The Challenge

Craig walked slowly to the Officer's quarters he had been assigned to. Whoever was in charge of hair-brained operations had come up with a doozie. Something was in the works and this person had decided that all the Special Operations personnel involved should all be assembled in one place and briefed together. This meant he and his cons were going to be living on a military base under the command of Brigadier General Harramond, temporarily, or at least he hoped it was temporary. The military ran on discipline, obedience and a respect for tradition and hierarchy. His men were adverse to any or all of these. Keeping them out of trouble was going to be a challenge.

"Hey, Craigie?"

Damn, thought the Lieutenant. If this wasn't bad enough, Reginald Payne Atwater was here. He had been a year ahead at the Point and had made his life hell at every opportunity. Garrison was proud of his achievements in the military, he was proud of how he had made a successful team out of the men he had been given but knowing the other man he was going to have every fault pointed out starting with…

"What's this? Only a lowly Lewie? You should have taken my help when I offered. Could have been a Captain at least by now. Or maybe you've reached your top grade. Some men just aren't meant for higher command." He left it hanging hoping for a reaction but plowed on when he did not get one.

"So what are you doing here?" Reginald asked innocently.

Craig held himself in check. It would do no good to let on how the man irritated him. "Reginald," he acknowledged, "I'm waiting for my orders." To be polite he would return the question but, one, he did not care to be polite or why he was here, and two, he did not want to give the man the satisfaction.

"You'll get them soon enough. You do know the briefing is set for the day after tomorrow?" Seeing Garrison's nod he continued. "So, how about a friendly wager, your team against mine?"

The last thing Craig wanted was to compete against his nemesis. From experience, he knew the man never bet unless he had the odds stacked in his favour. Like Casino, he would have an ace up his sleeve. He would also turn a refusal into a public declaration of being afraid or some other excuse to humiliate his opponent. He would have to have a reason for his refusal. "I don't know when my men will be arriving. There might not be time."

Reginald made a point of checking his watch. "I think you will find that that is them arriving now," he said as he looked over at the truck approaching the enlisted barracks. "I arranged to have them transported especially so I could embarrass you, though that won't be too hard, will it, Craigie? Such a shame," he said with mock sympathy, "a West Point man, riding herd on a bunch of convicts. What, didn't they think you were good enough to lead real soldiers? Well, here's your chance. Meet me with your men at the motor pool, in, say, one hour. Oh, and Craigie …"

"No. Neither I nor my men will be there. We have other work to do." Craig stood stock still, the look of finality on his face.

"Ahh, Craigie. Now is not the time and here is not the place to give in to your cowardess. I'm offering you a chance to redeem yourself. Reconsider and no one will know." He gave Garrison a knowing smile and left.

Garrison fumed. The man was a pompous ass. Who cared who he told. His record spoke for itself. Their successes outnumbered their failures. But deep inside, he knew that promotions could be influenced by opinions and gossip. Was it so bad to not get that promotion but keep your integrity? All he could do was mentally shake his head and go forward. Surely he was not the only one to know the man was so full of hot air that it was a wonder that he didn't float away.

"Where's Chief?" asked Garrison as he approached the last two bunks in the barracks.

"'E went to the mess. Said 'e wanted a drink," answered Goniff.

"So, what is this all about? Four MP's showed up and gave us five minutes to get our gear." Actor always managed to appear calm and in control no matter what happened.

"They 'ad us in cuffs, Warden," protested Goniff. "From that we knew you didn't 'ave nothing to do with it. You trust us, don't ya, Warden?"

"Yes, Goniff, those were not my orders. We'll be briefed," he said turning to Actor, "tomorrow. Meanwhile, stay together, shut your mouths and keep your ears open. Got it? Good. I'm going to get Chief. Stay here."

There was no need to tell Chief some of those orders. By nature he kept his mouth shut and his ears open. That was why he heard the disparaging talk at the table near the door. There was no way he could have known that he had been set up.

Garrison met Chief as he was returning and repeated his orders before heading for the Offices Club. Chief returned to the barracks where he repeated what he heard.

