Author's note: In their reviews for Into the Woods, Konarciq and Nodikus expressed fair doubts about the guys getting off scot-free after two bridges and the cooler were blown up in the body of the story, plus the mention of three more bridges in the 7th chapter. It occurred to me that the image of Hochstetter running around trying to figure the whole thing (which was completely absurd in the first place) out was too good to pass … And this story happened. It's set during chapter 7, while Newkirk, LeBeau and Carter are in the hospital after the events of chapter 6.
Disclaimer: I definitely and quite happily don't own Major Hochstetter, and I'm sorry to say I don't own any of the other characters either, except for the elusive Colonel Kronert. CBS owns all the others. Even Hochstetter, poor buggers.
The Mystery of the Exploding Bridges
(Or Why Being The Main Gestapo Investigator On A Case That Makes No Sense Whatsoever Is No Fun At All.)
Major Wolfgang Hochstetter was decidedly not happy.
This in itself was nothing new. He was only happy when he got answers, and answers to questions and solutions to problems had been becoming more and more scarce ever since he had first laid eyes on a certain smirking American colonel. But the last week had been the worst in his recent memory.
Four bridges blown to bits, all in the North-Western part of Bavaria that just happened to be his jurisdiction, and a fifth in the area of Würzburg.
Würzburg was Gestapo Colonel Ernst Kronert's jurisdiction. Hochstetter hated him with a passion, and he was absolutely not looking forward to meeting him to discuss the latest developments of the case. Kronert was cold as a dead fish, except when it came to ambition. He had turned ruthless opportunism into an art form, and Hochstetter had a feeling that he didn't care one bit about his duty to the Führer – only about whatever power he could gain through the Gestapo.
Hochstetter was quite happy with the power he held. It allowed him to hunt down enemies of the Third Reich at leisure and remove them from the scene, making Germany safer for the true Germans who counted on the authorities.
Of course, this did not mean he didn't resent fiercely the fact that he hadn't been made a Colonel yet.
It was probably Hogan's fault, anyway. He and that absolute idiot Klink. The sooner he could prove that the American was involved in the local Underground and that Kommandant Klink was too big a fool to do his job properly, the better.
The car hit a pothole, sending a few of his papers to the floor, and Hochstetter snarled at his driver to be careful. The man immediately shrank, his shoulders sinking, and the car turned round the corner to the Krankenhaus Hammelburg in perfect smoothness and style.
This case had been ridiculous from the start. Two bridges near Hammelburg that had absolutely no significance at all bombed in one night, a third in Retzbach the next night (Hochstetter was still racking his brain to recall what on Earth was so important about Retzbach), and then the saboteurs had retraced their steps northwards to bomb the Laudenbach bridge, leaving the much more important Mainbrücke Karlstadt intact.
And now, just last night, the same explosives had been used to bomb a bridge in Würzburg, almost thirty kilometres south of Laudenbach!
When he had heard about the first two bridges, Hochstetter had been beside himself with glee at the possibility of finally nailing Hogan, or at least some of his Underground contacts. He had the usual suspects arrested and questioned, and posted two special patrols, one inside Stalag 13 and the other outside the fence at all times, giving the prisoners a taste of the 'ring of steel' he always intended to surround the camp with … Only to become increasingly frustrated when absolutely nothing happened near the Stalag and Hogan conspicuously remained exactly where he was supposed to be, apparently completely unaware that acts of sabotage were perpetrated elsewhere.
Despite his healthy fear of Hochstetter and all things Gestapo (to which Hochstetter himself made a point of adding constant fuel), Kommandant Klink was rather annoyed with the proceedings, busy was he with directing the reconstruction of the cooler – not to mention dealing with the substantial paperwork relative to the death of two prisoners and the injuries of three more.
The cooler incident being clearly 'accidental', Klink had only received a metaphorical rap on the knuckles by his superiors and the matter had been closed. Hochstetter was still absolutely disgusted by the lax, careless way this particular affair had been conducted.
