify the nature of the explosive substance, and determine whether there is any further danger."
"But, Major Hochstetter..." Klink's objection died a sudden death, as Hochstetter turned on him with a furious snarl. "Don't just stand there, Schultz," he went on, without catching breath. "Go and fetch Colonel Hogan at once, and bring him to the major's car."
"Nice place you have here." Colonel Hogan gazed around the small, windowless room, appraising the decor.
It hadn't much to please the discerning connoisseur of interior design. The walls, at some distant point in history, had been painted in a shade so neutral that no word existed for it in either English or German, and had since faded to an even more nondescript hue; the furniture consisted only of a plain wooden desk, with a chair on either side, and a second, smaller desk equipped with a typewriter.
Hogan sat on one side of the desk, Hochstetter on the other, and a dour, dough-faced SS man in front of the typewriter, prepared to set down every admission wrung from the prisoner. But at the first rattle of the keys, Hochstetter turned on him: "Do not include that in the transcript."
He switched his attention back to the prisoner. "You think this is nice, Colonel Hogan? This is the soft interview room. There are other facilities here where the atmosphere is considerably less welcoming." He paused to let the hint take effect before he went on. "What do you know about the explosion which destroyed the enlisted men's mess kitchen at Stalag 13 earlier today?"
"I know it scared the heck out of me," replied Hogan, as frankly ingenuous as a choirboy, and probably about as innocent. "I thought a bomb had gone off."
"A bomb did go off," growled Hochstetter.
"No kidding? In the mess kitchen?" Hogan's eyebrows went up, but after a few moments of reflection, he shrugged. "Well, I can't say I'm surprised."
Hochstetter stood up, and loomed across the desk. "And why is that? Were you perhaps expecting something of the kind? How did you know? Who was responsible, and what was their intended purpose?"
"Whoa, hold your horses there, Major," protested Hogan, holding up his hands. "Now, just take a couple of deep breaths, calm down, and take it from the top."
"Answer the question!" Hochstetter slammed his open palm against the desktop.
"Which one?" Hogan waited for a few seconds, a cool, complacent smile on his lips. "You see? You got so worked up, you lost track. Now, the best way to handle these situations, in my opinion..."
"Don't tell me how to run an interrogation," barked the major. "And don't include that, either," he added, rounding on the SS man at the typewriter.
For a few seconds he glowered at the American, whose good humour seemed so aggravatingly unshakeable. "Very well," he said at last. "Let us take it one question at a time. You say you were not surprised at the sabotage of the mess kitchen. Would you care to explain?"
"Oh, come on, Major! It was bound to happen some time, right? I mean, some of the men have suffered in silence for years. Sooner or later, they'd just have to make some kind of demonstration, even if it was only to show that, in spite of everything, they're not broken in spirit yet."
Hochstetter pounced on this at once. "You admit it then, the prisoners were responsible?"
"The prisoners?" chortled Hogan. "I'm talking about the guards. It was their mess kitchen. Frankly, I'm only surprised they waited so long."
"Really, Colonel Hogan?" said Hochstetter, deadpan. "Are you seriously trying to make me believe this was the work of Kommandant Klink's own men?"
"You can't blame the poor devils," remarked Hogan. "There's only so many times a man can face those boiled pig knuckles before he cracks. At least, I hope they were pig knuckles. Private Wasserman said he found a horseshoe on his plate last week, but..."
"Silence!" Once again, Hochstetter pounded the desk.
"Should I include that, Herr Major?" asked the man at the typewriter.
"No!" Hochstetter took a few paces back and forth, to let his anger cool down. "Colonel Hogan, this is what I think really happened today. The prisoners, in collaboration with members of the Underground, placed an explosive device in the mess kitchen, for the purpose of diverting the attention of the Kommandant and guards, thereby allowing some of your men to escape undetected. However, the bomb went off earlier than expected, before you were ready." He paused, watching Hogan's face, trying to assess his reaction. "Well? How close am I to the truth?"
"Gosh, major," said Hogan, "that's a great idea. You wouldn't mind if I put it to the escape committee some time? They offer a monthly prize for the best plan. I'd be happy to split it with you, that's only fair - "
"Enough of this!" The explosion from Hochstetter was, in its way, as spectacular as the one which had shaken Stalag 13 earlier. "Understand this, Colonel Hogan. I mean to get to the bottom of this matter. If you continue to obstruct my investigation - Enter!"
