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Jul. 30th, 2011

ACT FOUR: This case deserves to be a classic

Kinch looked at LeBeau playing with his beret in frustration. The Frenchman turned to him and shook his head. Then, he came to sit next to him on the edge of the bed.

"He's been there for almost ten minutes, go talk to him."

Kinch shrugged painfully. "I don't think he'd even listen to us, Louie."

"Shouldn't he be in bed, then?" LeBeau pointed at Newkirk, by the window. The Englishman looked deeply mesmerized by the wrinkles on the curtain. "Look at him, he looks..."

"Crazy?" Kinch chuckled. "It's the concussion; he must have a fever, too. But you're right," he stood up. "He should stay in bed." He walked to Newkirk and tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, Newkirk-"

The Englishman turned and smiled. "My dear friend, you keep calling me such colorful names."

"But that's your name," LeBeau came closer, "Newkirk, Peter Newkirk."

"I must say that the name is familiar but I assure you that I never heard of him. Is he from the Newkirks of Suffolk, or Yorkshire, perhaps?" He saw Kinch and LeBeau exchange glances and he laughed. "Why, my friends, do not be so startled, I am just playing with you."

LeBeau looked at him with hopeful eyes. "Really? Are you all right?"

"Why, of course," Newkirk laid one hand on each of his friends' shoulders. "I recognized you both from the very first moment I saw you, but I could not resist."

"So, you know who we are?" Kinch asked.

"Certainly, my dearest friends. Auguste Dupin," he said to Kinch. He turned to LeBeau and nodded. "And you are the great Hercules Poirot. I must confess that I believed you to be taller, not offense intended."

"Oh, mon Dieu," LeBeau tapped his forehead in disbelief.

Kinch raised his eyebrows, hesitating before he asked the next question. "And you, sir, could you tell us your name?"

"What a peculiar game we are playing here, mes amis?" He straightened up and bowed. "Holmes, Sherlock Holmes."

"Kinch," LeBeau pulled the sergeant's sleeve. "Say something."

"Newk-, Mr Holmes, why don't you take a seat. You had a little accident and-"

Newkirk moved away before Kinch could grab his arm. He kept looking around, as though studying the place for the first time. "I was hit on my left temple with a heavy object, a couple of pounds I gather. Maybe a lead pipe..." He stopped in front of the mirror to examine his wound. "A wrench? No. A candlestick."

"How does he know that?" LeBeau asked Kinch.

"Elemental, my dear Poirot," Newkirk answered, "the wound has been well treated and dressed and does not show signs of having been exposed to the elements for long. That means that you found me nearby. There is a blizzard outside but my body is not showing any consequences from cold or water, which means that I was attacked indoors. The place is neatly kept. One would hardly find a lead pipe around, same goes for a wrench. This leaves us in front of the most likely evidence." He picked up a candlestick from the center table. "Two pound object, with round edges. Perfect for a surprise lateral attack." He scratched the base and smiled. "Dried blood. Probably mine? My nose hurts too, but that I think, was a non related incident."

Kinch almost laughed when he turned to LeBeau, open-mouthed next to him. "You're good, Newk- Mr Holmes. But I still think you should lie down for a while."

Newkirk felt a sudden dizziness and leaned on the table. "I will not argue with you, Dupin..." He stretched his arm waiting for someone to take it. LeBeau rushed to his side. "My good friend, Poirot," he smiled faintly, "I just need some minutes and I will be fine."

Kinch and LeBeau tucked him in and sat next to the bed. "He needs a doctor," LeBeau whispered.

"If only Watson were here..." Newkirk mumbled, laying one arm over his eyes. "He always knows what to do..."

"He needs a psychiatrist," Kinch said, shaking his head. "LeBeau, you have to go and get Colonel Hogan."

0)()(0

Schultz reached the end of the hallway and was about to start his way back when he saw LeBeau coming out of the room. The sergeant's heart beat fast as he thought of Newkirk. He walked slowly with his rifle in both hands. "Halt, Frenchman." He stared at him warily. "He is awake, the Englander?"

LeBeau smiled shyly and nodded. "Yes and no, he's a little sick."

"Sick? Does he need a doctor?"

"We'd prefer Colonel Hogan, if you don't mind." He made an attempt to go on but Schultz stopped him.

"LeBeau, you can't leave the premises."

"Bien sûr, I won't. There's a blizzard outside." LeBeau smiled and went around the sergeant. There was no need to worry about Schultz's rifle.

"Please, obey. Someone has to, eventually."

"I'd love to, but we need Colonel Hogan." LeBeau grabbed the rifle with two fingers. "Listen, why don't you go and fetch him for me, or we can go together?"

"Oh, sure," Schultz chuckled. "Why don't we just let this door open and escort Newkirk outside-?"

"Of course you won't do that," LeBeau smirked. "You have to be here when he wakes up so you can shoot him."

Those words sank heavily in the sergeant's heart. He had been struggling with that part of his duty all night long. He stared at LeBeau for a moment before sighing deeply. "All right, you win. The colonel and Carter went that way. Langenscheidt is with them." He grabbed LeBeau by his jacket and pulled him towards him. "Listen, don't try anything funny. I'm not in the mood for funny jokes, all right?"

"Relax, Schultz, we're all on the same side, remember?" LeBeau smiled and resumed his way downstairs.

0)()(0

Carter jumped and switched feet as he waited for Hogan to close the door. He blew in his gloves and rubbed his arms but the icy air kept freezing him inside.

"Well, at least, we know something else now," Hogan said, not paying much attention to his sergeant.

"Oh, yes. Now we know that it's colder outside than inside that cooler."

Hogan glanced at him and smiled. "Are you tired? Because we haven't finished yet."

Langenscheidt walked on tiptoe towards them. He looked over his shoulder several times as though waiting for someone to follow them. "Are you done here?"

"Not yet, but you may leave anytime, Corporal," Hogan smiled mischievously.

"Colonel, please. You need to get back to the room. What if Kommandant Klink or General Burkhalter come down and see you here?"

"Is that a rhetorical question?" Carter asked. "Because the chances of that happening are quite remote."

Suddenly, they heard steps in the kitchen.

Langenscheidt clenched his rifle; he took a deep breath and turned around. "Everybody behind me."

"That's quite brave, but if they see us behind you, they might think we're attacking you, don't you think?" Hogan said patiently.

"He's right," Langenscheidt said to Carter. "Now what?"

"Hide!" Hogan whispered, crouching behind the counter.

Carter got behind the refrigerator and Langenscheidt hid in the closet. Carter held his breath as a shadow came down the stairs. He wondered who else could be wandering around at that hour. They would be in real trouble if it were Burkhalter.

Please, let it be Liesel, Carter thought right before a slim figure with a flashlight showed up at the end of the stairs.

"Colonel Hogan!" Carter whispered. "It's the stranger in the blue duster!"

Langenscheidt shushed him very loudly and Hogan rolled his eyes.

"Who's there?" The stranger stopped on the spot. He looked around, throwing the light over the stove and the refrigerator. "Come out! I saw you."

Langenscheidt came first with a friendly smile. "It's all right, sir, I'm a guard."

The man aimed the light over Langenscheidt's face. "Oh, yes. I saw you with the oversized sergeant."

"Yes," the corporal smiled. "Sergeant Schultz. He must be waiting for me upst-."

The man turned his flashlight to the corner where Carter was hiding. "You're not alone, Corporal."

Hogan came out, signing Carter to follow him. He shaded his eyes to have a better look at the man. He was tall, pale and blond, with a fine mustache. He wore glasses and a suit under the heavy blue trench coat. To Hogan's eyes, he was the typical German intellectual type.

"Excuse my curiosity, Corporal but, where are you taking these prisoners?"

"Who, them?" Langenscheidt laughed. "Nowhere, I just, er-"

"I needed a glass of water but the general was in the bathroom," Carter shrugged.

"I'm the senior officer. I go where my men go," Hogan said as the stranger turned to see him.

"Of course," he half smiled. He attempted to pass but Hogan stepped forward.

"And you, what are you doing here at this hour, Herr-?"

"Mac-" he hesitated. "Macstein, Lothar Macstein. I... came for water too."

"The general is still in the bathroom, eh?" Carter nodded. His smile faded when he met Hogan's glare.

"So, tell me, Herr... Macstein, what brought you to this place in a day like this?" Hogan stared at him as though he was reading the man's mind.

The stranger remained impassive. "Door to door salesman," he shrugged. "I'm always on the road. Bad weather was unexpected."

Langenscheidt looked at his watch and then, at the door. They had been gone too long. He did not want to know what would happen if Klink or Burkhalter found out that they were not in their room. He shifted on his feet and cleared his throat. "Colonel Hogan-"

"I know, I know," said Hogan. He nodded to Herr Macstein and signed for Carter to follow him.

"I don't trust that man," Carter whispered, once they were far enough.

"Me neither," said Langenscheidt.

"It's okay, guys. Let's keep this incident to ourselves." Hogan looked at the corporal and smiled. "We don't want to scare Schultz."

Schultz sighed deeply as soon as they crossed the hallway. It seemed to him that he had just begun breathing for the first time in hours. He stopped them before they entered the room.

"Did anyone see you?" He glared at Langenscheidt.

"No, we were very careful," Hogan grinned at Carter and the corporal. Both men nodded slightly.

Carter smiled. "Like real detectives."

Langenscheidt shrugged nervously. "Who could have seen us, anyway? Right?"

Hogan cleared his throat. "Anything new around here?" He looked at the door of the room. "People coming or going?"

"Only LeBeau," Schultz said. Suddenly, he looked at the party of three and opened his eyes widely. "Oh, no! Where's the cockroach? He went to look for you!"

"Shh!" Hogan looked around. "Why did he go to look for me?"

"He said," Schultz lowered his voice, "that Newkirk is awake and a little sick."

Hogan glared at Carter just before he repeated the news aloud. "Don't say a word. That goes for you two, gentlemen." Both guards nodded without discussion. "Let's go back to our room, Carter. Schultz, you'd better send Langenscheidt to look for LeBeau, before someone else finds him."

0)()(0

Kinch rubbed his forehead, as he struggled to stay awake. It had been a long night and all he could think of was a soft bed and warm blankets. Newkirk was up again and writing on the table. Kinch feared that if he called off the night, the Englishman would try to run away. The sergeant yawned loudly and Newkirk turned to see him.

"You should go to sleep now, my friend. I don't think there is much to do just yet."

"To do about what?" Kinch asked.

"Well, I was attacked and it seems to me that that was just part of something more serious. A crime of some sort, no doubt. For what else would be we gathered together? The situation calls for detective work, obviously."

"Obviously," Kinch repeated. He paced around just to stretch a bit. Then, the door opened and he could not be happier. "Colonel Hogan, so good to see you. Where's Carter?"

"Right behind me. Where's LeBeau and what's that about Newkirk being sick?" Hogan asked looking at Newkirk. "You're awake." He came closer and patted his arm. "How do you feel?"

Kinch grinned. "Go ahead, tell him how you feel."

Newkirk looked at Hogan and smiled widely. "I'm delighted at your concern and yet, you too have gotten my name wrong. I'm Holmes, Sherlock Holmes." Newkirk took Hogan's hand and shook it vigorously. "And you, my friend, don't need any introduction. You're the great Sam Spade, from the Colonies."

"Spade? From the Colonies?" Hogan raised an eyebrow and glanced at Kinch.

"He woke up like this, shortly after you left. LeBeau-"

Hogan sat down, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Newkirk, tell me that you're joking."

"You are not listening to me. I'm not that Newkirk, my name is Sh-"

"I get it!" Hogan stopped him. He looked at Newkirk, forehead wrinkled with curiosity as he paced back and forth. "How long has he been like this?"

"Since he woke up, about half an hour ago," Kinch said, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Do you think it could be serious?"

Hogan shrugged. "Who knows? I don't think we could get him a doctor if we asked for one. For all Burkhalter cares, Newkirk is still on death row." He rubbed the back of his head. "Damn it, Kinch, time is running out."

Carter opened the door and entered with LeBeau. "Colonel, you won't believe what happened to Newkirk!"

"My dear Watson, the man I needed to see," Newkirk hugged him effusively. "I thought I'd lost you in the train to Sussex."

"Train to where?" Carter accepted the greetings warily. "LeBeau said that you were feeling poorly but-"

"Let's not be hasty. I am feeling much better now. However, I have got to say that I appreciate our dearest Poirot's concern." He bowed to LeBeau.

The Frenchman rolled his eyes. "He's worse than when I left."

"LeBeau! What were you doing outside? I told you to stay and take care of-" Hogan grinned."Poirot?"

"Oui, because I'm French and Kinch is Dupin," he shrugged, "je ne sais pas pour quoi."

"Actually, Poirot, you're not French, you are Belgian, remember?" Newkirk looked at him warily. "Are you all right?"

LeBeau opened his mouth outraged. "Belgian?"

"No way, are you sure?" Carter laughed.

"Gentlemen, please, one crisis at a time, remember?" Hogan turned back to Newkirk. "Have you any idea of what happened to you?"

Newkirk grinned and rubbed the bandages on his head. "I was attacked. Someone hit me on the head with a candlestick." He went to the table and grabbed the weapon. "Five feet five... no, four, and right handed. A woman, undoubtedly." He turned to Carter. "Yes, I'm sure. He is quite intense about defending that point, actually."

"A woman? Are you sure?" Hogan frowned. "Do you remember that part, then?"

"Actually, I don't," Newkirk shrugged.

"But how do you know it was a woman?" Carter asked.

"He's Sherlock Holmes," Kinch chuckled.

Newkirk smiled weakly. He went back to the table.

"This doesn't look good," Carter came to sit next to him. "You must have a hell of a concussion."

"I knew you would have the answer, Watson. I think you are completely right. Now, if you could do something for our friends here," Newkirk bent forward to speak privately. "They keep taking me for some fellow called Newkirk."

Carter looked at the others. "He doesn't speak like Newkirk."

"Colonel, what are we going to do?" LeBeau asked. "And how can he be Belgian? His name is Poirot!"

"I know, LeBeau, the world is upside down." Hogan looked around for inspiration. "I'm expecting these walls to crush down on us any time soon, aren't you?" He sighed. He took the notebook from Carter. "Let's solve this case before dawn. We have lost enough time already. We'll deal with... Mr. Holmes later."

"Excellent idea!" Newkirk said, grabbing the piece of paper that he had been using. "Pray draw up to the table, gentlemen. We must put our data together and start this case at last."

Carter shook his head. "I'm lost again. I understand the words, but together they don't make much sense."

"As I was telling Auguste-"

"Who's Auguste?" Carter looked around.

Kinch raised his hand. "That's me, Dr Watson, Auguste Dupin."

"Boy, keeping up with all those names is going to take us all night."

"We don't have all night, Carter. They're going to shoot Newkirk," LeBeau said.

"Listen, I can't promise anything but one thing," Hogan said. "No one is going to shoot Newkirk, not tomorrow, not ever."

Newkirk looked at their faces, that had hardened all at once. He kept quiet for a moment. "That fellow Newkirk is very lucky to have friends like you. Where is he? If I may ask."

"He's the best," Carter said with a smile. "And he's closer than you think".

"Is he worth saving?"

Hogan stared at Newkirk and tapped his arm. "We'd put our lives on the line for him."

Newkirk nodded. "Fair enough, then."

Carter looked at Hogan and Newkirk comparing notes. The colonel told him about the incident at the restaurant, the people involved and other details. It did not take the Englishman much time to understand the situation. Soon, they were ready to work out a plan.

"It's not going to be easy. We have a lot to cover," Hogan said.

"Do we have to talk to the usual suspects?" Kinch asked. He smiled to see everybody looking at him. "I like detective movies," he shrugged.

"Let's start with Herr Macstein, if that's his real name," Hogan took Carter's notes and read about the encounter in the kitchen.

"You think he was lying?" asked LeBeau.

"A salesman in this part of town, at this time of the year? I don't know, it looks suspicious. We have to keep an eye on him," Hogan stared at the notebook. "Who else do we have?"

"Burkhalter, Klink-" Kinch began a list.

"But they are with us," Carter frowned. "I mean... they are friendly enemies.?"

"I'm afraid that in this inquiry there cannot be friends or foes, but suspects," Newkirk tapped him on the shoulder.

"Newk- Holmes is right," Hogan agreed. "This is an inquiry; no one is safe or exempt. So, let's trace our plan of action. How many suspects do we have so far?"

"Etienne, Liesel, Frau Köperschaft," Newkirk read the list. "Colonel Klink, General Burkhalter-"

"I don't know about Klink, but the general called the captain by his name," Kinch said.

"How about Schultz?" LeBeau asked.

"Schultz told us some story," Hogan checked his name on the list. "How about Langenscheidt? He didn't seem too cooperative."