"That don't sound like the Warden. He trusts us, an' 'e ain't afraid of anythin'. Remember that gun? Us goin' up against that. And as for a challenge … I bet 'e never backed down. They musta 'eard wrong."

"I agree, Goniff. We need to find out more. Chief, could you point out these men if you saw them again?" Chief nodded. "Good." They rose and headed for the door. They had no compunction about disobeying orders from the Warden. What he told them were guidelines when they were in enemy territory and, for them, here was definitely enemy territory.

Three civilians wandering around a military base would have been suspicious so Chief and Goniff 'borrowed' uniforms. They could not find one to fit Actor's larger frame. It did not take long to find the aforementioned meeting place or hear the derisive comments.

"Well, well," commented Payne Atwater.

"What're you doing in that uniform? You have no right to wear that," demanded one of the men. "Take it off before I…"

"We had to resort to this," said Actor calmly as if this was an everyday occurrence. "There were two MP's watching and we did not want to keep you waiting."

"Your fearful leader afraid to show?"

"The Lieutenant asked us to meet with you while he was talking to the General." Adept to reading faces, Actor saw the flicker of concern cross the leaders face as the lie was considered.

"Here's the deal. In the General's office there's a safe and in it is a small box. Whoever's team can get in, open the safe and take the box, bring it out and show it to the other's leader then put it back all without getting caught is the winner."

Oh, the possibilities, the challenge, the thrill. The job, itself, would be 'a piece of cake' as Casino would say. They had done this sort of thing many times but never without their safecracker. Without him, they could work a con of some sort but why? Why take the extra risk? If they were caught it would reflect badly on the Lieutenant. They saw how angry he had been when they had been caught in Europe. He was sure to be twice as angry if they got caught right here at home on a military base. He would have to turn them down. "Our safecracker is under the weather right now. That tips the odds in your favour."

"So, you're saying you can't do it?" asked Ronald smugly.

"Contrariamente, il mio amico stolto," said Actor smoothly. "I am just thinking of you. It means that, were you to win, it cheapens your victory. A full strength team win over a team with one man short is hardly a victory, would you not agree?"

Ronald had no answer for that but he recovered quickly. "You're right. Tell you what we'll do. I'll have our safecracker stand down too. Agreed?" He then turned to his right where a tall lean man leaned against a jeep. "Frankie, you'll sit this one out." There was a brief blank look that was quickly replaced with a knowing smile. "That even enough for you?" he asked turning back to Actor.

The con man would like nothing better than to show up these amateurs but he knew a scam when he heard it. …."Il ricompensa? The prize?" he added. "Why would we take the risk when it would be so much easier to just sit back and relax?"

"If you weren't interested, why are you here?

"Oh, we are interested, in the payoff. We just do not work for free."

"You do this, lose, of course, and we won't tell everybody you are a bunch of lowlife convicted killers and thieves."

Instead of the outrage or fear that Mr. Payne Atwater was hoping for, he got a laugh from Actor and smiles from the other two. "We know who we are and we are unconcerned about who else knows. If you would like we will announce it at the next meal," said Actor sweetly. Then the smile turned to cold anger and his voice took on the tone of the SS he impersonated so well. "If you wish to play in our league you must pay your dues. You have one hour to come up with enough incentive to make it worth our while." He stood glaring for a moment. "Good day, gentlemen."

Ronald stood stunned and watched as Actor turned and began to walk away. Goniff smiled confidently and Chief gave a one finger salute without the smile and the two turned and followed the conman. That had not worked out at all the way he had planned.

Back in the barracks Chief asked, "Whatta we do if they do?"

"We do have options." At the puzzled look on Goniff he smiled and said, "the judge's wig?" Both men smiled. "Alternatively, we could come up with a con to get the General to open the safe for us."

"Do you think you could? How?"

"My dear boy, there are always ways and means," he said with great dignity.

Chief was not so sure. There was one way that he could think of and he was going to be prepared. He had noted the security on the base and though one might think it was tight, he had been in prisons with better. Within ten minutes he was out, another fifteen and he was at the hospital, ten more and he was at Casino's bedside.