The Luftwaffe clearly had much to learn from the Gestapo in terms of efficiency. Not that the idiots would be willing to, he thought with a grimace.
It hadn't taken Hochstetter a minute to think the bridges and cooler explosions had been linked. Even after finding hard evidence that the two were actually not (the explosives were two different sorts, for one thing), he found it impossible to let go of that thought.
Going to the hospital to question the three surviving prisoners was his last shot at proving Hogan was involved somehow. That way, he could then go to Würzburg see Kronert with a satisfied mind … and gloat.
Hochstetter put away his papers in his satchel, and got out of the car, barking an order for his driver to park it nearby.
To his surprise, when he reached the door of the room the three men had been put in to recuperate, no guard was standing watch outside. Fury building in his chest, he grasped the handle and pushed the door with all his might.
The four occupants of the room, to a man, jumped.
Oh, of course. Hochstetter had not inquired who exactly had been injured in the cooler explosion, not deeming it important, but the three startled faces goggling at him were horribly – inevitably – familiar.
The English scoundrel, that foolish American, and that runt of a Frenchman.
Carter was sitting on Newkirk's bed, both apparently absorbed in a game of cards with – Hochstetter almost groaned – Corporal Langenscheidt; from his own bed, LeBeau stared at him with wide eyes, pen still poised over a sheet of paper.
Langenscheidt alone saluted, but only after he turned a shade close to curd cheese and dropped his cards into his lap.
"Herr M—Major," he said, shaking from head to toe, "I was – I was guarding the prisoners, Herr Major –"
"So I see," Hochstetter snarled, glaring at him. I'd have your head for that, you incompetent fool, if I didn't think it would be a complete waste of my precious time. "Well, you can do that just as well from outside, can't you? Raus, schnell!"
Langenscheidt couldn't run out the door fast enough. He almost tripped on his own feet on the way out, forgetting his rifle in the room, propped against Newkirk's bed. Hochstetter was almost seriously considering shooting him with it when he tiptoed back into the room to retrieve his weapon, still pasty-faced, lower lip trembling. He closed the door behind him very quietly.
Carter shot Hochstetter a reproachful look.
"Gee, Major, you didn't have to scare the poor guy like that."
"Yeah, and you could have knocked, too," Newkirk added, staring at him coldly. "Doesn't cost anything to be polite."
"He's a Nazi. What do they know about being polite?" LeBeau muttered, crossing out the line he had just written.
None of them showed the slightest hint of fear. It was dismaying.
Hochstetter crossed his arms and glared his most threatening glare.
"I didn't come to be polite. I came to interrogate you about the explosion in Stalag 13 four days ago."
"You can't interrogate us if our senior POW officer isn't present," Newkirk retorted, picking up Langenscheidt's cards and shuffling them with the rest. "Now, I don't know the Geneva Convention as well as Colonel Hogan does, but that bit I do remember."
"The Geneva Convention doesn't apply to saboteurs!" Hochstetter snapped. "Why did –"
"You're pronouncing it wrong."
Hochstetter turned an incredulous glare to LeBeau. The Frenchman was not even looking at him; his eyes were still on the paper he was writing on (probably a letter), and he sounded mildly annoyed.
"You said 'saboteurz'. It should be 'saboteur', like the singular. If you really want to insult us in French, at least use the right pronunciation."
Newkirk and Carter shared a smirk.
A familiar headache started building behind Hochstetter's eyes. Hopefully his annoyance and sense of duty would override it soon, but he wasn't really counting on it.
"Why exactly did the cooler blow up?" he growled, clenching and unclenching his fists to calm himself down.
Carter half-turned to face him, the enthusiastic sparkle in his eyes only adding to Hochstetter's growing headache. "Well, Major, it's like this. You see, a little while ago, Kommandant Klink heard that ammo could explode if you leave it in the heat too long 'cause the powder's so volatile, and it's been really really hot lately – still is, I guess, though you wouldn't know since it's so nice and cool here in comparison –"
"– About thirty degrees," LeBeau mumbled. Carter shot him a look, eyebrows raised.
"Are you kidding? It's at least eighty in here!"