Newkirk started pacing around. "What do we know about the deceased? He's a captain..."

"He treated his wife badly," Carter said.

"He punched Newkirk on the nose," Kinch remembered.

LeBeau nodded thoughtfully. "He just came from Africa two days ago to be decorated for his brilliant campaign in Algiers..." He raised his head to see everybody staring at him. "I met Colonel Senf at the stairs. He was very talkative."

"You met the man, please do tell," Newkirk said. "From what Mr Spade has told me, Colonel Senf has just arrived from Africa too. Could it be the connection we need?" he asked himself and then, he shook his head. "I would think better with my pipe."

"What else did Senf tell you, LeBeau?" Hogan asked him.

"He said that he had been to Casablanca two weeks ago. "Have you ever been in Casablanca?" He asked me. "I answered no. But he kept talking about the desert, General Rommel and Captain Köperschaft.

"Tell me," he said, "do you know Captain Köperschaft?"

"Before I could answer that, he shook his head and rubbed his eyes.

"You must forgive my poor state, my friend. I have just come back from Algiers, where all my nightmares started." He looked around before going on. "One year ago this day, I was in charge of a division of the 2nd Panzer Battalion. Twenty brave men obeyed my orders to the letter. Captain Köperschaft was my second in command, my right hand. We had to keep the conquered territories for our cherished Fatherland.

"I used to accompany my men to the incursions several times a day, sometimes for weeks. We kept the enemy in their place without much of an effort, until that night... That dreadful night where, after a very exhausting campaign, I found myself prostrated in bed. It took those bastards only one lucky shot to splinter my knee. One single bullet ended my entire career. Pity."

"I waited for a couple of minutes but the colonel seemed to have forgotten me. His eyes were fixed on a painting on the wall. It was hard to get his attention back to me. "Colonel," I called him. "Monsieur? Êtes-vous malade?" He did not answer for another five minutes. Then, he took a deep breath.

"That night, I could not go with my men. I was too feeble with fever and pain. My leg would not carry me anywhere. I had to trust my battalion to Captain Köperschaft... The bad dreams I had were the presage of a nightmare that will never end."

LeBeau interrupted his story as though the memories disturbed him. "Mon Colonel, I-"

"It's all right, LeBeau." Hogan grabbed his man's forearm "You may stop if you need to. Does this have a link to the murder, anyway?"

LeBeau sighed and nodded. "Je suis desolé, but I think it has."

"Pray proceed by all means," said Newkirk.

"Très bien." LeBeau nodded. "Colonel Senf lowered his eyes while talking to me.

"There was a storm, the fiercest storm seen in years in that part of the country. I slept little while I was waiting for Captain's Köperschaft's return. The hours ran so slowly... The pain in my leg helped to keep me awake.

"Right before dawn, I heard voices outside. My heart beat fast, anticipating the worst, hoping for the best... No one dared to come and tell me what had just come about. Another excruciating hour passed before a messenger announced Köperschaft. I yelled for him to come in. The sight of this man made me shiver. His uniform was stained with blood from head to toe. Naturally, I asked him if he had been hurt. He said no... I have to ask him several questions before he finally told me what had happened.

"He had entered a small town following two rebels from De Gaulle's army... Köperschaft was a good officer, but too impulsive. He acted upon the situation without giving it too much of a thought. He should have known that it was a trap. The entire town was wired up... He lost three quarters of my battalion... Thirteen men gave up their lives under Köperschaft's orders... Only seven came back.

"I was too sick to mourn my men... I spent weeks in seclusion... When I came back, they told me how Captain Köperschaft had returned to the field, searched for the rebels and wiped off an entire town in revenge. He could have been promoted for that. But I found a bad mark in his files due to another issue during the Big War. I'm a military man. I'm a soldier. I hated what he did because he did it in my name. His actions are a disgrace on my own history. I told my superiors about his files and stopped his promotion. However, Field Marshal Wagner threw a huge party on his honor. Today, he was about to receive a decoration for courage and honor." He was so furious that he had to gasp for air. "They even invited me to make a speech during the ceremony! So I went. They threw me out before I could tell them my story. They didn't want to hear my side whatsoever."

"I didn't know what to do," LeBeau finished his story. "He grabbed me by the shoulders and begged me to tell him where to find the captain. I told him that the man was dead but I don't think he really understood. I heard more people coming, so I ran back here. Sorry, I suppose the story is not that interesting after all."

"Well, my friend," Newkirk said. "You have just brought to our attention our first suspect. Colonel Senf," he read from his notes. "Had Captain Köperschaft under his orders. The captain lost a battalion but was decorated for his fierce campaign against the enemy..."

"What did Senf said about a bad mark in Köperschaft's files?" Hogan asked LeBeau.

"Je ne sais pas," he shrugged. "But it was something big because he didn't get a promotion."

"Wouldn't it be great if he was the murderer? The night is getting shorter," Kinch looked at his watch.

"A mystery, just like in my book," Carter smiled. "Colonel Senf did it with a rope."

"A rope?" Kinch frowned.

"Oh, yes, besides the wound in his chest, the captain has prominent marks on his neck," Hogan said.

"That is highly interesting." Newkirk straightened up and rubbed the back of his neck. "But we still need more information. So far, the best witness is still that friend of yours, Newkirk? He must have seen something. Where is he?"

Hogan looked at the others and shook his head. "I'm afraid he's not available at the moment."

"Yeah, he's not himself," Carter nodded.

"Never mind, then. We'll help him without his assistance," Newkirk sighed.

Hogan gave his men a reassuring look. "All right, guys. We can't stay here all night, we need to do some field work. Kinch, you take our guards. I've got the feeling there is more than we have heard so far."

Kinch and LeBeau were almost at the door when Carter turned to Hogan. "Colonel," he said. "What are we going to do with Newk- him?"

"He should rest. Head injuries are very tricky," Kinch said.

"But who will take care of him? We need to go out and find the real killer." LeBeau looked at Newkirk, writing down something.

Hogan sighed. "We'll take him with us. We'll play along for a while, okay?" He led the way but some noise outside stopped them.

0)()(0

Langenscheidt rubbed his hands and arms. He paced from one side to the other. "Cold night," he said.

"The coldest in years," Schultz agreed.

"It looks like that they're going to stay in there for good," Langenscheidt pointed at the door in front of them."

"That's the most clever thing they could do. At least, we don't have to go patrol outside." They heard a door at the other side of the hallway. It was colonel Klink coming out. "Did I speak too soon?"

He walked slowly towards them. Schultz could clearly see that something was bothering the kommandant.

"Report!" Klink yelled.

Both guards straightened up and saluted.

"Ten minutes to midnight and all is well, sir!" Schultz talked strongly but without yelling. "The colonel can't sleep?"

"Of course I can sleep, why shouldn't I," Klink shrugged nervously. "Er- Do you...Do you have everything ready for tomorrow morning?"

Schultz heaved. "I don't think I could be prepared for something like that, sir," he whispered. He would have said something else but the door in front of him began to open slowly. He looked at Hogan behind Klink, signing for him to keep talking while they sneaked out of the room.

Klink caught both guards' eyes wide open. "Are you all right?" He almost turned around when Langenscheidt gasped. "Corporal, do you have anything to say?"

"K-Kommandant, I-" he paled looking at Hogan pushing his men one by one. When Newkirk came out too, he almost fainted.

Klink stepped in front of him. "Langenscheidt, are you all right?"

"Yes!" Schultz shouted. "He is very excited, Kommandant. This is his first execution."

Langenscheidt could not talk. He barely remembered how to breathe, and it took him several seconds to produce a nod.

"Excited?" Klink was amazed. Of all the feelings going through his head, excitement was not included. He had always found the idea of shooting a man as a punishment repulsive. "I underestimated you, Corporal."

"Certainly," Schultz faked a smile. "We're both really excited about carrying out the general's orders."

"Really?" Klink frowned. He had been feeling sick with the entire situation. "I must admit that I'm not looking forward to doing this. You must be tougher soldiers than I am. Oh, well," he exhaled. "I'll try to sleep some before dawn, I guess."

"The general took the best bed?" Schultz asked condescendingly.

"No, he's not in the room. He didn't come back after we put the bod-" Klink swallowed and lowered his voice, "the you know what in you know where."

Schultz and Langenscheidt exchanged glances. They kept smiling stupidly at their kommandant as he walked back to his room. "Ach du liebe! Langenscheidt, Colonel Hogan is out there!"

"And General Burkhalter! If he sees Corporal Newkirk-"

"We'd all be in big trouble," Schultz picked up his rifle and helmet. "You stay here. Pretend that the prisoners are still in there. I'll get them back immediately."

Langenscheidt straightened up as the sergeant went downstairs. He was so concerned that he did not notice that the door in front of him was opening again.

tbc

ACT THREE: Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just.

Carter helped Kinch to lay Newkirk down on the bed. He heard Schultz turning the key to lock them all up in the room they had been sharing just a few hours ago. Thanks to Hogan's intervention, they had not been chained, although the situation kept getting worse and worse. Newkirk was still unconscious, but even if he pulled through, there was still a death sentence over his head.

"Is he still unconscious?" LeBeau asked from a distant.

"The bleeding stopped," Kinch said. "You may come closer now."

LeBeau glanced at Carter and frowned. "Why did you bring this for?"

"What? Oh, this?" Carter realized he still had the candlestick in his hand. "I don't know. It's a weapon, I couldn't leave it there just like that," he shrugged and put it on the drawer. "Poor Newkirk, maybe it would be better for him not to wake up-"

"Carter!" Hogan scolded him. "It's going to be okay. We need to stay positive."

"It's not easy to stay positive when Newkirk has just a few hours to live," LeBeau said.

"Well, that means a few hours for us to work." Hogan grabbed a chair and sat at the bedside. He studied Newkirk's head wound and frowned. "It's a deep cut, isn't it?"

"It was a heavy candlestick," Kinch said. "That man hit him pretty hard."

"So it seems," Hogan rubbed his chin. "He didn't hit him with all he had though."

Carter caught Hogan's mood. He could almost hear the colonel's engines working in his head. "What are you thinking, Colonel?"

Hogan glanced at him and grinned. "Nothing yet. We need to attend to that wound before anything else."

"Perhaps we can ask for medicine or something," said Carter.

"Do you think the general would permit it?" LeBeau blew out. "He just sentenced Newkirk to death."

Carter sat on the edge of the opposite bed. His forehead wrinkled in deep thought. He looked at Newkirk, shaking his head. "I don't get it. Newkirk would not do a thing like that, would he?"

"Of course not," LeBeau said. "He wouldn't get us into so much trouble."

"Three people saw him," Kinch shrugged.

"Not exactly," Hogan paced around with his arms crossed over his chest. "They saw Newkirk and Köperschaft's body and they concluded that he killed the man."

Carter straightened up and smiled. "That's right! Something else must have happened there."

"Something that only Newkirk knows," LeBeau said. "We just need to wait till he comes to and-"

"If he comes to," Kinch said, saddened of a sudden. "We still don't know how bad he has been hurt."

"Don't be so pessimistic," Carter stood up. "Newkirk will wake up soon and he'll come up with the answers we're looking for."

"Newkirk waking up will only bring us more trouble," Hogan said. "Burkhalter is right behind us, waiting just to shoot him at the moment Newkirk opens his eyes."

Carter sat down again, sighing deeply. "May I say that I want to go home now..."

The knocking at the door made them all turn around. Schultz came in quietly. "Excuse me, Colonel," he whispered, "someone is here to see you."

Hogan frowned and nodded. Liesel entered after the sergeant, carrying a tray. She smiled shyly as she put it in Kinch's hands. "It's just a few clean bandages and antiseptic. I'm sorry I couldn't come up earlier."

"The general doesn't know she's here," Schultz whispered. "As far as I am concerned, I haven't seen the lady coming in."

"Thank you, Schultz, I'll make sure that no one else knows," Hogan smiled.

Schultz hesitated before closing the door. He looked at the bed and sighed. "Is he awake yet?"

"No," Hogan did not hide his concern. "Do you want me to tell you when he-?

"No," the sergeant said in a rush. "I don't want to know."

Hogan nodded with a smile. "I understand. Thank you for everything." He closed the door and Schultz locked it from the outside.

Liesel watched as Kinch cleaned and dressed Newkirk's wound. "Somehow, I knew this was going to end like this."

Carter looked at her warily. "Did you see what happened?"

"Not everything."

Hogan offered her a chair. "What did you see?"

"Well," she said in a small voice, "I saw your man coming down... He looked a little upset and he asked Etienne for a match to light his cigaret. Then, he saw-"

"The captain? Was he there too?" Carter asked quickly.

"Calm down, Carter. This is not an interrogatory." Hogan tried to smile. "Go ahead, please."

"Frau Köperschaft-"

"Alone?" Hogan asked.

"Y-yes... She had been outside... taking some fresh air, she said. H-he, your man, went outside too. They talked for a while and then..." she lowered her eyes and shrugged. "Then, they kissed."

"They what?" Hogan stood up. "Are you sure? Etienne didn't say anything about that."

Liesel tilted her head. "Etienne is very respectful, monsieur. He would never betray a lady."

LeBeau stood up, playing nervously with his beret. "Colonel, I think I saw him too."

"How come I didn't know about this before? Newkirk went outside to make out with some German captain's wife?"

" I couldn't sleep... I saw him through the window... I think it was him with a lady." LeBeau looked pensive for a moment. "I wasn't sure it was him but, for what Liesel says, I think it could have been Newkirk."

Hogan silenced him with a wave of his hand. He pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers and took a deep breath. "Miss-"

"Liesel," she said with a smile.

"What else can you tell me? What happened after they... kissed?"

"I don't know. I went to the kitchen and didn't come out until- Well, you know," she shrugged. "I heard loud noises; chairs being broken... glasses crashing on the floor. I heard voices, but couldn't understand what they were saying... and then, Madame screamed..."

"Who else was in the bar, besides Newkirk, Frau Köperschaft and the captain?"

"I don't know... Etienne?"

Carter looked at the colonel submerged in deep thought. He was going to ask him what he was thinking about when someone knocked on the door again. Schultz did not come in. "Sorry, Colonel but the lady must come out now."

Liesel nodded. She turned from the door to look at Hogan. "Colonel, that captain was bad, really bad. Your man did all of us a favor. It's so sad that he has to die for it. I'm sorry I couldn't be more helpful."

Carter kept quiet until the door was locked. He turned to Hogan with a desperate plea. "Colonel, we must do something! I know Newkirk; he would never kill a man in cold blood."

"Oui, mon Colonel. Something is very wrong!" LeBeau glanced at Newkirk, who was still unconscious. "We can't let them shoot him."

Kinch went for another blanket for Newkirk. He stopped for a moment and turned to Hogan. "Newkirk kissing a total stranger, do you believe that?"

Hogan touched Newkirk's hand, hoping to wake him up. Nothing happened. He shook his head and rubbed his forehead. "I don't know. It wouldn't be the first time, would be?"

Carter snorted. "If I got a dime for every time that Newkirk falls for a dame..."

"But the captain's wife?" Kinch shrugged.

"I saw him," LeBeau pointed at the window. "He was down there, where everyone could see them. I couldn't believe he was so careless."

Hogan went to the window. The footprints were still visible despite the blizzard and the dim light. Suddenly, Hogan felt the urge to go outside and see by himself. He headed for the door. "Kinch, LeBeau, watch over Newkirk. If he wakes up, don't let them know." He turned to Carter. "You come with me. Just follow my lead."

0)()(0

Langenscheidt was leaning against the wall, idly contemplating the room door and imagining what must be going on in there. The recent events were keeping him quite awake as he pondered the circumstances under which he would be capable of killing a man.

"When I enlisted, I never thought I would ever shoot anybody," he said.

"What?" Schultz looked at him warily. "You are not going to shoot anybody. Don't even think about that."

"But the general-"

"General Burkhalter is just upset with the situation. Everything will be all right in the morning, you'll see." He softened his brow and gave him a fatherly smile. "It's going to be all right, Corporal. No one else has to die. I promise."

A knock on the door interrupted the moment abruptly. Despite his words of encouragement, Schultz was as anxious as Langenscheidt about the entire situation. He did not know what would actually happen once Newkirk woke up. He did not want to be the first one on receiving the news either. Schultz pushed Langenscheidt in front of him.

"Go ahead, open it," he ordered the corporal. Hogan and Carter came out before the German sergeant could stop them. As much as he feared to ask, the question was already in the air. "Is he-?"

"Not yet," Hogan said in a casual tone. "It occurred to me that this case needs an investigation and I am the only one qualified around here."

"Qualified? Investigation? What are you talking about?"

"Well, I suppose you've heard about Sam Spade," Hogan kept a poker face.