The interruption was prompted by a knock on the door, which heralded the appearance of another SS private. "Herr Major, there is a telephone call for you."
"I am in the middle of an interrogation," snarled Hochstetter.
"Jawohl, Herr Major. But Doctor Weiss, of the chemical weapons laboratory, is on the line from Stalag 13. He has made an assessment of the damage, and thinks he can identify the nature of the material used."
Hochstetter glanced at Hogan, with the beginnings of a smirk, and a gleam in his eyes. "Very well. Colonel Hogan, I will leave you for a few minutes. I suggest you use the time to consider whether you really want to find out how we in the Gestapo deal with uncooperative witnesses." He strode out, slamming the door behind him.
Hogan turned to the guard who remained on duty behind the typewriter. "Boy, is he ever touchy," he remarked confidingly. "I think he needs a holiday. And you can include that in the transcript. Maybe he'll read it and get the hint."
It was some time before the major returned, and he brought back with him an air of baffled frustration.
"Well, Colonel Hogan," he said, his tone grating as if he had to force it past his larynx, "it seems this is not a Gestapo matter after all."
"Never thought it was," replied Hogan cheerfully. "But I'm almost dying of curiosity. Any chance you could tell me what actually happened?."
"I will leave that to Kommandant Klink," said Hochstetter. He gestured to the men who had followed him in. "Take this man back to Stalag 13."
Hogan stood up, as relaxed as if he'd come to the end of a social visit. "Well, thanks for an interesting afternoon, Major. I guess I'll see you round."
"Oh, you will, Hogan." Hochstetter's eyes glittered with hostility. "This is just the latest in a series of occurrences at Stalag 13 which I find very intriguing. So from now on, I will be watching you, and Stalag 13, very closely."
"Hogan, I want answers, and I will have answers!"
As usual, Klink's attempt to appear domineering came across as merely fretful. Hochstetter's so much better at this, thought Hogan.
"Well, sure, Kommandant," he replied cheerfully. "Anything to help out. What's the first clue?"
"The first clue is, the mess kitchen was blown up at noon today," Klink snapped back.
"Gee, that's a tough one," mused Hogan. "How many letters is it?"
Klink gawped at him. "What are you talking about?"
"The crossword in the newspaper. You just said you want help with the answers, so..."
"Hogan! I'm not interested in the crossword. I haven't even read the paper today. I haven't had the time. In case it escaped your notice, the mess kitchen blew up, just when the papers arrived." Klink took out his monocle and polished it. "Now, Hogan, I've had the damage inspected by Doctor Weiss, who is on the staff of a scientific establishment in the area..."
"The secret chemical weapons lab at Weizenfeld," said Hogan, trying as always to be helpful.
"How do you know about - " With an effort, Klink let the distraction go, replaced his monocle, and kept to the matter at hand. "Where he is from is none of your business, Hogan. The point is, he was able to tell me exactly what caused the explosion. Which means..."
"Well, I could have told you that."
Hogan's interjection was delivered so casually that for a few seconds, Klink just kept talking: "...you and your men have some explaining to...what did you say?" The monocle dropped from his eye again, but by pure reflex he fielded it.
"Oh, come on, Kommandant. You can't tell me you didn't already have it worked out." Hogan leaned back in his chair. "You would have suspected the truth when Major Hochstetter showed up so quickly."
"Exactly. How could he have gotten here so fast, unless he was expecting it?" remarked Hogan, with a shrug. "It's obviously just the latest attempt by the Gestapo to make you look bad."
The monocle made a faint plinking sound as it landed on the desk.
"But...but...that's preposterous!" stuttered Klink, sinking onto his chair.
"Sure it is. Just like the last time, and the time before that. I've got to admit, though, this one's clever," said Hogan, not without admiration. "They'll expect you to blame the prisoners, and then they'll say it's a sign of lax discipline. Or you might blame the guards, which would be evidence of lack of authority. Either way, they can claim you're unfit for your command, and you know what the next stop on that road is."
"The Russian Front." Like a well-trained circus dog, Klink's mind responded to the familiar prompt, and leapt to its habituated conclusion. "They wouldn't dare. My record is completely flawless."
"Till now," added Hogan. "Let's face it, Kommandant, this time they've got you sewn up pretty good. Or so they must think."
