The Box

They'd gone in with a plan; an elaborate con to feed the Germans the misinformation they wanted them to have. That plan had to be scraped when Actor fell ill. Even though the Italian second-in-command insisted he could pull the job off, that he was, using the Warden's own words, 'fine', Garrison overrode him and fell back on older methods. Dressed as an American airman he took a walk in the woods and let himself be captured. He was taken to the local German commander, just as he expected. He was questioned, just as he expected. Garrison played the kommandant as he'd done in the past; weighing the commander's need to inflict pain against his own need to be in good enough shape to escape after he finally gave the man the information Allied intelligence wanted him to have. When he finally relented and spilled his guts to his interrogators the questioning stopped, just as he expected, and as the Germans left the room Craig's mind shifted into preparing for his escape and the group's return to England. When the door opened again he expected to be handed over for transfer to the local POW camp; that's when the enemy failed to meet his expectations.

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"Well?"

Casino shook his head. "Nothin'."

"Ee's not gonna like that."

"What," Casino turned on him with an irritated scowl. "You want me to make somethin' up?" Goniff opened his mouth to reply but Casino put up his hand to stop him and cupped the earpiece so he could hear a little better. After an anxious moment he made eye contact with the pick pocket and shook his head. "What about Chief?"

"Same as you," was the dispirited reply.

Goniff jammed his fists in his pockets and turned to go back and report to Actor. They'd set up on the outside to keep an eye out for the Warden. Casino tapped the phone line and was listening in on all the calls. Even though he didn't speak the language he'd been given key words and phrases to listen for and he hadn't heard any of them yet. Chief was watching the camp where the Germans had taken the Lieutenant. Goniff had already checked with him but the scout reported that it looked like the Warden was still in with the camp commandant. Shuttling between these two and reporting back to Actor had fallen to him and, just like all the times before, he was going back to the car to deliver bad news.

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"I never should have agreed to this." Actor sat propped in the corner of the back seat of the sedan, his elbow on the arm rest, his chin resting on his fist as he stared into the shadows that gathered around his feet in the floor of the car.

"Now," Goniff soothed. "You know you was never gonna talk 'im out of that plan a his once he got it in 'is head. We all tried it, mate. Maybe they just haven't got round to 'im yet, eh?"

Actor's hand shifted from propping up his chin to rubbing his forehead. "You may be right." Even though he'd fought it the con man's fever had drawn him into an uneasy broken sleep as the others kept watch. "How long has it been now?"

"Well…uh, it's been…" Goniff felt the knot tighten in his stomach. "It's been about seven hours now."

His head jerked up and his brain seemed to expand and then snap back to normal size in an instant. The group's second gripped the arm rest and the edge of the seat he was sitting on as a wave of dizziness and nausea washed over him. Before he could frame another question there was a rustle in the bushes behind Goniff and Chief stepped through and approached the car. The look on his face was grave. The sound of the young man's voice seemed to echo in Actor's ears.

"We got trouble."

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Actor sat listening to the phone traffic going in and out of the compound below. They'd found a new spot close enough to the lines for the phone tap and situated on a hill that allowed him to keep the facility under observation while the rest of the team was off gathering the supplies they needed now. His hands shook slightly has he brought the binoculars up to scan the grounds again. The aspirin from the first aid kit had helped bring his fever down but the stimulant, while it banished his need for sleep, set his already jangled nerves on edge. He heard the purr of an engine and the sound of tires on gravel and checked his watch. At least the others were still on their game, he thought, they'd only been gone a little over an hour.

The whistled signal was from Chief but Casino was the first one through the undergrowth; he headed straight for the Italian. "Anything?"

"Routine traffic," Actor squinted up at the men standing over him. "Nothing about the Warden, or the information he was supposed to give them."

"Blimey! What 'n the Hell 'r they waitin' for!?"

They couldn't console themselves with the possibility that the Germans just hadn't started Garrison's questioning any longer. That particular explanation was blown to pieces when Chief saw two guards drag the Warden from the commandant's office and lock him in a small metal structure that sat in the middle of the compound. It didn't take the young man's keen vision to see that the Lieutenant had already suffered at the hands of his captors.

Casino reached down to take the head set from Actor but he was waved off. "I'll continue to monitor. You had better get some sleep."

There was no argument from the three men that stood in a semicircle around the Italian con man. They'd had time to have a conference in the car on the way back. Actor could be just as stubborn as the Warden once he'd made a plan. Trying to change his mind was just going to waste time and energy so they'd already decided to go along with him,.. mostly. Casino went back to the car and stretched out to rest. Chief faded away to see to their security and Goniff hunkered down next to the con man to keep an eye on him.