"Oh, Humphrey Bogart... The Maltese Falcon," Langenscheidt's eyes glowed with nostalgia. He looked at Schultz and cleared his throat. "Not that I've seen it. I despise American movies... pure propaganda-"

"Shut up!" Schultz turned back to Hogan. "Colonel, I don't have time for your shenanigans, the Englander is going to be shot as soon as he wakes up and I have to shoot him... I don't want to shoot the Englander! I've never shot anyone in my life! I stop for squirrels when I drive, for Goodness' sake."

"It's all right, Schultz. No one is going to shoot Newkirk." Hogan smiled. "As I was saying, Sam Spade, the real one, is my second cousin on my mother's side."

"Sam Spade is a real person?" Langenscheidt's smile faded after Schultz elbowed him.

"Colonel Hogan, please-"

"Take it easy, Schultz. I studied many cases like this with my cousin. I'm quite sure I can solve it before dawn."

"But, Colonel, I can't allow you-" Schultz hesitated on using his rifle. "You must go back to that room before General Burkhalter sees you, please."

"Come on, Schultz. You don't believe that Newkirk would kill someone just like that, do you?" Carter asked.

"The victim was Captain Köperschaft, I wouldn't be so sure," Langenscheidt shrugged.

"Shut up!" Schultz scolded him again. He turned to Hogan. "He's right, the captain wasn't a nice person, you saw them fighting."

"But Newkirk barely knew him," Carter said.

"Let me do this, Sergeant Carter," Hogan told him. "Start taking notes."

"I don't have paper, or a pencil," Carter said patting his pockets. "Schultz?"

The German sergeant sighed in resignation. He looked into his pockets and produced a small notebook. Langenscheidt gave Carter a pencil.

"So," Hogan rubbed his chin thoughtfully, "putting Newkirk aside, who else do you think could want to kill Captain Köperschaft?"

Langenscheidt snorted, "Who wouldn't?" He turned to Schultz. "Wasn't there an incident at your hometown before the war?"

Hogan frowned. "What incident is that?"

Schultz hesitated at first. Then, he bent forward to talk in whispers. "Captain Köperschaft was a general inspector in charge of supervising operations in local factories. He put my toy factory in a black list for not complying with his standards. He put us on the verge of bankruptcy and I was one step from losing my business. I begged him for help but he just made fun of me."

"Rumor has it that the captain wanted that factory for his weapons," Langenscheidt said. Schultz glared at him.

"What happened then?" Carter asked.

"The captain was deployed overseas, to Algiers, with the Afrika Korps," Langenscheidt said.

"The case was dropped for lack of interest, thank Goodness," Schultz smiled. "We didn't hear about it anymore." He saw Carter writing something. "What's that for?" He frowned warily.

"Nothing," Carter grinned.

"Colonel, you're not listing me as a suspect, are you?"

"Oh, Schultz," Hogan said, "sooner or later, we're all suspects of something,"

"B-but it's not fair," Schultz complained. "If I'm in your list, wait till you hear Langenscheidt's story."

"Sergeant!" The corporal paled. "I didn't kill that man!"

"But you had a motive, your cousin-"

"Er, no... it's not my story, I-"

"It's all right, Corporal," Hogan said. He knew that the stammering would only get worse if he insisted. "Just tell me something. You were here when Newkirk came out of the room, weren't you?"

"Oh, yes." Langenscheidt sighed and shook his head. "He was, how do you say? In a very bad shape."

"What do you mean by that?"

Hogan glared at Carter who was writing and asking questions like a real detective. "Do you want to do this job?"

"Oh, no, sir. You're doing an excellent job..." Carter stepped back, smiling shyly. "Go, ahead, sir."

"Thank you." Hogan turned back to Langenscheidt. "So, what do you mean by that? Tell me everything."

The corporal took a purposeful breath.

"I was here, waiting for my turn to end. I was tired, I still am. It's been a long road... Well, as I said, I was here when that door opened. At first, I thought it was Sergeant Schultz. But I was startled to see Corporal Newkirk coming out. I almost asked him how he could do that if the door was locked from outside. Then, I remembered the corporal's reputation. "What are you doing outside your room?" I asked.

"Do you have a light?" He rubbed his temple, as though he had a headache. I gathered that the punch on the nose might have contributed to that, but I didn't say a word.

"I don't smoke," I said. "Please, go back to your room."

"Newkirk looked around as though he was too stressed out to focus on anything. "Listen," he said. "I need a smoke now."

"Look, Newkirk, I know how you feel. The captain-"

"Don't come to tell me ruddy stories about that wanker (Newkirk's words, not mine.)" He took out a packet of cigarettes and put one in his mouth. "That's water under the bridge. All I want is to smoke one of these before going to bed, all right?"

"I tried to explain to him that I couldn't allow him to walk around without supervision but he insisted.

"Corporal Langenscheidt," he told me, "I'll go downstairs to fetch a match and I'll be back on a tick. I just need some fresh air."

"I almost told him that we had enough fresh air around. In fact, with all the drafts, this place is freezing. But, then, I thought about it and I didn't see anything wrong with letting him go. "With the blizzard and the roads closed, where else could he go?"

Carter could not refrain from speaking his mind. "And you let him go? Just like that? What kind of guard-?"

"It's all right, Carter." Hogan pointed at the notebook and urged him to keep taking notes. "Langenschiedt, are you sure that Newkirk didn't tell you anything else?"

"I'm sure, sir. He looked frustrated but not to the point of killing anybody."

Carter caught certain uneasiness in Langenscheidt's voice. The corporal looked the other way, as though avoiding his inquisitive stare.

"So, are you going to help us?" Hogan asked both guards.

Schultz was still in shock about Langenscheidt's confession. "You shouldn't have left him alone, Corporal. This is going to be in the report and-"

"Are you going to write the report before or after shooting Newkirk?" Hogan narrowed his eyes in a way that made Schultz step back.

"C-colonel Hogan I can't-"

Carter saw the German sergeant pale. There was fear and sadness in his eyes. Maybe Colonel Hogan had done it again.

"C'mon, Schultz, Newkirk will be shot at dawn. That leaves us with just a few hours to work." Something in the colonel's voice sounded like desperation. In all his years serving under his orders, Carter had seen Hogan pull many chords to get what he wanted. But this time it looked too real. "Schultz," Hogan insisted, "you don't want to kill Newkirk, do you?"

Schultz glanced at Langenscheidt, who shook his head. "Sergeant, please. You know he didn't do it."

"All right," Schultz sighed deeply. "What do you have in mind, Colonel?"

"Just space to work. Keep Colonel Klink and the general away from us."

Schultz was still hesitant. As a guard, his only work should be to watch the prisoners, keep them locked up, wait for dawn... He shook off his gloomy thoughts. He straightened up and nodded. "They're asleep now. As long as you keep it quiet, I don't see any problems ahead. But," he made a pause, pointing at Langenscheidt, "you have to take him with you."

"Me? Why me?" Langenscheidt looked paler all of a sudden.

"Because-" Schultz realized he was raising his voice and quickly lowered it again. "Because, you're a guard in charge of these prisoners," he whispered. "They need supervision in case someone sees them."

"Oh, that's so considerate of you, Schultzie," Carter smiled. "Isn't he nice, Colonel?"

"I'll put him on my Christmas list, okay?" Hogan shrugged. " Now, the next step: We need to see the body."

0)()(0

Newkirk tossed and turned, groaning in his sleep. Kinch and LeBeau sat next to him, expecting to see him open his eyes at any moment.

"C'est très mal, très mal," LeBeau shook his head.

"We still don't know how bad it is," Kinch said calmly. "There's not much we can do until he-"

"Don't say it!" LeBeau started pacing around. "We should get Newkirk out of here before he wakes up. What is Colonel Hogan doing out there?"

"I don't know, but I trust he's working on a plan. If someone can find the way out, it's Colonel Hogan."

"The way out is through the main door before dawn."

"Take it easy, LeBeau. Running away is not going to do any good to any of us. We need to prove that Newkirk is innocent."

"But how? The murderer must be kilometers away by now."

"With this weather? I doubt it," Kinch said. "I think that the killer is still around. Maybe making sure that Newkirk gets it instead of him."

LeBeau's forehead wrinkled in thought. "Who could it be? We know everybody... Klink, the general..."

"There is a bunch of people we had never seen before." Kinch made a mental list. "The crazy colonel, the lady in the purple dress... the captain's wife."

"The women?"

"Aren't the French the ones who say Cherchez la femme?" Kinch chuckled.

"How about the innkeeper, Vert, Etienne Vert?"

"You say he's a collaborator."

"But who knows how those bêtes think?"

"You don't like the guy, that's all."

"Well," LeBeau shrugged, "he looks like someone who would betray his grandmother for a price. He hit Newkirk on the head!"

"And the stranger in the blue raincoat? He didn't look too friendly either."

"Etienne is the first on my list," LeBeau said, sinking on his chair.

"All right, you can share your observations with Colonel Hogan when he comes back." Kinch took a wet cloth from the table and cleaned Newkirk's face.

"How is he doing?"

Kinch shook his head. "He would do better if we had a doctor around."

Newkirk moaned and grabbed Kinch's wrist. LeBeau came closer. "Easy, mon ami. You'll be all right very soon."

Unexpectedly, Newkirk opened his eyes. He looked around before blinking. "Oh, my head!"

Kinch stopped him before he could touch his temple. "It's all right, Newkirk. Your head is going to hurt for a while, but you'll be fine."

Newkirk stared at him and then at LeBeau. He sat up and crawled back on the bed. "What is this place? Who the blazes are you?"

"Hey, Newkirk. You don't have amnesia, do you?" LeBeau smiled.

The corporal frowned. "Newkirk? What a peculiar name is that?"

0)()(0

Carter's teeth shattered. He looked around at the place and shook his head. "T-this is definitely colder than our cooler... and darker... and-"

"Carter, I don't want to interrupt your first visit to a real cooler, but we have some work here." Hogan pointed at one corner with Langenscheidt's flashlight. Captain Köperschaft's body was wrapped in a blanket and lying on the floor. Hogan gave Carter the flashlight and proceeded remove the blanket.

Carter felt a little queasy when one of the hands showed up. He clenched the flashlight and took a deep breath. He turned to look at the cans and other groceries, while his mind drifted into the events of the evening. "That Langenscheidt was very generous to lend us his flashlight."

"What?" Hogan frowned. He was too busy examining the wound to care much about the kindness of the guards.

"I mean, he looked a little anxious, didn't he? So eager to prove Newkirk's innocence-"

"He doesn't want to shoot him at dawn," Hogan said. He stared at something on the body and sat on his heels to reflect about it. "Odd."

"What is it?"

"Well, come closer with that light." He pointed at the wound on the chest. "That was made with a knife, right?"

"Right," Carter said warily. His eyes opened wide when Hogan lit some red marks around the captain's neck. "Wow! Where did those come from?"

"I think they were there all the time. We didn't see them before because the captain was face down." He touched the marks. "They look like they were made with a rope or something like that, something blue," he said, looking at the stains in his fingertips.

Carter rubbed his arms. He felt the cold growing inside and crawling down his spine. "What are you saying? He was first stabbed and then strangled?"

"The other way around, strangled and then stabbed." Hogan stood up and rubbed his hands. "It might prove that Newkirk didn't do it."

"But the fight... the place was trashed, and Newkirk's knife..."

"Too many clues, don't you think? That looked like a setup."

"Really?" Carter stared at Hogan with hopeful eyes. "What do we do now? Tell Burkhalter?"

"Not really. Burkhalter won't believe us just like that. We need to establish the facts," Hogan said. "What do we have so far, Carter?"

"Let's see," Carter took his little notebook and lit it with the flashlight. "Newkirk was hit on the head with a candlestick in the restaurant, and Captain Köperschaft was murdered in the same place with a knife... or a rope." He scratched his head under his hat. "Why would someone want to kill a person twice? To make sure they stay dead?" Carter's heart beat fast. "It's not like I believe that Newkirk would be capable of something like that. But, you never know... he was so mad at that man-"

"I know, Carter. That thought crossed my mind too. That's why I needed to see this."

"So, we tell the others?"

"Carter, this is just a tiny thing. They have Newkirk's knife as the murder weapon. We need the rope and the owner of that rope."

"Are you saying that there is a murderer among us?"

"Don't panic, Carter, but everybody around is a suspect."

"Except for us, right?"

Hogan sighed deeply. "Newkirk is still suspect number one. We can't rule him out just yet."

"But when he wakes up, he will tell us what happened. He might know who the killer is."

"That will make him an easy target," Hogan said in a reflective mood. "We'll need to keep our eyes open and our mouths shut until we find our man."

Both men looked at each other and then, at the door. Somewhere in that place, there was a murderer, and it was up to them to find them before dawn.

tbc

Jul. 23rd, 2011

ACT TWO: Journeys end in lovers' meetings

General Burkhalter went straight to bed. He did not wait for anyone to decide who would sleep with whom. He claimed one bed for himself and there was no room for argument. Hogan had to settle for Klink as his bedfellow, leaving an armchair to Carter.

"I'm just a sergeant, I get it," he shrugged as he crawled into the chair. Hogan envied him, though. Having to share the bed with Colonel Klink was far from his idea of a good night's sleep.

After an hour of listening to General Burkhalter's snoring, Carter's sleep was gone. The latest groan was so loud that it made Carter jump. "What was that? Sounded like a door, didn't it?" He sat up and whispered to Hogan. "Are you sleeping yet, sir?"

"Was. What is it, Carter?"

"That captain downstairs, he was really mad, wasn't he?"

"He was drunk..."

"Well, yeah, but the way he took it out on Newkirk... He doesn't like Englishmen very much, that's for sure."

"That's common practice around here, I guess."

"Yeah, as if he was asking for a good fight. Schultz and Langenscheidt say that-"

"Good night, Andrew..."

"You think Newkirk is okay?"

"He is, Carter, go to sleep..."

"Sorry, sir, but I'm not sleepy. Do you mind if I turn on the light to read for a while?"

"I wouldn't but our two roommates here might say something about that," Hogan was falling asleep as he talked.

"I can go out and read in the hallway," Carter stood up. "It's that okay with you, sir?" He waited but there was no answer. "Sir?" he came closer. Hogan grunted. "I said that I could go out to read in the hallway."

"'kay... don't disturb Langensch-" Hogan dragged the words and succumbed to exhaustion.

0)()(0

Kinch felt Newkirk tossing and turning but he did not say anything until the corporal sat up.

"Are you okay?"

"Can't sleep."

"Does your nose hurt?"

"I'm not sleepy." Newkirk put on his boots.

"Where are you going?" Kinch propped himself up on his elbows.

"Outside for a smoke."

"I'll go with you," he said, shoving the blankets away.

"No need, mate. I'll be right back."

Kinch only heard him walk to the door and close it behind him.

0)()(0

LeBeau slept for a while and then, he woke up. The blizzard shook the curtains and wet his blankets. He was tired of pretending to be asleep and got up to lock the windows. Outside, the trees hit their leafless branches against the glass. Although it was dark, he could see two silhouettes under the dim light of the porch. "There's no bad weather for love," he said.

"What?" Kinch mumbled. This was the second time that someone had interrupted his sleep.

"Nothing," LeBeau sighed. "There's a couple out there. Kissing, just out of reach of the light of the street lamp." He squinted to get a better look. "Kinch?"

"Mmm?"

"Is Newkirk with you?"

"No, he went to smoke outside..." Kinch was almost asleep again when a disturbing thought dispelled the last of his fatigue. He looked at his watch and frowned. "He's been gone for over an hour."

LeBeau sat on the bed and leaned against Schultz's back. The sergeant took over 2/3 of the bed and it was impossible to push him over. "Well, I don't like gossiping but I think it's Newkirk out there, kissing that girl."

"Kissing a girl?" Kinch tried not to raise his voice but with little success. "What girl?"

Schultz turned around and almost rolled over LeBeau. "Was ist loss? Who is kissing a girl?"

"Don't get upset, Schultz but I think I saw Newkirk outside with a girl."

The sergeant sat up and began to look for his boots. "What's Newkirk doing outside? He's not supposed to be outside! Where is Langenscheidt? Why didn't he wake me up for my turn?"

"Take it easy, man. Where could Newkirk go in this blizzard anyway?" Kinch said. He and LeBeau looked as Schultz got up, reached for his rifle and ran out of the room. They exchanged glances and followed him.

They found Langenscheidt sitting on the floor, playing with a piece of blue yarn. At the sight of Schultz, he sprung up and saluted. He was already giving explanations before the German sergeant started asking questions. Schultz shushed him. "We don't need the big shot and the huge shot in that room to wake up," Schultz said without stopping to salute.

Hogan had been struggling to sleep between Burkhalter's snoring and Klink's moaning. He turned to the armchair and for a moment, he thought Carter was there. Then, he remembered something that his man had said about going outside to read. Did I give him permission? Hogan did not remember. He jumped out of bed. He put his boots on, careful not to wake up his roommates.