"If you say so."
"Get to the point!" Hochstetter snarled, drawing up a nearby chair and half-sinking down on it. This promised to be a truly dreadful day.
"Oh, yeah, sorry. Where was I?"
"You were saying how much nicer we have it here than in the barracks," said Newkirk with an unholy gleam of laughter lurking in his eyes that made Hochstetter want to arrest him right there and then, even if it meant making up a charge later. Somehow, 'Smirking at a Gestapo agent in the exercise of his duty' and 'Being a general pain in the backside' didn't have the gravitas that 'Blowing up a Luft Stalag cooler' did.
"Although personally," he continued, completely disregarding Hochstetter's dark glare (which, he had been told, had a lot of power), "I think I'd still prefer being cooped up in the old place with me ribs still intact –"
"So Klink decided to put some of the ammo safe in the cooler," Carter interrupted quickly, perhaps having caught the dangerous glower in Hochstetter's eyes. Maybe he wasn't such a dimwit, after all. "'Cause, well, it's supposed to be cooler in there, being 'the cooler' and stuff. And in the winter it's really cold, too, so it made sense. But it's all concrete, so the heat went up and up and it got really dry and I guess there must've been a spark and BOOOOM! SSSSHBLAM! KABOOM!"
"'Kaboom'?" Hochstetter asked, doing his best not to sound as weary as part of him felt. Carter nodded eagerly.
"Yep. Kaboom. Kablooey, too."
"And you just … happened to be there when the ammunition went off? Loitering, I suppose?"
"I resent that," said Newkirk with dignity. "We lurk, we hang around, and we even lollygag on occasion, but we don't loiter."
"We were bringing a bit of breakfast to the prisoners in the cooler and the guard," Carter added.
"Ah, yes, the guard, Private –" Hochstetter consulted his notes "– Solf. Do you make it a habit of fraternising with the guards, then?"
"Well," Newkirk drawled, "it's not really fraternising. The goons usually help themselves to the food whether we want it or not when we bring something to the poor blighters in the cooler – if it doesn't come from the mess hall, that is. Then they leave well enough alone. Solf's not too bad, though," he amended after a short pause.
Hochstetter took a deep breath, his anger abating. At last they were going somewhere.
"Where was Private Solf when –" He stopped, and cast a suspicious glance in LeBeau's direction. The Frenchman had been strangely silent for the last few minutes.
With reason. He was sound asleep, mouth slightly open and snoring slightly, an air of absolute serenity on his face.
Irritation quickly began to boil up inside Hochstetter again. This wasn't just disrespectful; it was downright insulting.
Newkirk followed his glare, and shrugged. "He does that lately," he said with just the barest hint of a smile.
"Yeah, don't take it personally," Carter said airily. "The doctor said it's just the stuff in his head putting itself back together. Apparently he should stop falling asleep like that in a couple of weeks."
Hochstetter's already thread-thin patience snapped.
"I really don't have time for this," he growled, thinking about his visit to Würzburg and Colonel Kronert in the near future, his headache worsening in anticipation. He sprang to his feet, and, ignoring the two men's protests, roughly shook LeBeau awake.
"Mais j'avais posé la chèvre sur la table …" he mumbled, and Hochstetter shook him harder. He jerked awake, looking startled. "Hein!? De quoi? Qu'est-ce qui se – aïe, ma tête …"
"Glad to see you're back with us," Hochstetter said curtly as LeBeau sank back into his pillow, his face scrunched up in pain, a hand on his bandaged head. "Stop overacting and answer my questions, like your accomplices. Where was Private Solf when the cooler exploded?"
LeBeau glared at him, bleary-eyed. "Vous êtes un grand malade, vous," he said flatly. "Complètement cinglé!"
"Yeah, and completely nuts, too!" Carter added angrily, getting down from Newkirk's bed and walking stiffly to LeBeau's. The Englishman said nothing, but the anger in his ice-cold blue eyes promised a death swifter and more brutal than a bullet on a Russian winter morning. Hochstetter refused to let it unsettle him or even acknowledge the slight shiver that ran down his spine.