Four hours later Casino and Chief were back; they'd keep an eye and ear on the compound for the rest of the night. Actor was dispatched to the car with Goniff continuing on in the role of nursemaid.

g

Goniff approached the man sitting with his back against the pole. "I'm afraid t' ask, but…"

"Oh I heard loads a stuff through these things." Casino told him in disgust. "Just nothin' I was listenin' for."

"What kind a game are they playin' at down there?" The pick pocket held out a canteen of water and a sack that held some bread. He stuck his hands in his armpits to warm his fingers as soon as the safe cracker took them from him. "You don't think the Warden's still holdin' out on them, do you?"

Casino gave a snort. "How the Hell should I know? He's pulled crazier stunts before." He turned his face as he concentrated on the headphones and, after a moment, shook his head to answer the unasked question. "How's Actor doin'?"

Goniff sucked on his lower lip a moment. "Not good. Fever's back again. I tried to keep the aspirin goin' whenever he was awake but mostly 'ee wouldn't have it. Knowin' the Warden's hurt… he's keepin' the stuff back for 'im. Ee was off his head most of the night. Seems to be settled down a bit now."

"You get any sleep?"

The little cockney gave shrug. "Dozed a bit when he was quiet. You?"

"A little. I turned the sound up so it'd wake me if they made a call."

"Chief?"

"Same thing. He curled up here when it looked like the place was buttoned up for the night." The conversation stopped while Casino concentrated on a call. "I think that guy sleeps with is eyes open anyway."

There was a soft rustled and the two men turned to watch the group's point man approach. They could both read the concern on his face.

"They hauled him back into the office soon as the sun hit the ground down there. Didn't keep him long though. He's already back in the box." Chief had been out on the bluff just at the edge of the trees where the view was unobstructed. He'd been out in the sun while the others were still shivering in the shade of the trees. The collar of his uniform was open; the sleeves pushed back off his forearms. The scout scanned a sky that didn't have a cloud in it. "Gonna be hot today."

All three of them turned to stare down at the camp. It was several minutes before anyone spoke and then it was Chief.

"I was in the box once." Silence descended as the other two cons waited for him to continue. "Shape he's in the Warden's not gonna last long."

Casino shoved to his feet, pulling the headphones off as he stood. He handed them over to Goniff and recited the three most important words to listen for. Gefangen – Amerikaner - Intelligenz. He reminded the pick pocket of the name the Warden was using on this caper and then headed for the car. Chief trailed him by a couple of yards.

They found the con man propped up in the corner of the backseat of the car. His long legs were stretched at an angle across the seat. The blanket they'd found in the trunk was tucked around him and Goniff had even taken his own jacket off and draped it over his shoulders to help keep him warm. His face was flushed and perspiration beaded across his forehead and caused the hair framing his face to curl. He was uneasy in sleep, like he was having a bad dream, but it still took a good shake to get him to open his eyes.

"What is it?" He asked the two men peering anxiously at him over the front seat of the car.

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They had to give the report twice; cutting big words into small ones, long sentences into short so the information made it through the Italian's fever. They fed him water and bread while they were at it, even though he did want any. Casino rummaged around the back and found the first aid supplies Actor carried. Sorting through the contents of the kit he found the packet of aspirin and another one filled with sulfa tablets. Dumping a dose of each in his palm he held them out to his teammate.

Actor rubbed absently at the back of his neck and shook his head. "No, abbiamo bisogno di mantenere quelli per lui."

"You get that?" Chief asked.

"Most of it," Casino replied before he turned on their stubborn con artist. "Look, I don't know what's goin' on down there in that camp but it sure as Hell isn't goin' the way the Warden planned. They should a kicked him lose by now…. So he's either holdin' out on 'em for some stupid reason or he's spilled it and they're hangin' on to him anyway. Either way we gotta go in there and get him out. And we can't do that without you. And you can't do it without these. Now are you gonna take the damn pills on your own, or do you want me to shove them down your throat for you?!"

Actor's head came up with a jerk. It felt as if he'd just been dashed in the face with ice water. The reasons he had for refusing the medication were good ones… he thought… at first…. He held out his hand, the look on his face a bit sheepish. "I'll prefer to do it myself, if you don't mind."

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Goniff glanced up when the bushes rustled and he waited for Casino to step across the small clearing. "Well?"

"He took the pills."

"What d'we do now?"

"We wait." Casino settled his back against the pole and reached out for the headphones.

Goniff took the headset off and handed it over. "How long?"

"How the Hell should I know?! 'Til those pills take effect…" Casino listened for a moment then tweaked the dials on the box that sat on the grass between them. 'Til we hear somethin'."

g

Garrison groaned. Every part of him hurt from the beatings he'd taken and the hours he'd spent in his metal cell. While he thought he'd freeze during the night now that that sun was up he was sure he would roast alive in the iron box that had become his prison. The heat was a physical weight pressing down on him. It dried and cracked his lips and throat, his tongue seemed thick in his mouth from it and he was sure he could hear the crackle as it seared his lungs.