He went outside to find an already big group of people who should not be wandering around. He startled Schultz by patting his shoulder. "Are you too looking for Carter?"

"Carter is missing too?" LeBeau said aloud.

"Shh!" Schultz insisted. "There's no need to alarm anyone. They must be here nearby."

"Who else is missing? Where is Newkirk?" Hogan looked around. Before he could have an answer, the lights went out.

Strong noises of things being broken came from downstairs.

"Sounds like a brawl" Kinch said.

"It's coming from le café," LeBeau said

"Colonel?" Kinch asked.

"Maybe we should go and see-"Hogan broke off in mid-sentence as a woman screamed.

Schultz turned to Hogan and made way for him to go first. "I have you covered," he said, lifting this rifle up to his chest. His hands shook and Hogan was just grateful that the weapon was not loaded. The lights went back on when they were half way downstairs.

The scene they found was chaotic. A table and the chairs were scattered into pieces all over the place. The floor was wet with the water of broken flower vases. But the most shocking thing were the two bodies.

The group was frozen on the stairs. Hogan looked at the captain, who was lying face up, staring at the ceiling. Under him, blood flowed to mix with the water from the vases. The man was not breathing. The innkeeper and the waitress were at the other side of the room, comforting the captain's wife.

A few feet from him, there was Newkirk, prone on the floor. There were no visible wounds or blood whatsoever, but the corporal did not move.

"Newkirk!" Carter screamed from behind the group on the stairs. Hogan turned around to calm everybody down before coming to Newkirk's side.

"He was out of control! I had to stop him somehow!" Etienne said, still holding a candlestick in his left hand.

Carter slid between Kinch and LeBeau. He waited in silence for Hogan to check Newkirk for injuries. Hogan nodded and Carter helped him to turn him over. Newkirk had a deep cut over his left eyebrow that was bleeding profusely. But his breathing was steady and calm. Hogan handed his handkerchief to Carter. "Press it firmly against the wound." Hogan got up and went to examine the captain.

Carter obeyed. He did not turn to his friends. He knew that LeBeau must be at the other side of the room, keeping himself away from the sight of blood. Kinch would have to be with him, making sure the Frenchman did not pass out. Carter's concern was with Newkirk, who remained unconscious.

Hogan felt Schultz behind him, while he checked on the captain. He turned to the sergeant and shook his head.

"Oh, mein Gott!" Schultz covered his mouth with one hand.

LeBeau gathered courage to look at the scene. "What's that?" he said, pointing at one object near Hogan's boot.

The colonel picked up a knife and sighed. Carter turned to see it too and gasped. "Newkirk's knife!"

Hogan would have liked to prevent his man from saying that aloud, but it was too late. Klink and Burkhalter were coming downstairs as they spoke.

"What is that about Corporal Newkirk possessing a knife?" The general said. "Colonel Klink, is this a new policy, for the prisoners to be armed?"

"Of course not, General," Klink chuckled nervously. "No prisoner in Stalag Thirteen is armed at all." He turned and both officers dropped their jaws.

Kinch and LeBeau were in one corner of the room, with the two women and the innkeeper. Carter held Newkirk's head in his lap, while Hogan was kneeling in front of the captain's body. Schultz and Langenscheidt watched from another corner.

General Burkhalter spoke first, asking the only question that Hogan could not answer. "What's going on here?" He pushed Klink forward.

"Colonel Hogan," Klink stammered. "What is your explanation for this?"

"Sir," Hogan said, getting up. "I don't have any idea. The captain is dead, that's all that I know."

"Is that a knife in your hand?" Burkhalter stepped back. "Klink! This prisoner has a weapon!"

"Hey, wait a minute-" Hogan started an explanation but he was interrupted immediately.

"Sergeant Schultz!" Klink jumped. "Take that knife! Langenscheidt, bring the chains!"

"But, Commandant," Carter said without moving from Newkirk's side, "Colonel Hogan hasn't done anything!"

"Oh, and you're going to tell us that he has been with you all the time." Burkhalter grinned.

"Ah- Well... I-"

"The Englishman came in and killed the captain!" Etienne stepped forward. "I had to stop him and-"

The women interrupted with their yelling and crying. No one could understand what they were saying but it was clear that they were supporting Etienne's testimony. Burkhalter shut them up with a movement of his hand.

"General, sir," Kinch said in the politest tone he could manage at that moment. "We were all upstairs. Schultz can testify to that, he was with us too."

Burkhalter turned to the German sergeant, who shrugged shyly. "Sergeant Schultz, can you tell us what's going on here?"

"Yes, sir," he straightened up and saluted. "That man is dead-"

"We know that! We can see that!" Burkhalter yelled. "Who did it? Whose is that murder weapon?"

"Er- well, I don't know, General. The weapon was on the floor and-"

"Whose knife is it?" The general turned around with an expression that made Hogan shudder. Therefore, his next sentence was not a surprise. "No one's? Very well then," he looked at Hogan and grinned, "Sergeant Schultz, arrest this man!"

Hogan saw his men coming forward to protest. Even Carter, still sitting on the floor, raised his voice in his favor.

"We were all upstairs when we heard a woman screaming and someone fighting and-"

"I heard the scream too," said Klink. He looked at the women and the innkeeper. "Did you?"

"Which one of you screamed?"

The civilians stared at each other. A couple of seconds passed before the captain's wife stepped forward. "It was me," she said nervously. "I-I screamed when I saw my husband lying on the floor."

"Did you see what happened?" Hogan could not help asking. Immediately, the general ordered him to be quiet.

"Please, Frau Köperschaft, would you tell us what happened here?"

The woman could not stop shaking. She gasped and shook her head. "I was outside, I heard the fight... when I came in, my husband was on the floor..." She interrupted her description to weep. The innkeeper and his wife came to her side. She sobbed for a minute before going on. "I saw the knife and the blood... I panicked."

"Where was the knife?" General Burkhalter asked.

"He had it in his hand!" She pointed at Newkirk.

"B-but he is unconscious," Carter said.

"I told you already I hit him on the head with a candlestick," Etienne insisted.

"Did you see what happened?" Burkhalter turned to him.

"No," he shrugged. "I was outside, smoking and talking to Frau Köperschaft. We heard the captain arguing with someone. Frau Köperschaft entered first and then, she screamed. I was right after her."

"What did you see?"

"I saw the Englander from the back. The captain was on the floor. I saw blood and the knife... I took the candlestick from the cupboard over there and hit him from behind."

Burkhalter turned to Hogan. "Weren't all your men upstairs?"

"As far as I know, General," he shrugged. "I was sleeping. It was not up to me keep an eye on my men." He glanced at Schultz and Langenscheidt.

"Sergeant Schultz," Burkhalter walked towards him. "Were all the prisoners accounted for upstairs?"

Klink saw his man stammer as he groped for a word to say. He sighed in despair. "I'm really sure that Sergeant Schultz was alert in his post-"

"A-actually, Kommandant, I was asleep. It was Corporal Langenscheidt's turn to watch the prisoners."

Langenscheidt went a shade paler than usual. He was not a confrontational man. He just wanted to do his job and survive the war without any more difficulties. "I-I... sir... t-the prisoners were there..."

Carter kept his mouth shut as the German corporal glanced at him. He hated to see Langenscheidt so uncomfortable with the lie but that was irrelevant at the moment. Telling the truth would not clear Newkirk of suspicion.

"Oh well," Klink smiled, in a weakened attempt to disminish the impact of the situation. "He might not remember but I'm sure that all the prisoners were upstairs and-"

"Klink, I won't engage a discussion about who was where," Burkhalter said. "There has been a murder, the murder weapon is here, we have witnesses that point at this man." He glanced at Newkirk. "Who else is there to blame?"

"Everyone's quick to blame the alien," a voice resounded in the stairs. Everybody turned their heads as Colonel Senf descended slowly.

"Monsieur- Oberst Senf," Etienne, the innkeeper stepped forward. "Do you need anything, sir?"

The colonel looked at the people around and then at Newkirk and the body on the floor. "Anything but what they were having will be all right." He went to sit at the bar.

Etienne signed for Liesel to go and serve the man. He turned to General Burkhalter and smiled shyly. "Herr Senf was in campaign with General Rommel; he hasn't been the same since he came back."

Burkhalter nodded. "I know his story."

Carter watched a slight shadow of sadness cross the general's face. If he had not known this man better, he would have thought that Burkhalter was showing some kind of compassion for Senf. Carter turned to Klink and saw the kommandant had a similar look on his face.

Burkhalter took a deep breath, as though waking up from a brief slumber, and went back to the problem at hand. "You know what to do, Kommandant Klink."

"I do? Of course... I suppose I do." Klink turned to Hogan, as though looking for permission or support. He realized that this was his call and sighed. "Schultz, arrest the Englander!"

"But he's wounded!" Carter could not take any more of this and stood up. "Newkirk needs a doctor!"

"Sorry, there are no doctors around. Would you settle for a nurse and a private room?" General Burkhalter said in a sarcastic tone. "When I finish with this man, he won't need a doctor, he'll need an undertaker! In war times, the law requires immediate execution."

LeBeau and Kinch came to stand next to Carter. The three men asked in silence for Hogan's intervention.

"General," Hogan said in a neutral tone, "my man is unconscious. There must be some stipulation about shooting unconscious prisoners."

Burkhalter took a deep breath. Although he had not read the legislation on that matter, shooting a man in Newkirk's condition was rather unfair. He nodded. "Very well, we'll wait until the prisoner wakes up. That will give Klink time to prepare his shooting squad."

"I-I beg your pardon?" Colonel Klink felt cold sweat forming in his forehead. "Who could I call in this weather?"

"Who else? Your men present here," Burkhalter shrugged.

Schultz felt Langenscheidt clenching his arm behind him. "Sergeant, that's us," the corporal whispered.

"Shh!" Schultz pushed him back. He and Klink exchanged glances. "B-but Kommandant-"

"Quiet, Schultz!" Klink said.

The general walked towards the civilians, who were now sitting at a table. They looked still in shock at the gruesome scene. "Monsieur-"

"Vert, Etienne Vert." The man stood up and bowed.

"We need to put the body- Captain Köperschaft somewhere."

"Oh..." Etienne hesitated for a moment. "Well, we have a cooler at the back-"

"You have a cooler here?" Carter's eyes opened wide.

"A real cooler, Andrew," Kinch said, with a smile. Carter gave a deep sigh of relief and nodded.

"That will do," the general said uncomfortably. "Now, we need some place to lock up the murderer."

"General Burkhalter," Hogan came after him. "I must protest. My man is badly injured and I won't allow-"

The general glared at Hogan. "Think very carefully what you're going to say next. As a POW, you are not in a position to forbid anything."

Hogan bit his tongue. He could not afford to lose this fight. "I'm very sorry, General. I'll choose my words better next time. But I must insist that my men should be treated accordingly to the Geneva Convention; at least for tonight."

The general smirked. He took his time to ponder on the situation before he straightened up to speak. "All right, Colonel Hogan. I'll be the better man, as you said. Keep your men out of sight and make sure Corporal Newkirk is ready for execution tomorrow at dawn."

Carter, Kinch and LeBeau stared at each other. This did not look good for them or Newkirk, but at least, they would be together.

*Aeschylus

Jul. 20th, 2011

The Adventure of the Löwenmähner Pension chapter one

Category: TV Shows » Hogan's Heroes
Author: Sierra Sutherwinds
Language: English, Rating: Rated: K
Genre: Mystery/Suspense
Published: 07-20-11, Updated: 07-20-11
Chapters: 1, Words: 6,066
Chapter 1: The Game's a Foot
The Adventure of the Löwenmähner Pension

This is a story of mystery. I have to mention that HH characters are not mine and I don't profit from them. The situations are not based on anything near real life. However the similitude to elements and/or characters from the board game Clue is clearly intentional.

The title of each chapter comes from Sherlock Holmes' quotes.

ACT ONE: The game's a foot.

It was late in the afternoon. The sun had gone down and a persistent blizzard threatened the old truck's stability at every turn on the road. Langenscheidt could barely control the wheel and finally, he gave up.

"Why are we stopping?" Schultz woke up suddenly.

"It's all that snow, Sergeant. I don't think I'd be able to pass through."

Sergeant Schultz examined the situation. They had to take the prisoners back to camp before the evening roll call. Although Kommandant Klink was not there as the moment, he expected Schultz and Langenscheidt to make sure that everything went on as if he were. On the other hand, efficiency would mean nothing if they had an accident on the road just for trying to get to the Stalag on time.

"Let's look for some place where we can wait out the storm. We're not that far from camp anyway."

Newkirk peered through the canvas but all he could see was the white and the wind blowing merciless against them. The cold swept inside and the passengers protested.

"Close that damn thing! We're freezing in here." Kinch rubbed his arms and blew on his hands.

"Wasn't it enough for you to work filling potholes on the road in the middle of a blizzard?" Carter shared Kinch's moodiness.

"All right, all right. Blimey, we're at our best today, aren't we?" Newkirk crossed his legs at the same time and the movement pulled the chain around his ankles. More protests followed.

"Watch it!" Carter pulled the chain back. "These things are not made of rubber, you know?"

"I said I'm sorry, didn't I?"

"We're tired and freezing. All I want is to go back to the Stalag and have some hot cocoa." LeBeau sank on his seat. "Why did we stop? Do you know, Colonel?"

"No idea. Perhaps Langenscheidt got lost again."

"Terrible sense of direction," Carter shook his head. He took a book out of his pocket and started reading.

"Well, you're the expert on that." Newkirk chuckled. "Are you still reading that old book about petunias?"

"It's about gardening," Carter protested without interrupting his reading. "But no, this is another book. A mystery book from one of my favorite British writers, Newkirk."

"Mother Goose?"

"No! Agatha Christie," Carter showed him the cover and Newkirk snorted.

"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd?" He read.

"Oh, I didn't know you like les romans policiers." LeBeau said.

"I don't think so, but I like detective novels," Carter clarified.

"That's what I said, romans policiers," LeBeau shrugged.

"Anyway, this has a French detective, LeBeau." Carter showed him the book. "Hercules Poirot."

"Bien sûre. The best detective of all times."

"Oh, that's Sherlock Holmes," Newkirk said. "Didn't you see the movie? The Hound of the Baskervilles," he sighed, "that was the last time I went to the cinema before I was shot down."

"I like Agatha better," Carter shrugged.

"There are no movies about Poirot."

"But he's still better than Holmes," LeBeau pointed at Newkirk with his finger.

Hogan let the discussion go on for a several minutes. The weather was awful, the wind hit the truck canvas and the snow was leaking inside. A good discussion was just the thing to keep the spirits high.

"What do you think, Colonel?" Carter asked him suddenly.

"What do I think about what?"

"Who's better, Holmes or Poirot?" LeBeau leaned forward with a grin.

"Let the man alone, Louis," Newkirk snorted. "Everybody knows that Poirot is just a copy of Sherlock Holmes."

Kinch grinned knowingly "You two have got it all wrong. The best detective was August Dupin, a Frenchman but," he said looking at LeBeau's proud grin, "written by an American."

"Who?" Carter asked.

"Edgar Allan Poe," answered Kinch.

"What about you, sir," Carter turned to Hogan, "do you have a favorite detective?"

Hogan smiled, as he sought in his memory. "Sam Spade, that's my kind of guy."

The conversation languished slowly and LeBeau sighed. "Why are they taking so long?"

"Shall I go out and ask what's going on?" Newkirk said, producing a lock pick out of his hat.

"Put that away. No one is moving. We'll wait until our guards come to inform us." Hogan relaxed. "They're trying to do their job. Let's give them a break, okay?"

"Yeah, that's the least we can do after leaving the road half done and making sabotage at the same time." Kinch smiled, satisfied.

"I didn't see the point of finishing the potholes if the next truck is going to detonate the explosives." Newkirk shrugged. "I think it was a great job."

"Oh, I'd love to stay longer and see things blowing apart." Carter sighed. "But with this storm and everything..."

"Next time, Carter. We'll bring umbrellas." Hogan nodded.

The truck began to move again but it lasted only ten minutes more. Then, Schultz came and pulled everybody out. The group lined up in front of a inn and cafe bar. There were three cars outside, receiving the snow on their tops. The owners would probably be inside because it was too cold and dangerous to drive into another more updated place.

"Die Löwenmäner Pension," read Kinch.

"Blimey! That's one of Sherlock Holmes' stories," Newkirk laughed. "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane."

"I didn't know you were so much into Sherlock Holmes, Newkirk," Kinch said.

"Detective stories, mate: strategy, opportunity and the perfect crime."

"Don't forget the hypothesis, tests and conclusion," Hogan said. "There is no such thing as a perfect crime."