"You think there's a way out of it?" Klink bounced up out of his chair. "Hogan, if you've got any ideas...oh, but why am I even asking? The last person on earth you'd try to help would be me."
"I wouldn't say that, Kommandant," said Hogan. "After all, you're tough, but you're fair. If you get transferred, you can bet your bottom Reichsmark that the guy who replaces you will be a Gestapo plant."
He stood up, and went to the window. "I can just seen him now, strutting in here with his beady eyes, and his riding crop, and his monocle. My men need to be protected from a guy like that. It's in my interest, just as much as yours, to keep that son of a Kraut out of Stalag 13. So you go right ahead with your plan, Kommandant, and I'll back you up every step of the way."
"My plan? I don't have a plan, Hogan."
"Seriously?" Hogan turned to him with a look of startled inquiry. "You mean to say you didn't see the obvious way out, as soon as Hochstetter kicked the investigation back to you?"
Hogan chuckled. "Okay, you've had your little joke, but I knew you would have spotted it straight away. It wasn't the prisoners, and it wasn't the guards. You're going to report that the explosion was caused by a faulty boiler."
"The boiler...yes, of course..." Slowly, Klink began to straighten, as the idea took hold.
"Brilliant piece of deduction, too, if I might say so, sir," added Hogan. "And the best part is, you can't be blamed for it. So you're off the hook, and because he washed his hands of the investigation, Hochstetter can't do a thing about it. Gosh, I wish I'd thought of it. But I guess I don't have your skill at creative problem solving."
He gave a despondent sigh, and looked out of the window again; but his eyes were twinkling with satisfaction. He'd dealt with Hochstetter, and got Klink where he wanted him. The whole business had been quite neatly squared away. There was just one last interview to be conducted; and that, he knew, was the one he would least enjoy.
"What the heck were you guys thinking?"
The inmates of Barracks 2 exchanged glances. Nobody was willing to speak first; but finally, Kinch took the lead. "It just seemed like the best place for it, Colonel."
"We didn't think we should keep something that dangerous in the tunnel," added LeBeau.
"It was Carter's idea," concluded Newkirk.
Carter shot him a dirty look. "Oh, thanks a lot, Newkirk. You're a real pal."
"Well, Carter?" demanded Hogan, standing with his hands on his hips.
"Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time," said Carter, stammering a little. "See, it's kind of a delicate process, you gotta get everything just right if it's going to work. The mixture, and the temperature, and everything. And it's pretty cold in the barracks, so I thought, well, where in camp is it warm?"
"And the only place you could come up with was the mess kitchen?"
"Well, the first place we thought of was Klink's quarters," Kinch put in. "But that didn't seem like the best idea."
"Boy, can you imagine the mess if it had gone off in there?" Carter snickered.
"I don't want to imagine it. Let's be thankful for small mercies," said Hogan.
He folded his arms, and took a turn around the office. "Okay, start from the top. What went wrong?"
Once again, Kinch took the lead. "We haven't been able to get close enough to find out, Colonel. But from what happened, I'd say the equipment failed, and the whole thing just blew apart."
"Actually, it wasn't the explosion that did the damage, it was the fireball," said Carter, with the slightly condescending demeanour of an expert in the field. "The thing is, that stuff is just about as flammable as it gets, and when it burst, it splashed all over the boiler, which was going full blast. So of course, when it went up, it really went up. I guess maybe the mixture had too much ethanol. It was a whole lot more volatile than it was supposed to be."
Newkirk expressed his disagreement with a shrug. "It's got to have a bit of a kick in it, otherwise what's the point?"
"That batch had a little too much kick for comfort," said Hogan, in a grim tone. "Now Klink's as jumpy as a scalded cat, and Major Hochstetter's gotten way too interested in what's going on round here."
"I shouldn't worry about that, Colonel," remarked Newkirk. "He'll soon find some other Gestapo business to keep him out of our hair."
"Yeah, well, let's not give him any excuse to keep his eyes on us." Hogan sent a stern glare around the barracks. "From now on, that kind of chemistry experiment is strictly banned."
"Aw, gee, Colonel..."
"Oh, come on, sir..."
"That's an order." Hogan's voice cut through the objections like a knife. "You can keep making your own wine, beer, rum, gin - heck, even your own elderflower cordial. But as long as I'm running this camp, there's no more home-made Schnaps. That stuff is just too volatile."