"I," he snarled, crossing his arms again to show who exactly was in control of the situation, "am an investigator. So I will investigate, and I will get to the bottom of this, believe me. And when I do …" He deliberately left the sentence hanging and let the words sink in for a few seconds.
The three different glares did not lose any of their intensity.
He threw his hands up in the air, disgusted. "Ach, um Gottes Willen – I have no time to waste with the likes of you! Not with the bridges blown up in Retzbach, Laudenbach and Würzburg!"
"What?" asked Newkirk sharply. Hochstetter knew he probably shouldn't have mentioned the bridges, but frustration and fury had burned up to a point where he no longer cared.
"Yes! And I know your Colonel Hogan has a hand in this – I just need to find the tiniest shred of evidence – the smallest hint – and I'll prove it!"
He stopped, his chest heaving, his face burning, and slowly realised he was gripping the back of his chair with whitened knuckles.
Newkirk, Carter and LeBeau were staring at him wordlessly. Newkirk' and LeBeau's eyes had the same wary, disbelieving expression, but Carter's gaze was softer and slightly pitying.
"You know, I had an uncle like you – I mean, not evil like you, obviously, just angry all the time. He got an ulcer and died." He paused. "You really need a vacation or something."
It was Hochstetter's turn to stare open-mouthed at the American for a while. The look on Carter's face was absolutely genuine.
He was starting to feel very tired.
But there was no way Major Wolfgang Hochstetter would just give up and walk out of an interrogation.
"Who are you writing to?" he asked LeBeau, his voice lower than it should have been.
The Frenchman clutched his paper closer, the stubborn glower returning instantly.
"This is a Gestapo investigation. 'Private' doesn't mean anything," he snarled, reaching and snatching the paper from his hands. "Let's see … Je pense souvent à toi et à ces heures volées dans cette petite maison qui sentait le chèvrefeuille … What does that mean?"
LeBeau turned a deep crimson, but recovered swiftly enough.
"It means I'm probably luckier than you." He wrinkled his nose as though he had just smelled something bad. "Décidément, your pronunciation is atrocious."
Newkirk looked at LeBeau, then back at Hochstetter, and raised an eyebrow.
"Look, Major, you didn't come all the way here to read love letters. All we know is that the ammunition in the cooler exploded, we were at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that's it. Why do you think the Colonel had a hand in that? If we had wanted to free these prisoners, we wouldn't have blown them up, now, would we?"
The argument was fair, but Hochstetter tossed the letter back on LeBeau's bed and clenched his fists again. "You would if you thought they had valuable information the Gestapo could extract from them!"
"You're raving, mate," Newkirk replied lazily, a slight smirk curling up his lip. "I never even knew there were flyers in the cooler till Langenscheidt said they had been there all night and they might be hungry."
"And you didn't know two bridges were bombed just the night before, either?" Hochstetter insisted, his voice rising in pitch again.
Carter's face lit up.
"You mean some of our guys took out two bridges in one night? Good for them! What did they fly? B-17s, Lancasters …?"
Hochstetter barely resisted the urge to rub the bridge of his nose.
"It wasn't bombers, it was an act of sabotage! And not a word from you!" he added furiously, as LeBeau opened his mouth. "I don't care about pronunciation!"
The Frenchman gave a one-shoulder shrug and rolled his eyes. "Why did you wake me up at all, then? I was having such a good dream, too …"
Hochstetter felt his fingers tighten convulsively around the back of the chair again. Reminding himself that throttling Allied prisoners of war in a hospital would quite probably not look good in front of the Promotions Board took considerable effort.
"So," Carter said slowly, as Hochstetter tried to decide whether breaking the chair with his own hands would be show of force enough for these clowns to understand he was deadly serious, in every meaning of the word, "you're saying that Colonel Hogan somehow rigged the cooler to blow to kill two Allied flyers, just when we're bringing breakfast to the guys?"
"Yes," he hissed between clenched teeth. We're finally getting somewhere.