Carter watched Newkirk's eyes shine mischievously.

"Prisoners, don't break the lines!" Schultz yelled. He always yelled when Langenscheidt was near. He just wanted to impress the corporal with his sense of authority. "Now listen. We're going inside the Pension and I don't want any trouble. Stay together, don't talk to anyone, and don't move around."

"Are you going to give us toys if we behave, Uncle Schultzie?" Newkirk asked.

"Oui, oui. Un cadeau, Papa Noel." LeBeau grinned.

"Enough, guys." Hogan smiled. "We'll be at our best behavior, Sergeant. But you have to do something about these," he pointed at the chains on their ankles. "People get nervous around chain gangs."

"Of course, Colonel Hogan." Schultz signed for Langenscheidt to open the locks.

0)()(0

The four costumers in the place turned immediately when the party stepped inside. Hogan pointed at one table in the corner near the bar and his men walked towards it. The silence was as uncomfortable as expected.

"Everybody is staring at us," Carter said.

"Très bien. What do we do as a second act?" LeBeau chuckled.

"You don't see a group of war prisoners entering a coffee bar every day," Kinch told the others. "Just take it easy, they'll get used to us."

"Sure, just imagine five guys in enemy uniforms and guarded like ruddy criminals. Who wouldn't be scared of us?" Newkirk turned to the bar and winked at the waitress.

"I'd be scared," Carter nodded. He studied the people at the other tables. There was a white haired woman in a turquoise dress, drinking wine and knitting. There were two men in uniform. One, must be in his early sixties, with blond hair, and apparently alone as he drank his beer. Although Carter was not too familiarized with German uniforms other than Gestapo, SS and Luftwaffe, he recognized this one as from the Afrika Corps. The rank on his jacket matched Klink's so, Carter guessed he was a colonel. The other man was at the bar with a woman. He was another Afrika Corps officer, a captain in his middle fifties, not handsome, but hard to forget with his straight profile and emotionless expression. He did not look too happy as he finished his third beer. The woman next to him looked overdressed for such an ordinary place. She was in a red satin dress and her eyes were fixed on her glass of wine. The captain did not stop talking but she did not seem to be paying much attention.

"Pretty bird, isn't she?" Newkirk's whisper brought Carter back into their reality.

"I guess," Carter shrugged. "But I think she's taken."

"Don't let the trees keep you from seeing the forest, me lad." He studied her for a moment and sighed. "Expensive lassie, just look at those nice rocks."

"Nice what?" Carter frowned. "The necklace you say?"

"You could feed a family of five for a year with a couple of those little buggers."

Carter just smirked and turned to Hogan with beseeching eyes. "Since we're going to stay for a while, couldn't we do something fun? I'm getting bored already."

"Why don't we eat? It's time, n'est-ce pas?"

Hogan agreed and called Schultz. "Can't we order anything? People keep staring."

"I don't have much money with me," he said. Then, he thought it better. It had been a long morning and he was hungry. He looked at the food on the counter and grinned. "But we can charge it to Klink."

"Sergeant-" Langenscheidt looked at him in disbelief.

"We have to feed the prisoners. It's in the Geneva Convention." Schultz called the innkeeper.

A man in his late forties came immediately. He brushed his rebellious hair with one hand as he produced a small book out of his shirt pocket. He smiled, although he did not look quite happy. "Bon soir, je m'appelle Etienne Vert," the man said. "What would it be?"

Before anyone could talk, LeBeau looked at him from head to toe. He glowered in disgust. "Vous êtes Français? Alors, que faites-vous ici?"

Hogan could see that LeBeau was not happy with this finding. He touched his arm. "What's wrong?"

"Cet homme est un collaborateur! He's with the enemy!" He almost jumped from the table.

"Calm down." Hogan did not raise his voice but made it clear that he was not joking. "First of all, we're the enemy here. Secondly, you don't know him at all. Keep your feelings in check. We don't need more attention on us, okay?"

LeBeau relaxed in his chair as Hogan's words sank in. He took a deep breath and shrugged. "Oui, mon colonel, I'm sorry," LeBeau nodded apologetically. However, he looked coldly at the innkeeper. "I don't want anything."

Etienne did not say a word. He smiled politely and called his waitress. "Liesel will take your order," he said before going back to the bar.

The young woman came with a small notebook in her hand. Her purple sweater contrasted with her blond hair. She was pretty enough to make all the men at the table smile.

"Bring us a bottle of wine, luv" Newkirk said.

"Sorry, but prisoners in custody are not allowed to drink." She shrugged. She was really pretty. Carter liked her smile, but something in her eyes told another story. She did not look happy to see them there, that was for sure.

"In that case, I want a beer," Schultz grinned. Langenscheidt glared at him in silence. "Come on, Langenscheidt, just to warm us up," the sergeant shrugged.

"Coffee for everyone else," Hogan settled the discussion before it started. "This is not a bad place. Maybe we'll have to spend the night here. Let's make the best of it."

"Without the wine, I doubt it." Newkirk smirked and sank down on his chair. The woman with the captain, was staring at him now. Her eyes were sad and her face reddish as though she had been crying for a while. Now, she looked tired and resigned.

Etienne came closer to the couple with the excuse of cleaning that side of the bar. He smiled at the woman and tried without success to make the captain stop drinking. His voice was loud enough for everyone to hear that he was not having a good time.

Langenscheidt turned on the captain's direction and exhaled with surprise. He leaned forward to whisper. "Sergeant! Have you seen who that one is?"

"Don't stare, that's impolite." Schultz sighed and turned. His eyes opened wide before he turned around to bury his face in his glass. "Ich kann es nicht glauben!" I can't believe this!

"What? Was wrong?" Carter asked for him and Newkirk.

"That is Captain Köperschaft," Schultz said.

"The devil in person," Langenscheidt nodded.

Carter would half swear that Langenscheidt shuddered at the mention of that name. Newkirk noticed that too and grinned.

"Oh, come on, gentlemen, a German officer? How bad can he be?"

Langenscheidt glared at him and shook his head. "Captain Köperschaft is a national hero, with more medals than three generals together."

"And that makes him a bad person?" Carter asked. "He seems a little uptight but-"

"Oh, no. Being responsible for the death of hundreds of men, that's what makes him evil," Schultz said. "His pastime is sending men into battle. Only last year, he lost three battalions in a row."

"But he's a national hero?" Carter frowned.

"Well," Schultz sighed, "he is also fearless. He was with his men in those battles. Although many died, he conquered many territories for our Fuhrer."

"Sure, tell that to the families that lost their sons and fathers," Langenscheidt said.

"Just a bit of bad luck," Newkirk shrugged, "the poor old chap."

"Oh, there's no such a thing as bad luck with Captain Köperschaft. He doesn't care about people, that's all." Langenscheidt finished with his beer and took a sip from Schultz's stein. "My pour cousin Albert went with him to Algiers... he never came back. I had to hide myself every time the captain showed up to choose more men for his division. I was lucky to be sent to Stalag XIII at that time."

"Corporal, we don't talk about our officers," Schultz claimed his drink. "The man has a bad temper, that's all."

"I only say that everywhere he goes, someone dies," Langenscheidt said as a reproach. "And how about that bad temper? He almost took you out of business not so long ago, isn't that right, Sergeant?"

"I say nothing!" Schultz looked the other way.

Carter turned to look at the captain. Now, he not only despised the man for being the enemy. To his own dismay, he felt sorry for those poor soldiers who had lost their lives under Captain Köperschaft's orders.

"If he's so popular, why isn't he a general?" Newkirk asked.

Schultz shrugged resignedly. "Bad temper takes you nowhere. There are rumors about his years as a cadet during the Big War-"

The doorbell rang again and everybody turned in that direction. The first one to enter was a man in a blue duster. He looked surprised to see the prisoners and the guards. He adjusted his collar and chose the table in the opposite corner to Hogan's. The next person coming in took the POW by surprise. It was Colonel Klink, rushing to hold the door for General Burkhalter.

"Are you sure you want to stay here. I think we could drive a couple of kilometers more. I know another place, the owners are good friends of mine and-" He looked around and smiled. "What a surprise! It looks like the party at Field Marshal Wagner's just moved to this café."

"Colonel Klink, shut up. You don't need to keep the conversation going on. We're not on the road anymore!" Burkhalter found a table quickly.

"Look what the cat dragged in," said Kinch.

Carter chuckled. "Is he following us?" He looked at the general who was frowning slightly at the sight of the white haired lady. She also could not hide her surprise when the officers came in. She seemed to bury her face on her knitting work as they passed by her table.

Hogan looked at his men. "How does he do it?"

"Uncanny, sir, totally uncanny," Newkirk shook his head.

"Of all places, he had to come here?" LeBeau sighed.

"Well, at least now we know where he is," Carter shrugged.

Schultz did not wait for the kommandant to see him. He stood up and yelled. "Achtung!" Only Langenscheidt obeyed immediately. Hogan and his men remained seated.

Klink heard the voice and did not want to turn around. This was not the best place to find his men and much less, his prisoners. He slowly got up and sighed.

"Klink, your prisoners are waving at you," Burkhalter said. "Is this their day off?"

"Schultz! Explain!" Klink regained his composure and walked towards Hogan. "What are these men doing here? Why aren't they at the Stalag?"

"Herr Kommandant, there is a good explanation, I-" Schultz did not know whether to keep up his salute or answer the question.

Klink did not wait for the sergeant. He turned and yelled. "Hogan!"

"Colonel, we were on the road when the blizzard started. It was impossible to continue. Fortunately, we found this lovely place and we're just waiting." He smiled. "Why don't you take a seat, we're waiting for our food."

"Food?" Klink looked at Schultz, who could not stop shaking. Langenscheidt was right behind him, very grateful that the sergeant was so big. "Who's going to pay for this?"

"You, of course." Hogan shrugged. "We didn't ask to be out of the Stalag today, with this weather or skip two meals so far. We're hungry. Hungry prisoners, are angry prisoners and-"

"All right! Just eat and get out of here!"

"With all that snow, not bloody likely," Newkirk snorted.

"What did you say?" Klink turned to the Englishman.

"He's just pointed out the fact that the road is very dangerous at this hour. It's almost night and the visibility is almost nonexistent." Hogan turned to Langenscheidt. "Just ask your corporal here, he was driving."

"It's true, Kommandant, I-"

"Enough!" Klink sighed. "We'll talk about this later. Dismissed." He returned to Burkhalter to get his own reprimand.

Carter was about to make another remark when the conversation at the Afrika Corps colonel's table caught his attention. The colonel was having some argument with the waitress and she looked very nervous. As she passed their table, LeBeau stopped her. "Something wrong, Mademoiselle?"

"Well, we're having trouble with the stove and there is little of the menu that we can offer at the moment. The colonel is a little upset because we have run out of croissants."

"Hey, maybe you could help," Carter said to LeBeau. Then, he went back to the waitress. "He is a great cook, you know?"

"I don't think I want to help that collaborateur," he shrugged.

"Not even for a pretty lady?" Newkirk elbowed him.

Kinch shook his head. "Where's the chevalier?"

The young woman frowned at them. "Etienne is not a collaborateur. He's a good man and I don't want help from anyone who thinks differently."

LeBeau took a deep breath. He would not step back from his judgment of that man, but he did not want to cause trouble for anyone else. There was a lady in distress and he was gentleman enough to help her out. "I'm sorry. I won't say anything else about that man. What can I do for you?" He smiled to the waitress.

"Call me Liesel." She smiled too.

"May I, Colonel?"

"Fine with me," Hogan looked at Schultz.

"Since we're stuck in this place, I think that makes it okay," the German sergeant said. "We should've turned somewhere else."

0)()(0

"Stop it! Just stop it!" The captain hit the bar with his fist and pointed at the woman that was about to cry again. "Enough, I say!"

Newkirk was staring at them again, getting more upset every time. Hogan raised his eyebrows to get Carter's attention; he did not need much effort to make the young sergeant understand what he wanted without words.

"Hey, Newkirk," Carter said. "How many jugglers does it take to change a light bulb?"

Newkirk frowned. "What?"

"Only one, but it takes three bulbs."

Kinch laughed. Hogan did too, although his eyes were on the Englishman all the time.

"One more word and you'll get it, you hear me? I'm done with you!"

"Konrad, please. You've got to believe me-"

"I won't listen to your lies anymore, Margit. It's over! I know exactly what you have been trying to do. You must think I'm the dumbest man in the world... "

Hogan leaned over the table to whisper. "Newkirk, let it go."

"I can't. That bloody jerk! Aren't you listening to what he says?"

"He sounds like a very violent man." Sitting between Hogan and Newkirk, Carter could not help taking part in the conversation. "We should let him alone."

"It's an officer. That'd only bring us trouble," Kinch said.

They heard the man getting up. "That's it, you're asking for it!"

Newkirk sprung off his chair. "Lady, is this gentleman bothering you?"

She stared at him for a second and then, she shook her head. "I'm all right, thank you," she whispered.

"You stay away from this, British garbage." The captain turned back to the woman. "You see what you do with all your drama? Now you're getting attention from a damn British bastard!" He lifted his hand in a threatening way and she stepped back.

"Excuse me, sir, but I still don't think that's the way to treat a lady." Newkirk kept a neutral tone.

"Newkirk, stay out of it," Hogan said through his teeth.

"Listen to your superiors, boy. Maybe you should've stayed in England." The captain looked at him and laughed. "I just came from London a week ago, or what is left of it. Bloody cowards, running underground while the city burned."

Carter grabbed Newkirk's arm just to bring him back to his senses. "It's not worth it."

"You should learn your place, Englander. Nosy bastards, that's why we'll have to crush you until you understand where your place is."

"Bloody wanker!" Newkirk jumped forward but Hogan was ready to stop him.

"If you touch him, we'll all suffer for this!" He pulled him back.

Newkirk obeyed at once. But the moment he turned to Hogan, the captain grabbed his shoulder. Newkirk turned around and received a punch on the nose that sent him backwards. Hogan crouched and held him on the floor.

"Don't move or I'll make sure it'll be your last for a long time." He turned to his men, already on their feet. "Stay where you are, all of you! This ends here." He pulled Newkirk back to his feet and pushed him with the rest of his group. He would have liked to do some damage control before anyone else noticed the incident but it was too late.

LeBeau was coming from the kitchen, still holding an iron spatula in his hand. Etienne came right after him. The Afrika Corps colonel was attentively watching, as well as the white-haired lady, still knitting. Even the stranger in the blue raincoat followed the incident from a distance.

General Burkhalter got up, impassive as always."Colonel Klink! Control your prisoners!"

"Hogan, you're going to be punished for this." Klink looked for Schultz. "Where's your gun, Sergeant?"

"It's not fair. That man hit Newkirk!" LeBeau stepped forward.

Carter was pale with rage. "Colonel?"

"Everybody, cool off." Hogan turned to the captain. "I offer you my apologies."

"I hold you responsible for your men's behavior." The captain walked towards Newkirk. The Englishman was still trying to control his breathing while wiping blood off his nose. "Who is in charge of these prisoners? Shall I punish this man's insolence myself?"

"Enough drama, Captain Köperschaft," said General Burkhalter. He had stood up but did not move from his table. "Colonel Klink is perfectly capable of putting order here," he turned to Klink and smirked. "Aren't you?"

"Absolutely," Klink said. He was visibly embarrassed and silently vowing revenge as soon as they got to the Stalag. He turned briefly toward Newkirk. "Corporal! You're going straight to the cooler and stay there until the next war!"

"Colonel Hogan, your man must apologize immediately," Burkhalter said.

Hogan tightened his jaw. The final humiliation. He would rather be shot in the guts than impose his rank on his men for something out of their control. But this was not a good place to quote the Geneva Convention and talk them out of the problem. He turned to Newkirk. "Apologize, Newkirk," he said in a low voice.

The Englishman stared at him with wide eyes. He shook his head slightly. "What?"

"But, Colonel, he didn't-" Carter began to talk but Kinch grabbed his arm to stop him.

LeBeau winced in disgust. He had never seen this side of Hogan before. He too wanted to protest. Kinch had to step forward in a quiet way to calm down his friends. He came closer to lay one hand on Newkirk's shoulder. "Go ahead, Peter. Be the best man," he whispered.

Newkirk shuddered with anger, his hands clenched into fists. After taking a moment to regain control, he managed to soften his features and bow slightly. "I'm deeply sorry, Captain. It was all my fault."

Hogan held his breath when the German grinned with satisfaction. Just one wrong word and the war would be decided in that little inn.

"Apologies accepted," the captain said, picking up his coat and hat. "It's not your fault that you were born among savages."

Newkirk bit his inner cheek but kept a poker face. He did not move until the captain left the place to go upstairs with his wife. Hogan got closer and clapped Newkirk on the shoulder. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"You didn't do anything, sir."