"Hey, Casino." Chief took in the scene. His team mate was lying flat on his back, leg suspended, knee wrapped in bandages. His whole leg looked swollen. Getting no response he nudged the safecracker's shoulder and tried again. "Hey, Casino. I need your help." His answer was a grunt. "Casino, we gotta get a safe open."

"I'm busy," was the slurred answer.

"Casino, you gotta teach me how to open a safe."

"This's my gig. I cased't. You ain't cuttin' me out. I ain't teachin' you nothin'."

"Please, Casino. Just this once. We ain't got time to wait for you to get better." Then it dawned on Chief that Casino thought he was being replaced. He had to play along. "Look Casino. You teach me and I swear that as soon as you come back I'll mess up real bad and the Warden'll give you back your job. I swear."

"I ain't no rat." Casino opened his eyes and slowly turned his head towards Chief. "I never told the screws nothin'."

Alright, thought Chief, go back even farther. "Casino, I need the money to get outta town. You teach me so I can pull the job and I'll leave. If I don't get some money I'll end up back in prison. Help me. Teach me how to open a safe. Please, I need this." He hated begging. For as long as he could remember he had stood on his own, taking what come his way, taking what he needed and making sure he didn't need what he couldn't get. He just hoped Casino wouldn't remember his asking.

"Okay, kid. Just help me over to the table an' .." His eyes closed.

"Casino?"

"Wha'? Keep yer shirt on. Cop musta got in a lucky shot. M'leg hurts."

"Casino, open yer eyes." He waited until the patient complied. "Tell me how to crack a safe." When Casino began to talk, Chief listened intently. Unable to read and write well, he had developed a good memory.

"So when you hear it you turn it back, right?" There was certainly more to it than just turning the dials and he had to make sure he had it right.

"What? You think you can learn to crack a safe by just listening to me. You gotta go out there and practice. Look, kid, I'll take you with me on the next job, in fact you n' me, we go over to Pop's Diner on Third. We'll go after closing and I'll let you practice on his safe. There's never anything in it but it'll be good practice for you. OK?" His eyelids sagged closed. "Now go away and let me get some sleep. Lousy trains kept me awake all night. Gotta find me a better place … te …." His breathing slowed. That was all Chief was going to get. The apprentice safecracker slipped out of the room and headed back to the base.

"Hey, Captain would like to see you." The Sargent, a lean young man about Casino's height, had walked up to their bunks. "He's out beside the Officer's Club."

Actor had been lounging on the lower bunk and had not moved when the Sargent approached. "Tell your Captain that if he would like to speak to me, that I am right here." The tone was dismissive but changed to nonchalant with, "Oh, by the way," and he pulled his pipe from under his pillow, "Do you have a match?"

He's good, thought the Sargent. He looked to the others. The blonde was stretched out on his side on the next bunk watching casually as the dark one came strolling down the centre aisle, brushed past him and barely paused before launching himself up onto the top bunk above the tall Italian. "No, I don't." He turned and left.

"Where have you been?" asked Actor once the soldier was out the door.

"I went to see Casino," answered Chief leaning down over the edge.

"And how is he?"

"Musta had surgery. His leg's all bandaged." He did not mention what they had talked about. He doubted it would be helpful. He knew that going in but he had to try.

"Would love to be a fly on the wall when 'e tell's 'im. Do ya think 'e'll come?"

"Maybe. Shall we?"

Without another word Chief rolled off the bunk landing on his feet. He moved two bunks down on the other side and climbed up. He lay down becoming invisible to the casual observer intent on the Italian in the corner. Goniff moved to the bed across the aisle.

Their wait was short. The barracks door opened admitting daylight but instead of the imposing figure of the Captain it was the Sargent again. The three cons calmly waited where they were. "The Captain was called away. He asked me to ask what your price was, for the risk. You see, we do it for the fun of it. That's our reward," he said proudly as if asking for money was beneath him.

"And that is why you are an amateur. Professionals like us are in it for the money. Tell you what we'll do," Actor said frowning as if he was considering something. "You put two weeks pay, each of you, in an envelope, sign it and put it in his safe and we will retrieve it. We normally do not work that cheap but for the challenge …" The con man gave him a look of satisfaction, one eyebrow raised questioningly.