Carter shook his head.
"Well, that just makes no sense."
The remark in itself was absurd enough to give Hochstetter pause.
"'Cause that would mean blowing us up, too. If you know the Colonel at all, you know that he wouldn't do something like that."
Hochstetter opened his mouth to retort that no soldier should take this kind of sentimental drivel into consideration for a second, but closed it. This actually fitted with what he knew of Hogan's character. The American made a habit of stepping up every time his men's lives were at stake, defending them with a fierceness belied by his nonchalance and the way he seemed not to take anything seriously.
Raised voices from the corridor saved him from having to concede the point. The door immediately opened, and none other than Colonel Hogan strode in, Sergeant Schultz and Corporal Langenscheidt on his heels.
"Hey, what is this man doing here?" Hogan said mockingly, while Schultz and Langenscheidt beseeched him to wait till Hochstetter was done – at least, that was what it looked like. They both spoke at the same time, each one's voice overlapping the other's, making their jumbled words completely incomprehensible.
Hogan's tone was light enough, but the hard glitter that burned in his dark eyes was unmistakeable. He was just as unpleasantly surprised as Hochstetter to find him there.
Whether it was the sight of his hated enemy or the mental picture of Colonel Kronert's cold, expressionless mask, Hochstetter rallied instantly. When all else failed, he could always rely on anger to keep him going.
"This is an ongoing Gestapo investigation, Hogan. I don't need you here," he said fiercely. "You can wait in the corridor."
"Major, you know there is no way in hell I'd let you interrogate my men without me," Hogan retorted evenly, planting his thumbs into the pockets of his jacket. "Everything all right, fellows?"
For a wild, heart-stopping second, Hochstetter wondered whether Hogan had not known that he was at the hospital somehow, and had consequently conned Klink into letting him go. There was nothing he was willing to put past the American now, no matter how ridiculous and outrageous it sounded.
While Hogan talked with his men, he turned on Schultz, whose eyes widened as though Hochstetter had pointed a gun at him.
"What is this man doing here, Sergeant?"
"Always the same old song with you, isn't it?" said Hogan from his place between Newkirk' and LeBeau's beds, smiling that infuriating smirk. Hochstetter glared at him, gritting his teeth, then at Schultz.
"Kommandant Klink said yesterday that Colonel Hogan could go today see his men at the hospital," Schultz stammered, standing stiffly to attention – as much as he could, anyway. His stomach got in the way somewhat. "Under heavy guard, of course."
"And everybody knows that Schultzie's the heaviest guard around," Newkirk said with a wide grin that was surprisingly devoid of malice. His eyes twinkled.
"Jolly joker." To Hochstetter's dismay, Schultz was smiling. He even gave a little wave. "How are you boys doing?"
"That's not relevant!" Hochstetter snarled, drawing the sergeant's attention back to him. So Hogan had not magically been aware of his presence here. He was still highly suspicious nevertheless. When was he not? "Did you see anything suspect before the cooler exploded the other day?"
"Herr Major, I saw nothing, and I know nothing. I was bringing a new truck in camp and I was going to report to Kommandant Klink that I was here and the truck was here when I heard the boom."
He should have known. Schultz never saw anything, and knew even less. Hochstetter straightened his jacket and spoke with a patience he did not have.
"Did you hear any other 'booms' that night, Schultz? Perhaps on the way?"
"No, Herr Major. I saw nothing, and I heard nothing too."
Typical. Useless, incompetent slob …
The meeting with Kronert came back to the front of Hochstetter's mind, and his jaw clenched at the thought. He had gained nothing and would probably gain nothing more from his interrogation of the prisoners, he was no closer to either proving they had something to do with the cooler blowing up or any of the bridges, and Kronert would undoubtedly be the one who would have more reason to gloat.
It's all Hogan's fault – and his little gang's. I always end up making a fool of myself in front of my superiors and colleagues because of them. One of these days, Colonel … We'll see who has the last laugh.