That response sounded more like a reproach to Hogan, but he accepted it all the same. Either way, Newkirk was right. He had thrown one of his men, a close friend, to the lions. Nothing anyone could say to make him feel better about that.

They sat at the table again and no one spoke for a long time. Carter, LeBeau and Kinch exchanged glances while Newkirk and Hogan just stared at the table. Finally, Kinch chuckled.

"I was wondering how long it would take us to start a bar fight." He looked at his friends. "This must be the quickest ever."

LeBeau and Carter contained their laughs until Newkirk snorted and wiped the blood off his nose with a napkin. The Englishman looked at his friends and shook his head.

"Three light bulbs, Carter? Honestly," he said with a smile.

Hogan and Newkirk looked at each other and made peace with their eyes.

"It's a weird evening, indeed," Kinch said. He looked at Newkirk staring absently at his cup of coffee. "How are you doing?"

Newkirk smirked. "Nothing broken. I'll be fine when we get out of here."

"Yeah, I'm more than ready to leave," Carter said.

"I don't know, I'm beginning to like this place," LeBeau sighed.

"You fancy that waitress bird?" Newkirk snorted painfully.

"That will be something," Kinch said. "Newkirk starts a brawl and LeBeau falls in love."

LeBeau rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I'm not in love, the mademoiselle is very nice. We had an interesting conversation while we cooked."

"Only you can cook and flirt at the same time, Louis," Hogan said.

"Well, if you ask me, we should be out of here right now. I smell trouble." Carter said, looking around.

"What do you mean?" Asked Newkirk.

"I don't know, there's something about these people that doesn't seem right."

Hogan nodded quietly. "Certainly, the evening had a bumpy start." He looked at Newkirk and grinned. "No pun intended."

"Jolly funny, sir." Newkirk sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Let's go back to camp. I'm getting a headache."

"Gladly," said Hogan. "Just let me tell Klink to pay the bill and off we'll go."

Hogan was about to get up at the same moment that Etienne hung the telephone. "The lines have just died. The authorities were telling me that the roads are closed for the night because of the blizzard," he announced. A rumor of complaints spread around.

"Are we cut off?" Carter exhaled worriedly. "Here? In the middle of nowhere?"

"Just my luck, I'm stuck with you in this place, Klink." Burkhalter rolled his eyes impatiently. Carter saw him turn around and fix his eyes on the white-haired lady. She smiled lightly at him, but he did not respond.

Klink was also uncomfortable with the idea of spending the night with the general. He waved at the innkeeper and smiled. "Would you have rooms available?"

Etienne shrugged. "I always have six ready during the winter."

"Five, Captain Köperschaft and his wife are in room number one," Liesel said. Etienne checked on his book and nodded.

"The general will occupy one too," Klink said, raising his hand.

"And Generalmajor Senf?" Etienne asked the Afrika Corps officer. The man nodded.

"Only three rooms left," Carter whispered to Kinch.

"I'm going to need a room too," the white-haired lady said from her table. Her voice was like a whisper and Carter would swear that she was avoiding Burkhalter's eyes.

"There are only two more rooms available," Etienne said looking at the stranger in the blue duster. "The gentleman over there, are you going to need a room too?"

The man looked uncomfortable with all the stares on him. "Of course, but I don't share with POW."

"We'll take the one that's left, then," Hogan said.

"Nice try," Klink smiled to see the general's approval. "I'll need a room too. You all will sleep in the truck."

"Certainly, and by tomorrow morning you'll have five very frozen prisoners." Hogan stood up. "We're going to need at least one room."

"How big are your rooms, exactly? There are five of us here," Newkirk said with a smile.

"Seven, don't forget Langenscheidt and Schultz." Kinch shrugged.

"Well, under the circumstances," Etienne said to the stranger, "could you reconsider? There's a blizzard-"

The man put a roll of bills on the table and narrowed his eyes. "One room, single, bitte."

Etienne picked up the money. "Gentlemen, there is only one room left."

"It seems that you're coming with us, Colonel Klink," Hogan grinned mischievously.

Klink stared at the group of prisoners and turned to Burkhalter. The general knew exactly what he was thinking. A kommandant should keep his distance from his subordinates. It would not look well if he had to share a room with the prisoners.

The general rolled his eyes and exhaled deeply. "All right, Klink, you may come with me."

"That makes seven for a room of four." Carter kept count with his fingers.

"Er. Sorry, but the accommodations are for three people per room, four at the most." Etienne presented the keys. The rest of the guests were already gone.

"Could someone say anything?" Hogan glared at Burkhalter and Klink. "It's been a long day and I get cranky when I'm sleepy."

"All right," the general said. "I'll share my room with Klink... and Hogan, if he doesn't mind." He sketched a fake smile.

"The bathroom is at the end of the hallway," Etienne said.

Hogan nodded resignedly. "We still have to lodge Sergeant Schultz and Corporal Langenscheidt."

"It's all right, they have to watch your men, anyway," Klink said.

"But they have to sleep too," Burkhalter said. "They will stay with the prisoners and take turns on the shifts."

"In that case, one of my men will have to come with us." Hogan turned to them, begging with his eyes. Of all the nightmares in this war, sharing a room with Klink and Burkhalter all by himself was the worst.

Kinch chuckled. "I don't think they would want me in their room, Colonel."

Hogan nodded. He turned to Newkirk still nursing his nose.

"No way in bloody hell, sir."

"Moi non plus, Colonel," LeBeau said. "I'd rather sleep in the hallway."

"All right. It's you and me, kid," Hogan patted Carter on the shoulder.

"No problem with me, sir." He smiled.

"This is going to be a very long night," Newkirk said to Carter.

tbc

Detectives in literature:

Hercule Poirot (from several novels by Agatha Christie)

Auguste Dupin (from The Rue Morgue Murders and other stories by Edgar Allan Poe)

San Spade (from a The Maltese Falcon and several short stories by Dashiell Hammetts.)

Sherlock Holmes (from stories and novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Jul. 3rd, 2011

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel chapters 19-20-21 end

XIX The Last Hard Men

Carter virtually dragged Dalibor along for the first five minutes. He was tired, out of breath, but determined to end the mission one way or another. Dalibor almost stumbled a couple of times before he stopped and refused to go on.

"Come on, we've got no time to lose," said Carter pulling his arm.

"You're trying to kill me!" He panted. "If you're so concerned about the colonel and your other friend, leave me here. I can find my way on my own."

Carter pondered their options. There was nothing else that he wanted to do but go back to help Hogan and Newkirk. Or, at least, he could keep them company till the end.

"Don't even think about it, Carter. We need to get to the airstrip together." LeBeau nursed his hurt shoulder. With all the running, the torn muscles had begun to annoy him again.

"But, Louie," Carter said, "Newkirk and the colonel are alone. If we hurry up, I think we can come back in-"

"Carter, even if we get to the airstrip earlier, we can't leave Dalibor alone. We'll have to wait there till three ten."

"You don't understand. It's Colonel Hogan over there facing, those goons on his own. Newkirk is seriously hurt. They could die without our help," Carter said. "It's two twenty. We can go back, help them out and make it to the airstrip all together. Please, LeBeau, they would do it for us."

LeBeau stared at him, trying to make up his own mind. He wanted to obey Hogan's orders but saving him was more appealing. It was just a matter of timing, and to stay there, just considering their options, was not helping at all.

His heart beat fast as he finally made a decision. "All right, let's go back. But I'll tell him it was all your idea and that you made me do it."

"Sure, we'll talk about that when we all go back to the Stalag." Carter felt his energy coming back and allowed himself to laugh.

Oo-HH-oO

"Achtung! [You have two minutes to release the hostages!"] The lieutenant yelled. ["Throw down your weapons and come out with your hands over your head."]

"That's a generous offer, innit?" Newkirk gasped. He grabbed his rifle and took his place in a corner by the window.

"I don't know if I could throw down my weapon, I'm kind of attached to it," Hogan smiled from the opposite corner. "How're you doing?"

Newkirk shook his head. "One thing's for sure. It ain't gonna be a long fight. Me sight is getting blurred."

"Then, you can forget about waiting to see the white of their eyes." Hogan peered through the window. Two guards set the machine gun on top of the car. One passed the ammo. "It's any minute now."

Just as Hogan finished his sentence, bullets began to rattle on the second floor. Newkirk dodged all the same. One of the dummies fell right in the middle of the street.

"Ouch, poor old Digby," Newkirk winced.

Hogan laughed as the second round took the second dummy down to the ground. "There goes John."

"So much for bloody Beau Geste," said Newkirk with a shrug.

"I honestly thought they would last a little longer." Hogan shook his head. "It worked so well in the movie." He cocked the rifle and shot at the street. The nearest guard got hit.

"There goes another dummy." Newkirk grinned. He rubbed his eyes and aimed. He shot twice and hit the man behind the machine gun.

Hogan nodded. This was Newkirk in a bad day, he could not ask for a better shooting partner.

As soon as the lieutenant saw the dummies, he understood the prank and became furious. He took cover and directed all his men towards the big window on the first floor. Newkirk and Hogan covered their heads as a shower of bullets, shattered glass and plaster flew around them.

Hogan kept an eye on the street and another on his corporal. A sudden fear of surviving his man almost overwhelmed him. He was the commander, if someone had to die in battle it should be him.

"Newkirk!"

After several agonizing seconds, the Englishman found strength to answer. "Still alive! Any requests?"

"Keep yourself alive!" Hogan shot two more times. Another guard hit the ground. "I feel like a sitting duck."

"Not in a better position here, actually," Newkirk shook some debris off his hair. "How many are there left? D'you think we're winning?"

"Hardly. They could keep shooting until the cows come home and beyond."

"What bloody cows are you talking about?" Newkirk chuckled. He fired the last three shots he had and sat back. "Ready, I'm done." He threw the rifle down.

Hogan made his last shot worth the effort and shrugged. "Okay, shall we wait here or invite them in? Because either way-"

Newkirk shushed him. "Do you hear that?"

Hogan shook his head. All that shooting had left his ears ringing. "What?"

"Some roaring... a motor car."

Hogan was used to trust Newkirk's trained ear. If he said there were cars coming, it might be true. "Reinforcements, maybe." He sighed and leaned his head back.

The stillness of the night was nerve wracking. Hogan had been waiting so long for someone to start shooting again that when it happened he was almost caught off guard. He took cover and waited for Newkirk to do the same. Instead, the Englishman stood up.

"Newkirk, what are you doing? Get down!"

"Colonel, don't you hear it?" Newkirk frowned.

"What I hear is more artillery and that scares me." He crawled towards him to pull him down. "No wonder you always get shot!"

Newkirk winced in pain but he was too excited to mind it. He grabbed Hogan's sleeve to drag his attention to the important thing. "You don't understand, they're not shooting at us-"

Machine gun fire interrupted the monotony of the pistols and rifles. For a moment, there was no response as though the Gestapo unit were hesitating to use their own artillery. The pause lasted only a minute while they readjusted their positions. The staccato of some of the weapons made counterpoint with the others and this continued for several minutes.

Hogan had just figured out that the Gestapo had been caught in cross fire. Now, he needed to know who were their unexpected benefactors. "It can't be Carter and LeBeau?"

"With what weapons? Not bloody likely." Newkirk ducked even when the bullets were not directed at them. He grinned. "Think, Colonel. Who else knows we're here..."He had to gasp for air. "The cavalry... or better yet, the Indians, gov'nor... our own Indians."

More exchange of artillery, rifles and one grenade exploding in the street shook the entire building. Hogan laughed.

"I'll be damned, it's the gypsies! They're back!"

Carter and LeBeau stopped running when they heard the sounds of heavy artillery. Their faces paled at the dreadful thought of their friends being killed.

"Carter?"

"I know, LeBeau..."

Dalibor saw their reaction and laughed. "Who recruited you? You don't have any guts for this job. I should've known that you weren't up to it the minute that gypsy tackled down der Engländer back in Lorenz." He shook his head. "It's obvious that he and your colonel have been gunned down already. I'm turning around. If you look for me, you'll find me at the airstrip waiting for my plane out of here."

Carter aimed his pistol at him. "You stay where you are."

"And what are you going to do?" Dalibor snorted. "Shoot me? You're supposed to take me to that plane anyway."

"Maybe I don't have to anymore." Carter struggled to keep his voice under control.

LeBeau sighed. "He's right, Carter. Colonel Hogan would've wanted us to do so."

"Don't talk as if they were dead." Carter cocked his pistol. "You agreed to come back and help!"

"I know, I know... but now what?" LeBeau shuddered at the sound of more artillery. "Are you going to kill him? That's what we've come this far for?" He could barely recognize his friend. "Everything you've done today, the tziganes, Newkirk getting shot... that matters, Andrew."

"LeBeau... you don't know what this man is capable of."

"I know, Carter. I'm French, remember? I've seen how they work."

Carter turned to his friend. Silent glances spoke faster than words. They were on the same side. "Of course I won't shoot... I haven't changed that much..."

"What do we do? If they're already gone there's no point in getting back, is there? What do we have to do, Carter?"

Carter bit his lower lip. "I came to put this man on the Three ten to London and I'll put him on the Three ten to London even if that's the last thing I do in my life."

LeBeau nodded. "Oui, sounds like a plan to me." He turned to Dalibor. "And you'd better keep your mouth shut or I'll personally call the tziganes on you."

Oo-HH-oO

The shooting was outside, but Hogan would not risk someone hitting them by accident. He looked at Newkirk sitting against the wall, panting with his eyes closed, shuddering at every sudden blast. Hogan turned one of the desks on one side and helped Newkirk to get behind it.

"It'll be over soon," he said putting his arm around Newkirk's shoulder.

"C-can you see what's going on outside... Who's winning?" Newkirk whispered.

"So far, the Romany are doing a pretty good job. They have heavy weapons and explosives." Hogan peered through the window.

Newkirk smiled. "Yes... I saw those back in the old house..." He shivered and lay his head on Hogan's shoulder.

The colonel feared that Newkirk was losing ground but all he could do was keep him closer and awake. "Hey, you're not going to quit now, are you?" He smiled to see him opening his eyes again. "The Gestapo boys are still defending their position as well as they can, though. But I think they've just realized that they're going down."

As abruptly as it had begun, the battle came to an end. Hogan did not dare to move or leave Newkirk. More than a minute went by until he decided that it was safe to walk out. He left Newkirk sitting against the wall with one pistol in his hand.

"I'll be right back to help you to get out, okay?" He looked for his cane and slowly leaped outside.

The sight was not a pleasant one, but as expected nevertheless. The casualties were all on the German side. The Romany walked around picking up weapons and anything else that might be helpful. Hogan saw Anton coming down the street. The man walked with open arms and Hogan anticipated a very effusive bear hug.

"My friend the colonel!" He shouted, still several yards away from Hogan. "We didn't think you'd be still alive. How did you manage to keep them outside?"

Hogan turned to point at the windows. He smiled proudly.

Anton laughed loudly. "Oh, you rascal! Beau Geste! Who would've thought of that!" He patted Hogan on the back with so much energy that it almost sent him sprawling. Even with an injured arm, the man was as strong as a grizzly bear.

"Did you see the movie too, eh?" Hogan managed to stay on his two feet.

"No, but I read the book," he laughed some more. "And your men? Are they all right?"

"I hope so, I sent two of them ahead with Dalibor." Hogan looked at the darkened streets. "I thought you were in a hurry to get out of this country. What made you come back?"

"We saw the Gestapo pigs coming down the road. I hate unfair battles," Anton shrugged. Then, he tilted his head and lowered his voice. "I thought about what you said. You know, being in the same war and all. Maybe you're right. It's about time for us to take one side, besides our own."

"You couldn't have come in a better moment," Hogan said.

"So, it was only you and the dummies defending the fort?"

"Oh, no, Newkirk is still inside." Hogan pointed at the door. "He's in bad shape, though. But we need to meet our men at the airstrip."

"Do you need a ride? We'll give you a ride," Anton shrugged.

Hogan accepted immediately. Although he had his own vehicle, an escort could be a good idea. He went inside to get Newkirk and anything else that could be connected with his men.

Newkirk was already on his feet, although his weakness was evident. He tried to walk on his own as much as he could but he was in too much pain to get far. Hogan, having his own injury to attend, could barely hold Newkirk steady. Luckily, Virgil came to give him a hand.

"I'm glad to see that you haven't died yet," he told Newkirk. He put an arm around his waist and helped him to get in the car.

Hogan took the driver's seat and started the engine. "How're you doing?"

"All right, I guess." Newkirk smiled faintly. He turned to their escort. "What a jolly ride, innit?"

"Why's that?"

"Never rode a wagon train before, sir."

"Two trucks and two cars? We really look like an Old West wagon train, don't we?" He laughed. He put his head out of the window. "All right? Mov'em on!" He waved with his hand and turned to Newkirk. "How was that?"