'Well this plan sure didn't work', he thought. What had the plan been exactly? Oh, yes. He'd let himself get picked up and he'd given the Germans the information… Hadn't he? He thought he had… Maybe not. Maybe they were softening him up by baking him in this oven before they started their questions. No. He told the commandant. He knew he had… Hadn't he? Right before the guy could follow through on his threat to shoot him if he didn't. He must have. That was the plan, right? But if that was the plan what happened to the rest of it? He was supposed to give the Germans the information and they were supposed to send him to a POW camp. What went wrong? Why was he still here?

Maybe he hadn't given them the information after all. That had to be it. He was going to give the Germans the information and then his men were going to rescue him somewhere along the route to the next camp. They were listening in on the camp phone system; waiting for the information he gave to be passed along. He ordered them not to make a move until they heard that. They hadn't made a move so... He must not have told the commandant yet… or they'd been picked up. Craig refused to let his mind wander down that path. He'd ordered them not to make a move until they had evidence that his information had been transmitted. They didn't have that evidence yet, that was all. He hadn't done his job yet…hadn't completed his part of the mission yet.

Garrison stiffened when he heard the screech of the hasp being thrown back from the lock. The top of the metal cabinet was pulled up and the guards let it fall open with a resounding crash that set his ears ringing. After the darkness the glare of the morning sun blinded him. He was given an order to stand in broken English and he tried to comply but the heat sat too heavily on him. The guard showed his displeasure by delivering a blow to his midsection with the butt of his rifle. He barely felt the hands that pulled him out of the box and across the compound, coming to his senses only when they moved into the shade of the building. 'Give them the information,' he reminded himself.

g

"You must turn onto your stomach."

Garrison instinctively jerked away from the voice and came in contact with the side of the box. The metal was hot enough to burn. He got away from it as quickly as he could but remain huddled near the side of his small cell.

"Come. You must turn over now," the voice wheedled. "Try."

'How can anyone be in here? The box is too small,' he thought. Maybe they put him in another box… Maybe there was really someone there… Maybe. Maybe he was just going crazy. He started sliding his hand through the dust in the direction of the voice. "Who are you?"

"Don't try and touch the walls, you will only burn your fingers." His new companion advised him. "I will tell you who I am after you have turned over onto your stomach."

Garrison stayed on his back and tried to decide if he had the energy to do as he was told. He tried to decide if he found the energy if it seemed reasonable to expend it doing what he was asked. He decided it wasn't. "I can't," he told his roommate.

"You must!" the voice demanded. There was a pause and it started up again. "If you wish to survive you must turn over. I cannot help you. I… cannot use my hands. Come. You must turn over," the voice repeated. "You must…. You must…."

'This guy must be related to Actor,' Garrison thought. He groaned again. If he was going to get any peace he was going to have to do as he was told. Craig hiked a hip up and started to turn, his shoulder hit the top of the box and the heat seared through what was left of his shirt. He dropped back onto his back.

"Put your hands over your face and press your arms together…"

A brow arched up in the oppressive darkness and he waited, gathering strength for the attempt. He cupped his hands over his face and pressed his elbows together. Pushing with a foot he turned his body up and over onto his face; his arm brushing across the hot under surface of the lid of the box. His success exhausted him but the dusty air he was breathing in now was marginally cooler with his face pressedclose to the soil.

"Keep a hand cupped over your mouth."

Garrison tried it. After a few moments he thought his mouth and throat might not be quite so dry.

"When they come for you don't move when they open the box. Sometimes they throw water to get you to move. Keep your hands cupped to your face. Drink the water if it comes. No matter how badly it may taste, drink the water." There was a pause. "The kommandant will do the same thing to revive you if he thinks you have fallen unconscious. Try and make him believe you are unconscious…"

The other man didn't ask for information, he wouldn't have gotten any answers anyway. Any questions would have put Garrison on his guard. It was a pretty common trick to try and get a plant close to a prisoner… just another way to try and get information out of him. Garrison knew that. The man just talked; about himself, about his family, and about what it was going to take to stay alive in here. Craig tried to listen but he couldn't fight the fatigue that seemed to be reaching up out of the ground to claim him. He tried to listen, to remember…

g

When the top of the box groaned open he remembered to remain motionless. The guard cursed him from above and then reached down and violently shook him by the shoulder. He still remained motionless. The man cursed him again and called out for help. Water cascaded over his shoulders and into his waiting hands. He plunged his cracked lips into the precious fluid and sucked it into his mouth and swallowed. It seemed like every cell in his mouth and throat was being torn open, it was like swallowing a handful of razor blades. He ignored the pain and lapped the rest of the water off his hands with a swollen tongue. The guards reached in and pulled him from the box and started hauling him off to the kommandant's office. He kept his head down, licking greedily at the rivulets of water dripping off his hair and scalp.