The double main gate of Stalag 13 swung open, allowing the Gestapo staff car to pass out onto the road. In the back seat, sitting between Major Hoffmann and a big, heavy soldier in SS uniform, Sergeant Cooper allowed himself to breathe freely. He was out, at last.
He peered past the SS goon, taking a last look. Colonel Hogan, standing in the middle of the prison yard, was watching the departure with a grim expression on his face. The colonel had put up one hell of an argument, trying to prevent the Gestapo from taking one of his men. In fact, he'd gotten Cooper real worried, in case he actually managed to talk them out of it. That would have been a big problem. But Hoffmann, after hearing the colonel out, had simply turned to his men, pointed at Cooper, and said, "Take him."
The other prisoners must be pretty worried about him. If they only knew about the deal he'd struck with the Krauts, they'd be mad as hell. He wasn't sure some of them weren't already suspicious. That kid Adams had been giving him some funny looks since yesterday. Lucky for Cooper that the Gestapo had decided to pull him out after all.
He glanced curiously at Hoffmann. "So, where's your boss? I thought this whole thing with Mills was his baby, so how come he didn't come back himself to finish it off?"
"Change of plan," replied Hoffmann. "We have new information, and Mills is of no further interest."
"Is that why you got me out? Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. But yesterday when he came to the camp, he said..."
"That was yesterday. Try to keep up."
Cooper flushed, and slumped back against the seat. This guy was even more of a jerk than the other one. Still, as long as he got what he was owed, it didn't matter. He stared out at the dense woods which lined the road. "Where are we going?" he asked.
"To meet with the Underground agents who will arrange your safe passage out of Germany."
"The Underground? Are you crazy?"
"Not at all. Can you think of a better way for a traitor to get back to England? As long as they do not know you are a Gestapo informer, you will be perfectly safe in their hands."
For a few seconds, Cooper gaped at him. Then he took a deep breath. "So let me get this straight. You guys know all about the Underground?"
"Enough to make use of their network for our own purposes." The major leaned forward, and tapped the driver's shoulder. "Pull over here."
The car came to a stop, and the driver stepped out to open the rear door for his superior to alight. "Come," said Hoffmann, alighting and beckoning to Cooper to follow him
He walked a few yards further, then stopped and pointed towards an old timber building, just off the road among the trees. "That old barn is the meeting place. You will knock three times, and when the door opens, you will say, I'm looking for my brother Karl. This is the recognition code. Once you have identified yourself, they will do the rest."
It sounded simple enough, but Cooper hesitated. "How do I know this isn't some kind of double cross?"
"You don't," replied Hoffmann curtly. "You will have to take it on trust. Or you can go back to Stalag 13 if you prefer."
"Yeah, sure. You take me back now, the other prisoners are gonna smell a rat straight away. I won't last a week."
The merest flicker of a smile crossed the major's face. "Probably not so long. My advice is, take your chances with the Underground."
"Looks like you're not leaving me much choice."
"Would it help if I gave you my word as an officer that you will reach England safely?"
"No." Torn by uncertainty, Cooper stared at the barn. "I should never have let that son of a bitch talk me into this."
"Maybe not. But it was your decision. Now, time is running short. What are you going to do - go with the Underground, or back to Stalag 13?"
For a few seconds, Cooper considered making a run for it, but he knew he wouldn't get far before those two goons of Hoffmann's opened fire, and he was damned sure he couldn't outrun a spray from an automatic. Returning to camp wasn't an option. That left the Underground as his best hope of freedom.
He pulled his jacket tighter round his shoulders, glowered at the Gestapo major, and headed off towards the barn. Hoffman and his two SS men watched until they saw him knock on the door as instructed, then the major gave a snort of laughter. "Boy, wouldn't you love to see his face when he sees the welcome party waiting for him in England?"
The driver nodded, with a gleam of satisfaction. "I have to hand it to the colonel, sending him back with the Underground was a stroke of genius. He thinks he's got away scot free, so he'll go along with them as nice as you please, without making any fuss or bother. And when he gets across the Channel, he'll walk off that submarine and straight into the arms of the MPs. Bloody brilliant, if you ask me. As for you, Carter, you really had him going."
"Thanks." There was nothing left of the major's steely demeanour, just a lopsided grin, and the blue eyes which had been so cold now sparkled with mischief.
The two SS men, or as they were better known, Newkirk and O'Brien, exchanged glances. "Well, he's off our hands," said Newkirk cheerfully. "So now we can get shot of this car, and get ourselves back home. Anyone else ready for a nice cup of tea?"
The greeting came from Sergeant Schultz, as he plodded down the cooler steps toward the cell where Mills had spent the last three weeks. "Today is a very good day for you, Mills. Kommandant Klink has decided to let you off the rest of your sentence. You can go back to your barracks."