"Charming, sir, I feel like a ruddy cowboy already," he whispered.

Oo-HH-oO

Carter got up as soon as LeBeau leaned against the tree. Out of an unspoken agreement, they had been taking turns walking up and down. They kept staring at their watches as though they would make time run faster. It was 15 minutes to 3, almost half an hour to the rendezvous. They tried to keep their minds on their task and forget about Newkirk and Hogan. The rain had stopped but there was no dry place to sit down.

Dalibor had everything figured out now. He would not take the plane, he could run through the forest and foil any attempt at recapturing him. He too kept an eye on his watch. Carter and LeBeau might have half an hour ahead, but Dalibor would probably have 15 or 20 minutes. He would seize the first opportunity to run.

Carter stared at the darkness. His ears were attentive to any engine coming their way from above. But his mind was still on that long night's events. He had never thought it would end like this. They had been so careful despite the obstacles. Everything seemed different all of a sudden.

"All and all, it was a good mission, Carter. You must not regret anything." LeBeau whispered. He saw the sergeant's mood and understood his inner turmoil.

"What will happen now?" Carter kept his eyes on the ground. "With the colonel gone... What's going to happen to our operations?"

"I don't know, Carter. We have to go back to the Stalag and have a meeting, I suppose. Maybe they'll send another officer, or close the store altogether." The Frenchman shrugged. "We knew it would come to an end sooner or later."

"But not like this. It should've ended with the war... all of us flying home..."

The sound of distant thunder mixed with the roaring of trucks getting closer. Carter looked up at the skies while LeBeau climbed up a trunk to peer at the road.

"Tonerre! They're coming!"

"I don't see anything," Carter squinted. "There are too many clouds."

"No, Carter," LeBeau turned him around with a push. "Trucks! The tziganes are here!"

"But Havel promised-"

"Maybe they changed their minds," LeBeau said.

"They won't get me alive!" Dalibor sprung up. "You have a duty to protect me!"

One car stopped in front of them. The front lights made it hard to see who was driving. Dalibor did not wait, he took off towards the airstrip. On his flight, he pushed LeBeau against Carter. Newkirk saw them falling and anger overcame exhaustion. He jumped out of the car before Hogan could stop him.

TBC

XX 3:10 To London

Carter saw Newkirk jumping out of the car and then, the colonel. He got up and ran after them too. Hogan fell behind because of his bad ankle but Carter was already there. Newkirk knew that he would not keep the pace for much longer. He stopped and shot at Dalibor's feet. The bullet hit the ground and some pebbles bounced against his ankle. The man fell heavily on his stomach.

He was still whining about his ankle when he heard a pistol click behind him. He turned and saw Newkirk standing right over him. The Englishman's eyes were cold and inexpressive when he cocked his gun.

Dalibor screamed. "You won't dare! You can't!"

"Can and will are two separate actions. I can tell the difference very well, you know?" Newkirk said.

"Listen, I-I'm not that man anymore! I quit my job after what happened! It wasn't me... I was there, I admit it, but I didn't do it! I was not me! Please, don't!" He curled up on the ground covering his head with his hands. With Carter, he had been lucky. But he was sure that with Newkirk there would not be a place for negotiation. If he wanted to shoot, he would.

Carter came from behind but stopped a few feet away from him. "Newkirk! You... don't want.. to do it."

"Don't I? Give me a good reason not to." Newkirk did not take his eyes off Dalibor.

Carter thought as fast as he could while his breathing caught up with him. "Because..." he panted. "Because if you do it... you won't be better than he is."

Newkirk clenched his teeth and took a deep breath. Slowly, he lowered his gun. He felt Carter and Hogan coming closer. The colonel took the pistol off Newkirk's hand and gave it to Carter. As if on cue, the plane engine rumbled in the sky.

LeBeau appeared with a flashlight to sign clearance for landing. Hogan grabbed Newkirk by one arm just to keep him steady on his feet.

"Carter, take your prisoner to the plane and tell the pilot to stand by."

Carter helped up Dalibor, who was still too shaky to walk on his own. If the man was already scared of Newkirk, this last encounter would remain engraved in his mind for a long time.

Hogan turned to LeBeau. "The radio is in the car, bring it here." He slowly sat down on a fallen trunk and pulled Newkirk's sleeve for him to do the same.

The Englishman did not look at him. He kept his eyes on the ground. After a moment of silence he breathed. "You might think this is the stupidest thing I've done so far," he whispered.

"I remember others," Hogan shrugged. "But you weren't wounded then. So, I could say that there are extenuating circumstances. You've been raving because of the fever." He smiled. "The important thing is that you didn't kill him."

"Yeah, I suppose I can use that in me own defense." He groaned and held his right side with one hand.

"Are you in pain?"

"I won't complain... I brought this on meself."

Hogan clasped Newkirk's arm as though giving him strength against the pain. "Hang on, Newkirk. We'll take you back to the Stalag in a few minutes-"

"And then what? Moving me things out of the barrack?"

The colonel frowned until he remembered his last big conversation with Carter and Newkirk a few nights ago. Then, he laughed. "What makes you think you'll be the one going out?"

"Come on, Guv'nor. We blow up bridges and factories. That's what we do. The team needs its demolition man, and there's no one better than Carter. Me? Well, I'm replaceable... I taught LeBeau to crack safe boxes* and Carter just picked his first lock tonight," Newkirk shrugged. "Besides, I won't be much help for a while. Not to mention that I almost blew the entire operation over there," he said wincing in pain.

"Oh, Newkirk," said Hogan shaking his head.

By then, LeBeau had come back with the radio and Carter was coming back from the plane.

"LeBeau, help me up," Hogan said. "Carter, stay with Newkirk."

Carter sat down next to his friend. For the first time since they had left the Stalag that afternoon, he felt at peace. He had just returned to his own rank, carrying out Colonel Hogan's orders. The weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

Newkirk rubbed the back of his neck with one hand and shook his head. He looked on the verge of collapse, hanging by the thread of his own stubbornness.

"Are you mad at me?" Carter asked.

"Why should I?" Newkirk chuckled. "For stopping me before I ruined the mission altogether?"

"I didn't do it for that," Carter said.

"I know," he lowered his eyes. "I'm not sure I would've done the same for you. You wouldn't need me to anyway, you're better than me, Carter."

"Don't say that. You're a good man, Newkirk. One of the best I've known." Carter sighed and shook his head. "Boy, if you'd been in charge of the operation, you wouldn't have engaged in so much trouble. I betrayed everything I believe in. You wouldn't have done the things I did today."

"Andrew..." Newkirk turned to him and laid one hand on his friend's shoulder, "you made miracles today and if that ruddy duel is all that's been buggering you... well, I can tell you..." His breath was short and he felt weak all of a sudden.

"I shot to kill..." Carter mumbled and lowered his eyes.

"What?"

"I looked into his eyes... I knew he would hurt me and I panicked...The whole operation depended on me and I..." He shook his head. "I didn't want to die, I... just didn't know what else to do." He brushed his hair with his fingers. "Then, there occurred to me a thousand other places where I could've shot, but right at that moment, I aimed at his heart." Carter chuckled in a sad way. "Good timing to fail miserably... Newkirk, I don't know what I would've done if I had killed him..."

Newkirk stared at him for a moment. He smiled and nodded. "It's all right, Carter. You must know that what happened there was not your fault. You didn't ask for a gunfight. Anton thought that you would chicken out and you didn't. Blimey, how surprised he must've been when he saw you coming down the street," he laughed. "I always say that what don't kill you makes you stronger... You've just grown up a bit more tonight, Andrew Carter."

"So, I must learn to live with what I did... what I almost did?"

"Carter." Newkirk started to say something but he stopped when he saw Hogan coming back with the radio. He walked towards the Romany and signed for his men to join him.

"Anton, I've been in contact with my people. We've talked and decided that as a token of appreciation for your help in this mission, I'm in a position to offer shelter to the women and children. If it is fine with you, they can fly to London right away."

Anton frowned. One long moment of silence passed before he moved again. He shook his head and looked around at his men. He translated Hogan's words and there were laughs of relief. Anton turned back to Hogan.

"Colonel, you've brought my people back to life." He burst into laughter as he hugged Hogan so hard that he lifted him off the ground.

Carter, Newkirk and LeBeau exchanged glances of satisfaction. They were not just moved but proud to be part of the benefactors. They watched as the men help the five women to put their things on the plane.

"I told the pilot to put Dalibor in the cabin so the children don't have to share the same room with him," Hogan said. "My people in London will see that Dalibor won't get away with what he did to your people."

"You're one of the good guys, Colonel Hogan." Anton tapped him on the shoulder. "You should wear a white hat."

Virgil carried Emil while Johan and Pavel walked next to him. They stopped in front of Carter.

"We will never forget what you've done for us, Carter." Virgil shook his hand. "We'll talk about you for years to come. We'll sing the legend of the man who shot Anton Havel and lived to tell the tale." He laughed.

Carter did not know if that was a compliment or a private joke at his expense. He was just happy to see that at least the children would go away from the war. He crouched down to shake hands with Johan.

"You did a good job, Johan. Thank you for helping me with the wires," he smiled.

"Bye, Carter, I liked the paper boats you made." Pavel smiled shyly .

Carter turned to see him and laughed. "Pavel, you're talking!"

"He began after you left." Virgil said proudly. "He hasn't talked about anything else since then."

Carter hugged the boy. "Be happy, Pavel. Play a lot and have fun."

No more words would be said. Virgil just took his sons and got them on the plane. Milena and Sabina came right after him. Carter hugged Milena.

"Thank you for saving Newkirk," he said. "I'll be in your debt forever."

Milena's smile disappeared when she turned to Newkirk. She was stunned by his condition and wondered how he had managed to get so far on his two feet. "Gadjo-"

"I was not such a good friend... I'm sorry I scared your children," Newkirk said.

Milena stared at him and shook her head. "I should slap you for what you did. But if Sabina didn't mind it much, I suppose we can forgive you." She grinned. "Don't you go close to Anton, though. You're lucky he'll let you go away this time."

"Good for him to have friends on high places, eh?" Carter caressed Sabina's chin. He took the toy out of his coat. "You forgot this."

Sabina pushed it back to him. "Keep it. Remember us." She gave him a hug. "I'm sorry I was mad at you. Dadro says that you're a great man. I love you very much, Carter." She turned to Newkirk and sighed. "Oh, Newkirk-"

"I'm fine, luv. Be better by the minute," said he with a gasp. He struggled to keep his eyes open and his feet firmly on the ground. "You're going to see London, lassie," he smiled.

"I'll see you there when the war is over, you've got to teach me that lullaby," she curled her braid in her fingers. "Latcho Drom, Newkirk."

Newkirk barely nodded. The fever was overwhelming but he just could not take a break. "Te xav ka ta," he said softly.

She threw herself in his arms and made him stumble backwards. She kissed him on both cheeks. Although she kept smiling, her eyes were full of tears. Newkirk lifted her and hugged her for a while. Then, he set her down and kissed the back of her hands.

She was still looking at him when Milena took her by the hand and they walked to the plane.

"She said goodbye, and Newkirk promised to eat at her wedding," LeBeau translated for Carter while drying some tears with his gloves. "That's a nice blessing to say to a young gypsy girl, you know?"

Carter bit his knuckles. "I won't cry," he said.

Hogan went to talk to the pilot; everything was ready to takeoff. They saw the plane go up high and away into the clouds. The Romany applauded at first and then, deep silence came upon them.

"All that I have, all that I am is now on that plane, Gadjo." Anton looked at Hogan.

"I'd have wished to get you all out of here, Anton, I'm sorry." Hogan and the Romany walked towards the vehicles.

"Don't. We would not go anywhere," Anton shrugged. "This war is ours too. We have to fight."

"Where will you go now?"

"Thanks to you, our hearts are safe," he pointed at the sky with his chin. "No one can hurt us. We'll cross the border to France, maybe. We'll join the Maquis. We'll crush those Boches with our bare hands if necessary."

Hogan nodded. "We'll be close if you need us." They shook hands and he turned to his men. "Let's get out of here before the patrols come to this area."

Carter was picking up their equipment when he turned to Newkirk. The Englishman stumbled to his feet. Carter stood up and touched his arm. "Newkirk?"

"I don't feel so good..." Unexpectedly, the Englishman fell down.

LeBeau dropped the flashlights to run towards him. He slapped Newkirk on the cheek but there was no response whatsoever. Hogan came too to check pulse and temperature.

"We have to take him to the car."

That would not be easy with Hogan's strained ankle and LeBeau's dislocated shoulder. But before he could figure out how to transport Newkirk, Anton's big hand, the thick wrist bandaged, slid under the Englishman's back.

Without any effort, the Romany lifted him in his arms. "Where do you want him?"

Hogan smiled. "Our car is parked over there," he pointed at the bushes.

Carter and LeBeau followed them.

Hogan helped Anton to place Newkirk in the back seat. Carter sat on one side to hold his friend's head on his lap.

"He's burning, but he won't give up. What are these British made of, eh?" Anton grinned. "I thought of ripping his head off, you know? But my girl would not talk to me again if I hurt him. You command a true group of heroes, Colonel Hogan."

"Your group is not less impressive, Anton Havel." Hogan shook hands with him. "I hate to see you being dragged into this war so abruptly but I'm glad to have you on our side."

"So good, everything's over," LeBeau said to Carter as he slid in the front seat and relaxed. He watched the colonel still talking to the Romany and shook his head. "Those are good people after all, aren't they?"

"Sure they are," Carter answered absent mindedly. He did not even remember Hogan getting in the car and taking them out of there. He was too concerned, for Newkirk was still unconscious when they came back to Stalag XIII.

TBC

XXI Little Big Man

Epilogue

Kinch welcomed his friends outside the Stalag. With the help of several men, he managed to get the car through the wire fence at the back of the camp. LeBeau set the dogs loose as a diversion for the sentries. They rolled the car to the motor pool sector and covered it with the canvas.

"What happened with Klink's staff car?" Kinch asked.

"You don't want to know." LeBeau rolled his eyes and shook his head. "It was fast, I don't think it suffered much at the end."

"Okay," Kinch sighed. "We'll have to come up with something about that." Suddenly, he grinned. "How do gremlins sound to you?"

"Why hasn't he woken up yet? It's been over two hours." Carter paced back and forth in the radio room where they had Newkirk on one cot. He rubbed his neck and stared at Wilson, the medic of Barrack 4, who was working simultaneously on different things.

"I cleaned up the wound. The infection has been out of control because of the lack of antibiotics." Wilson said. "The cauterization was well performed. It'll leave a scar, but all things considered, you managed to do it perfectly well. You could take over my job around here."

Hogan clapped Carter's shoulder. "It told you so."

"Yeah, but he's still unconscious."

"Carter, even if I were a doctor, I'm working with sticks and stones in this place. I can't diagnose anything beyond the evident. All I can do here is treat the symptoms and hope that will be enough. Maybe the high fever makes him lethargic, he also lost a lot of blood, didn't rest enough, he's dehydrated." Wilson shook his head. "We have to fight the infection to lower down the fever. There is some penicillin to start the treatment but he'll need daily doses for the next two or three weeks at least."

"We'll get it, no problem." Hogan made a mental note. "Do what you can, Wilson. Carter, you need to change those clothes before roll call. Kinch will brief you on the latest events. We'll have to play along for Schultz."

"But, Colonel. Someone has to take care of Newkirk," Carter said.

"There are a lot of volunteers here, don't worry. He won't be alone. You must be beaten too. I said I wanted you two working as a team, but I also want you both healthy and well." Hogan smiled. "Go change, let's play with Schultz and then, you'll go to sleep."

Carter sighed. He was not in the mood for charades. He would have liked to stay in the tunnel with Newkirk. But team work was what kept their secret going on. He would not jeopardize that.

Oo-HH-oO

Hogan, LeBeau and Carter sneaked into Hogan's office before Schultz opened the barrack and yelled for everybody to go outside. The sergeant looked inside, hoping to find the missing men there. The place was empty. He went hesitantly to the courtyard and started counting heads. Before he finished, LeBeau came out of the barrack and took his usual place.

"LeBeau! You're back!" Schultz almost hugged him. "Where are the others? Have you seen them?"

"They're almost here, but you must say: Come out, come out wherever you are." He smiled.

Schultz stared at him in disbelief. "You're pulling my hair."

"It's your leg, and no, I'm not pulling your leg." LeBeau glared. "Just say it. Don't you want Colonel Hogan to come back before Klink comes out?"

"Of course I want him back!"

"Then say it! As if you mean it."

Schultz sighed. For the last 12 hours, he had been walking backwards around the Stalag, reciting some ancient enchantment with a black candle in his hands. What else would it take to get the prisoners back? He mumbled resignedly. "Come out, come out wherever you are..."