"I'll let the Captain know."

"You do that and we might even still be here." The three cons watched the Sargent walk away.

"Two weeks pay? 'Ow much is that?"

"Not nearly enough to cover our expenses but enough to work with."

"Oh, I like this," grinned Goniff. "So 'ow we play this?" Then his best upper class voice he said, "Judge Fathershum?"

Chief returned in time to watch Actor ponder the possibilities. "We need a tail on the Sargent. I assume they will wait until after the General leaves. We wait until they do then …"

"So we're gonna do it?"

"I do not think so."

"I don't trust'm either," interrupted Chief.

Actor shot him a brief look. That was two instincts, both of which he trusted, that were saying no. "What do you think they will do?" he asked the Indian.

"Judge Fathershum."

Goniff and Actor both smiled. "It is unlikely they will move while the General is there. He is there is he not? We will also need to know when he leaves." Chief nodded and left. "Now we wait."

It was later in the afternoon when Chief stepped out in front of the Brigadier General's Office. Officers and enlisted men were beginning to return from their assigned duties and were preparing to head for the Mess, he was just one more. Goniff, who was stationed within sight, walked slowly back toward the barracks. Actor watched then carefully lit his pipe. They continued to wait.

As the pedestrians began to thin, two men carrying a broom, a mop and a pail entered the building. Chief began to lower the rope. Hand over hand, the rope looped around the chimney, he lowered the rope until he reached the prearranged mark. He waited and heard rather than saw the one pebble land on the roof. He resumed his chore, hand over hand until the rope went slack. Quickly he pulled the rope back up. Carefully he looked over the edge of the roof and saw Goniff strolling away.

Actor saw their pick pocket walk away and he pulled the note from his pocket. Walking briskly he made his way to the Brigadier's home. The note would bring the high ranking officer back to his office for an official phone call. Unfortunately there would be no one on the other end of the line.

Actor regretted that they had to leave it on such an amateur note. If Casino had been with them they could maybe have cobbled something together, patched this line through to someone else's. If they had more time Actor might have been able to find enough information to impersonate someone, someone with a message. As it was they would have to settle for the General finding unknown men in his office.

The three men wandered off to the barracks where they found an irate Lieutenant. "Where the Hell have you been? I told you to stay put." He glared at his men who calmly returned the look.

"I am sorry, Lieutenant, but there are no facilities in this building. We waited as long as we could but you must understand that when nature calls there is only so long one can wait."

"All of you." It was a statement not a question. He was not buying it.

"Warden," started Actor calmly. "You have been our leader for almost a year. You have shown us, by example, to never back down from a challenge."

"You didn't," snarled the Officer. "You have …"

"NO, we did not," interrupted the con man pulling himself into the posture of the SS official. The extra four inches and coldly evil look on his face was not lost on Garrison. "We would never jeopardize your career to save your reputation. Never. How dare you even think we would."

The change in tact stopped Garrison. He stood staring.

"Lieutenant," said Actor easing back from the brink. "In the old pre-gorilla days, we would have risen to the challenge of the competition but thought nothing about your reputation. After we met and learned from you, learned to never back down, never refuse a challenge, but to think first of the consequences of our actions. As such we let the others think we accepted but turned it to our advantage." Garrison looked skeptical.

"If you know nothing, you cannot lie. I swear we have done nothing wrong." Actor watched the look of resignation ease into place.

"One of these times you're going to go too far."

"Yes, I already did." At his leaders look of alarm he added, "And that is why I am here and not in arms of a beautiful, rich woman."

Garrison closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. He opened his eyes. "We're late for a briefing. Let's go."

"Good of you to join us, Lieutenant." Lieutenant Colonel Cooke believed in military discipline and punctuality. He glared as he waited for the late arrivals to sit down. "Care to tell us why you are late, Lieutenant?"

"It was my fault," said the tall Italian in his rich cultured voice. "I got turned around and ended up at the Officer's Latrine. I was in a hurry and there was no one around but by the time I was ..."

"Enough! Sit down!"

The briefing accomplished the men filed out, the final words, 'say nothing to anyone' still rang ominously in their ears. This was bad.