"I'd rather stay here," replied Mills, making no effort to get up from the cot.
"Really?" Schultz, stopping just outside the bars, boggled at him. "Usually they can't wait to get out of the cooler. I thought you would be happy to go back to your barracks. It's much nicer, and all your friends are there."
Mills didn't even bother to answer him. As the days had dragged on, his fear that the Gestapo would realize their error and come back for him had subsided to a kind of fatalistic undercurrent in his thoughts, but the prospect of the reception waiting for him back in Barracks 18 was a real and immediate source of dread.
Schultz unlocked the door of the cell, swung it open and waited expectantly. Then, as Mills didn't move, he gave a heavy sigh. "Please, Mills, I'm asking you. There are no other prisoners in the cooler at the moment. Once you leave, I can take the guards off this building and move them to other duties. It makes my job a lot easier."
"I'm not here to make your job easier," replied Mills, with a shrug.
For a few seconds Schultz stared at him, a look of reproach in his eyes. Then he tried again. "Mills, you have to go, because Colonel Hogan wants to talk to you. He's waiting right outside."
Mills couldn't disregard that call. He waited just long enough to make the guard sweat, then got to his feet, straightened his uniform, and strolled out of the cell. At the top of the stairs, the main door stood open, allowing a shaft of sunlight to spill down the steps and across the grimy stone floor, and Mills felt his spirits rising. Even though he had no doubt about the rough times ahead, he knew it could have been a hell of a lot worse.
Hogan, standing a few feet from the cooler, greeted him with the friendly ease which seemed to be habitual with him: "Welcome back to the real world. Sorry it took so long. Our beloved Kommandant dug in his heels. It took a while to convince him I didn't want you released."
"You didn't?" Mills glanced at him, puzzled.
"That's right," replied Hogan with a grin. "In the end, I had to tell him I just didn't want to be held responsible the next time you broke into the officers' mess. Once he got that idea into his head, though, he couldn't wait to sign the release order. Incidentally, I hope you weren't counting on going back to Barracks 18. Klink's had you reassigned to Barracks 2, so if you misbehave in future, he can blame me for it."
He waited just long enough to see the light of relief dawn in Mills' eyes, then went on. "By the way, you'll be interested to hear the latest gossip about a certain Gestapo man who paid us a visit not long ago. It seems as though he's dropped out of sight, after he was implicated in a plot to assassinate a general. They found his staff car abandoned between here and Hofberg. Looks like he's gone on the run. I don't think we'll be seeing him around here again."
He spoke in a casual, conversational tone, as though he didn't know how much the news meant to the man who was listening. Mills, unable to take it in, stared at him. "He's not coming back?" he stammered at last.
"He's not coming back," replied Hogan, with such perfect assurance that Mills couldn't doubt it.
"How..." he began, but broke off. He was sure Hogan had finagled it somehow. But he didn't have the nerve to ask. Instead, he went in another direction: "What about Cooper? Why'd they take him away?"
"They didn't," said Hogan. "They let him go. But don't worry, by now he's found out that selling out his countrymen doesn't pay as well as he thought it would."
Mills drew a deep breath. "You know that for sure?"
"I can guarantee it." The colonel gave his new man a grin, as they started across the yard at a comfortable stroll. A few of the prisoners were loitering outside Barracks 2, and at sight of them, Mills slowed his steps, coming to a stop halfway between the cooler and the barracks
"Colonel, are you sure about this?" He tried to keep his voice steady. It wasn't easy. "The other guys - they've all heard the talk around the camp. They might not be too happy about me moving in."
Hogan looked across at his men. It was the usual gang - Newkirk, LeBeau, Kinchloe and Carter. "Yeah, they've heard about you, Mills. They've heard you're the kind of man who doesn't betray his friends, even under pressure. They know what you went through before you got here, and how you faced up to it. And yeah, they've heard some other crap, too. Now, I can't promise you there won't be any problems. You're going to have to be careful not to do anything that might be misunderstood, and there are always going to be men looking for trouble where you're concerned. I can't always protect you from that, though I'll do my best. But as far as I'm concerned, you've already proven you can be trusted, and I need men I can trust."
"What for?" asked Mills. He was flushed, partly with embarrassment. But over and above that, he was aware of a new, imperative resolve, born of the realization that this man trusted him. No matter what, he would make damned sure he justified that trust.
Hogan's eyes twinkled. "We'd better start simple. You remember that dream you had, about a tunnel entrance? Well, it wasn't a dream. Are you ready for the grand tour?"
He chuckled at the look on Mills' face. "There's a few things you don't know about Stalag 13, Mills," he said. "But you're about to find out."