The mental picture of Hogan and his merry little band of saboteurs standing in front of a firing squad or a noose did wonders to his inner peace, and when he turned back to Schultz, his demeanour was cold and aloof, like a good Gestapo agent should be.
"Far be it from me to interfere with Luftwaffe business, Sergeant," he said disdainfully, "but you should probably put Corporal Langenscheidt on report. When I came in he was fraternising with the prisoners, playing cards when he should have been standing guard outside."
Langenscheidt looked at the prisoners and Schultz in turns as though Hochstetter had threatened to kick him. His colour had vastly improved since he had run out of the room earlier, but now he was going white again.
Schultz shifted, visibly uncomfortable and unsure what to answer. So, naturally, someone answered for him.
"Don't blame Langenscheidt, Schultz," came Carter's voice, and for a fully-grown man it was remarkable how close his expression was to a guilty six-year-old with his fingers in the marmalade jar. The image was so unexpected and vivid that Hochstetter blinked, puzzled and furious. "We told him he would guard us better from the inside than from the outside."
"That way he could make sure we won't escape by the window," LeBeau deadpanned, not completely able to keep the slight smile from his eyes. Langenscheidt's sharp features relaxed into a small smile.
Hochstetter took in the amount of gauze on the three men, their overall sunken-eyed appearance, as well as the bruises, scratches and bone-tired postures. And the third-floor window.
If there was one thing in particular that he hated, it was being made fun of.
"Oh, please do try to escape through the window. It would be my pleasure to scrape what's left of you all off the porch."
"Don't you have some place else to be?" Hogan's smirk was reaching absolute zero. "Be careful on the road. I hear German bridges are dangerous this time of year."
"Bah!" As usual, quite an inadequate riposte, but until he thought of a better one it would have to do. "You're wasting my time."
"Then goodbye, Major."
Hochstetter was still standing behind his chair, and Hogan was still between the two beds, but they might as well have been standing nose-to-nose. The air crackled with electricity.
There had to be something he could say that would shut up that exasperating, dangerous American. Unfortunately, he could not for the life of him find it.
In the end, he jutted out his chin, turned on his heels and strode out the door, not looking back for one second. Let the prisoners play their little games. One day, he would get them, he would see them die, he would see them buried, and he would laugh. One day …
"Würzburg, Gestapo headquarters," he barked at his driver, who started the engine and shifted to first gear with so much care the gearbox was entirely silent. Hochstetter rolled his eyes. "Schnell, Dummkopf! If I'm late, this is on your own head!"
The man gasped, the motor roared, and the car leapt forward as though of its own accord.
I really hope that day comes before that damn war ends.
Boy, doesn't Hochstetter glare a lot :D Writing from his point of view made me feel somewhat … How did Captain Jack Sparrow put it? "Sullied and unusual". But it was worth it. Now there's one character I don't feel bad at all for torturing :o)
Carter is using Fahrenheit degrees, LeBeau is using centigrade/Celsius. 80°F is 27°C. LeBeau exaggerated a little.
Mais j'avais posé la chèvre sur la table: "But I had put the goat on the table." We've all our moments of muttering gibberish while waking up, right?
Hein!? De quoi? Qu'est-ce qui se – aïe, ma tête …: "Huh? What? What's ('happening' is cut) – ow, my head …"
Vous êtes un grand malade, vous. Complètement cinglé!: Literally, "You're a very sick man, you (are). Completely bonkers!"; in this context grand malade means he's calling Hochstetter a complete lunatic.
Je pense souvent à toi et à ces heures volées dans cette petite maison qui sentait le chèvrefeuille: " I often think about you and the hours we stole in that little house that smelled like honeysuckle …"
Décidément (your pronunciation is atrocious): "Your pronunciation really is/is definitely atrocious."
Schnell, Dummkopf: "Quickly, you idiot!"
I am aware that, as interrogations go, this one is quite a botched job … Poor Hochstetter (not), he never catches a break. But that's what you get when you start with a theory (the bridges and cooler explosions are related acts) and try to get the facts to match instead of the opposite. Maybe it's why he hasn't been made Colonel yet :P
Hope you liked!