Hogan opened the barrack door and pushed Carter outside. The young sergeant walked reluctantly to his post on the lines.

"Hello, Schultz," he smirked as if nothing had happened.

"Carter! Oh mein Gott! It's working!" He laughed. And repeated the rhyme a third time.

Hogan smiled at him and formed with the others. "So, what's new, Schultz?"

"Colonel Hogan, I'm so glad to see you! Oh, boy! Now Newkirk!" He said the rhyme but nothing happened. He repeated it and began to feel nervous. "Colonel, where is der Engländer?"

Kinch get closer to talk to him in whispers. "We have a problem with Newkirk."

"What problem?"

"It came to me in a dream last night." Kinch cleared his throat. "There is only chance for one more return and it's between Newkirk and Klink's staff car."

Schultz' jaw dropped. "Are you sure they can't come back together? Newkirk could get inside the car and-"

"Sorry, Schultz. It's one or the other."

"Think about it, Sergeant. Who would Klink miss the most, his car or one POW escaped from Stalag Thirteen?" Hogan's eyes narrowed.

Schultz thought about it. "But how would I explain that the car is not here anymore?"

"Tell him it was the gremlins. They reproduce a lot this time of the year and they love mechanic stuff." Kinch grinned.

"I can't tell the kommandant that there are gremlins in the Stalag. He won't believe that in a million years," Schultz said. "I'll need a better story than that, Kinch. Please. A staff car can't disappear just like that."

"All right, Schultz, I'll tell you what," Kinch said. "You report all well in the barracks and I'll see what I can do about Klink's staff car."

"You will? Can you do it?"

"Colonel Hogan is back, isn't he?" Kinch shrugged. "It might take some negotiation but you have to trust me, okay?"

The German sergeant took a few minutes to think about it. Then, he turned on his heels and went to Klink and reported everybody accounted for.

"He's actually lying to Klink?" Hogan chuckled. "How did you train him without LeBeau's strudel?"

"Just a little magic, Colonel." Kinch went back to his post and smiled proudly. "Now, I need a good excuse for the car not to come back."

Hogan stared at the piles of boxes hidden under the canvas and thought for a moment. Then, he grinned and turned to Kinch. "Tell me, do we still have the plates of that car?"

Oo-HH-oO

The rest of the day was embarrassing for Carter. LeBeau had seen to it that everybody in the Stalag knew about Carter's victory in the duel. The story had reached the status of an epic adventure. They talked about a giant and a machine gun. Gypsies armed to their teeth and Carter in the middle of the street firing one small pistol. The sergeant decided to hide from unwanted publicity and went downstairs to stay with Newkirk.

The Englishman was still unconscious. Although his condition had started to concern everybody in the Stalag, it also made him the most likable company at the moment. Carter would pass quiet hours reading Red Cross booklets to Newkirk and pretending he could hear witty remarks from him.

Hogan was not indifferent to his man's sadness. At the first opportunity, he came down to talk to him.

"You know how Newkirk is, he'll wake up when he decides it's time." Hogan sat at the radio console while Carter kept watch on the edge of the cot. "Wilson was impressed by how you took care of everything."

"I was terrified," Carter shook his head. "So many things happening at the same time. And on top of it, I almost ruined everything with that duel, didn't I?"

"Hey, I would've done the same," Hogan shrugged.

"Sure you would've," Carter chuckled. He refreshed Newkirk's forehead with a wet cloth. "Sir? Have you decided who's leaving Barrack Two yet?"

Hogan almost laughed. There it was, that question again. If only they knew that he had not given it a single thought...

"Why? Do you have any suggestions?" He tried to keep a straight face.

"Well, I think Newkirk deserves to stay. He was here first and you need him more than me," Carter sighed. "Anyone can set detonators and make explosives... I guess. But Newkirk does everything else. Forgery, safe cracking, shooting," he shrugged. "Boy if I had half of his skills..."

"I'll keep that in mind..." Hogan tapped him on the back. "I'll send someone to relieve you. You need to sleep too." He did not wait for a reply and went away.

Carter saw the colonel going up the ladder. He was alone with Newkirk again. The Englishman was still feverish and unconscious, although he would move and mumble in his dreams.

"You must wake up, Newkirk. I need you to tell me that I'm being stupid for feeling like this. I know I should give it a rest. It was a lucky shot. Even Anton Havel said so... Why am I the only one that feels bad about it?" He sighed and kept cooling Newkirk's face. He put the gloomy thoughts behind and talked to him about the events of the day.

"...and the other day, Kennedy from Barrack Seven taught me how to play Blackjack-" he said distractedly as he put in order a pile of papers on the radio console.

"That ruddy Irish couldn't tell Blackjack from Old Maid..." Newkirk's voice was hoarse but getting stronger.

Carter turned to the cot and held his breath. "Newkirk?"

"It ain't the bloody Duke of Windsor." He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. "Blimey! Don't tell me we're back in the tunnels."

"Yes! We are!" Carter came to sit on the edge of the cot. He could not stop smiling. "We came back this morning and-"

"What time is it?"

"Past four."

"I've been sleeping almost two hours?" Newkirk tried to sit up. "Blimey, why didn't you wake me up? I missed roll call, didn't I?"

"Hey, you weren't asleep. It's four o'clock in the afternoon, you've been unconscious for almost twelve hours. We thought you've gone into a coma. You scared us all." Carter did not let him move. "But now, everything's all right. We're all back and things will be all right." He stood up. "Stay right there, I'll bring the others. We'll take you upstairs and you'll feel better."

Oo-HH-oO

With Newkirk back in Barrack 2, things at the Stalag returned to normal. They installed him in Carter's bunk to avoid sudden and painful movement. Hogan did not have to exaggerate when he reported Newkirk's condition to Klink. Of course, he did not elaborate much on the nature of the illness. But was emphatic to say that the corporal would not be able to stand on roll call or walk around any time soon.

"I gave you twenty-four hours, Colonel. Now I want to see the corporal." Klink was prepared for another exchange of useless explanations but he found none.

"Sure." Hogan shrugged. "He's asleep now. The fever left him very weak." He opened the barrack door and entered first.

At the first sight, Klink stepped back and covered his mouth with his handkerchief. The Englishman was too pale and consumed. Dark shades circled his eyes and his skin still had a feverish glow.

"Are you sure he's not longer contagious?"

"I wouldn't be this close if he were," Hogan came to check the temperature. "His skin's rather cool now."

At the touch of Hogan's hand Newkirk shivered and opened his eyes. He looked at Klink first and gasped. "Nanny?" He squinted.

Hogan crouched down and laid his hand on the corporal's shoulder. "Newkirk? Kommandant Klink has come to see how you're doing."

Newkirk smiled faintly. "Of course, I was wondering what me Nanny was doing in me bedroom with Father Christmas." He turned to Schultz. "Hello there, lad."

Klink straightened up. "Colonel Hogan, your man is excused from the next roll call. Make sure he's present for tomorrow morning!" He stepped out.

Schultz could not be happier. "Hey, Newkirk, how do you feel?"

"Beaten, but coming back," he smiled.

"Those gypsies and their curses," he shook his head. "Did they hurt you much?"

Newkirk's face hardened suddenly. For a moment, he could only see Schultz's uniform and feel anger. He had to close his eyes and turn to the wall.

"Newkirk?" Schultz was concerned. "Are you okay?"

Carter turned to see LeBeau and Kinch. After telling them the Romany story, it was easy for them to understand Newkirk's discomfort.

Hogan nodded to Schultz. He sat down on the bunk and touched the corporal's shoulder. "It's okay, Schultz. He's just tired, right Newkirk?"

The Englishman turned to see them and smiled again. "Sorry, about that... The gypsies saved me life, Schultz. They are good people. Please, don't ever forget that." He reached for the German sergeant's hand and squeezed it with the little strength he had left.

"I won't forget." Schultz smiled and nodded. "I'll talk to the kommandant to excuse you for the next five roll calls, all right?"

Newkirk sighed. "That'd be delightful... Thanks."

As soon as he left, Kinch took out one piece of paper for Hogan to read. Then, he reached in their files for one map of the area and spread it on the table. Carter and LeBeau sat down and Newkirk rolled over to see too.

"Dalibor's report confirmed the presence of a clandestine factory of anti aerial artillery in this area." Hogan showed them the coordinates. "Carter, Kinch and LeBeau will take the explosives. Carter, set the detonators for tomorrow at seventeen hundred hours, roughly ten minutes after the last convoy with materials arrives."

"That will be like striking two turkeys with the same slingshot," Carter grinned.

"Well, you must be the one to know, Andrew," Newkirk replied from his bunk.

"You're grounded for this game, Newkirk, stick to your needlework, " Kinch looked up at him and smiled.

Carter was happy just to see Newkirk there after all the times he had thought he had lost him. It would take him still one or two weeks before going back on the field, though. The convalescence period had just begun and it seemed it would be long and tedious for everyone.

"With this job and the one on Klink's staff car, this is gonna look like New Year's Eve," Hogan said.

"Hey, why don't we throw a party tomorrow afternoon?" LeBeau said. "I'll bake a cake, we'll have wine, and Carter will get the fireworks..."

"A party for what?" Carter asked warily.

"We have to celebrate. You completed your first mission. This is the second target this week provided by Dalibor. And it's all because of your-"

"If you mention that infamous duel one more time, LeBeau-"

"Gentlemen, back to the map, please?" Hogan called to order. "Carter will set the explosives and the detonators in the factory and in the motor pool, and we'll have a party. I can ask Klink for real wine. We'll tell them we're celebrating Hitler's birthday."

"It's not his birthday, is it?" Carter frowned.

"No, but we're POW, we lose track of time." Hogan shrugged. "Klink wouldn't deny us a celebration for the Fuhrer."

Oo-HH-oO

Next day, back to present time.

"Come on, Carter," Newkirk insisted. "It was a good number. You can't deny it."

"But I shot one man. That's not what I do. I'm- was a good person." Carter shook his head. "I don't want to celebrate that; and even when they say it's for Hitler, I know they're doing it for me. I read what LeBeau wrote on the cake: Way to go, Cart." He saw Newkirk's stare and he shrugged. "It's a small cake; not much room for the whole name."

Newkirk laughed but stopped when Carter glared. He took a purposeful breath and turned to him.

"All right, Andrew. I was going to take this to me grave, but since I'm still here and you're still moping about, I suppose it's time for you to know the truth."

Carter stared at him and raised an eyebrow. "What truth?"

"The night of the shooting... You were in front of Anton Havel and I was behind you, watching from the jail window. There was a heavy thunderstorm and the lamp posts barely illuminated the street. Remember?"

"As if it was yesterday, but-"

"Let me finish." The pain made him wince. "Anton shouted something at you, you shouted something at him and then... Thunder roared. It sounded like one shot but there were actually two shots that rang out that night. A shot made Anton drop his pistol... mine."

Carter's eyes opened wide. He stared at Newkirk while his mind travelled back in time to that moment. He reviewed the event over and over again. What seemed completely crazy began to make sense.

"No, no way! You were too sick. That's impossible. You're just saying that to make me feel better."

"Well, yeah, but it's also the truth." Newkirk shrugged and felt lighter. "Does it work? D'you actually feel better?"

"No!... Well, a little..." Carter sighed. "So it wasn't me after all." He considered the new development. "Then, you shot and failed?"

"I didn't fail," Newkirk said with a touch of pride. "I never waste me shots. I couldn't kill the man, he's Sabina's father. He's sort of noisy but a good bloke anyway. I saved your neck and his, no harm done."

Carter kept quiet for a moment before his thoughts began to charge his conscience again. "But, the party! Everybody thinks I'm the hero of the story! I didn't win Dalibor for the Allies. It was you!"

"Oh, no. That was you, Carter. I almost killed that wanker, remember? Besides, I'm not going to tell LeBeau to change Way to go, Cart to Way to go, Newk on the cake. It was just a lucky shot," he snorted. "Who cares who did it, anyway?"

"I do. This is a lie!" Carter's brow wrinkled with guilt. He squeezed Sabina's toy against his chest. "Oh, Gosh, even Anton Havel thought I shot him. You should've told him-"

"What? I nearly broke his jaw with me pistol when we met, I snatched Dalibor off his hands, I kidnapped his daughter and on top of it, I shot him sneakily," Newkirk said. "If I'd told him about that, he would've broken me neck in two!"

"Well, that's right," Carter conceded. "But how can you live with this, Newkirk?"

"I was only watching your back," Newkirk said. "I can't be sorry about that."

Hogan came out of Klink's office and found his two men sitting outside the recreation hall. "There you are, Newkirk." He took a seat next to him. "Wilson's been looking all over for you."

"Blimey, not again," he whined.

"Don't be a baby, it's just a needle." Carter clapped him on the knee.

"Just a needle?" Newkirk frowned. "That bloody thing is the size of a bottle of milk and the needle looks like a spear! It takes one whole minute to empty it down and it hurts just to the last drop. Twice a day for the next bleeding two weeks!"

"But after the treatment, you'll feel like a million bucks," Hogan grinned.

"After the treatment, I won't be able to sit down for a year." Newkirk winced. "I'm bruised all over already. Feel like a ruddy pincushion."

Hogan smiled. Twelve hours of an unconscious Newkirk was more than they could ever bear. It was just good to hear him cursing and complaining again. Then, he glanced at Carter, who sat there brooding again. "Hey, what's with the long face, Sergeant? If it's about someone leaving the barrack, well. I think I overreacted... Both of you are indispensable and irreplaceable. No one is moving out, I promise. "

"You owe me ten quids," Newkirk said to Carter.

"You knew?" Hogan frowned.

"Not exactly... I figured out that you wouldn't have the gu- heart, sir," Newkirk said with an innocent smile. "That you wouldn't have the heart."

Carter shook his head trying to avoid eye contact with the colonel but he gave up. "I can't do this, Newkirk. I have to tell the colonel at least."

Newkirk stared a Carter on his right and Hogan on his left and leaned back so they could see each other. He shrugged. "It's your story, mate."

"Tell me what?" Hogan got concerned. "Carter, tell me you didn't forget the detonators again."

"Oh, no, sir. Those are just fine... I promise. Best fireworks ever." Carter leaned forward to have a better look at Hogan. "It's about the duel of the other night... the one with Anton Ha-"

"I know what duel that is. The only one we've had around here."

"Well, sir. I know that you were there and... sometimes things aren't as they seem... what I mean is that you saw me... and Mr Havel... and a thunderstorm..."

"Carter, I know you didn't hit the man," Hogan said.

Once again, Carter was the only one surprised . "What is it with you people? Don't you think I'm capable of shooting a man?"

"Not without a good reason, I hope." Hogan smiled. "But, I'm sorry. You were way too nervous, your hands were shaking and the light was poor. No way you could hit the man with just one clean shot at that distance."

Newkirk did not react, as if he had seen that coming all along.

"Newkirk, on the other hand, was trained as a shooter by the RAF.* He would hit a feather falling from the sky during a hurricane. Right, Corporal?" He patted him on the knee.

Newkirk snorted. "Hope you'll never ask me to do that, Gov'nor."

"But, but the guys, they think-"

"They don't think anything," Hogan said. "They're celebrating that you two came back in one piece... more or less. That you, Carter managed to complete the mission under adverse circumstances and," he clapped Newkirk's arm, "kept our dearest Englishman alive, all at the same time. Anton Havel admires your courage. You dared to confront him face to face even when the odds were against you. Don't let other things overshadow your accomplishments, Sergeant. I'm proud of you. We're all proud of both of you."

"Please, don't tell me that we deserve a medal for this too. If I don't see those bloody things coming soon, I'll start stealing me own." Newkirk smiled.

"All right, I suppose I can live with what you say, Colonel. But what about Newkirk? He's the real man who shot Anton Havel."

"Almost five, sir," said Kinch, coming out of the recreation hall.

Hogan and Carter stood up to pull Newkirk to his feet. Everybody began to congregate outside, staring at the sunset. Fall was almost over, the rains were few, just as a break before the winter snows. Before the fifth stroke of the clock in Klink's office, a big bang from the clandestine factory shuddered every building in the Stalag.

Seconds later, the pile of junk standing for Klink's staff car blew out under the canvas. Klink rushed out of his office at the very same minute that the plates of the car fell from the sky to his feet. Hogan and Newkirk laughed and congratulated Carter.

"Nice work, Sergeant," Hogan said.

"Smashing timing, mate!"

Everybody cheered and went back to the recreation hall.

Sergeant Schultz dared to give Carter one thumb up. Now, he only had to bear Klink's complaining about the RAF bombers sneaking over the Stalag to destroy his precious car.

"Happy Birthday, Hitler, and many more like this!" LeBeau yelled and turned to Carter. "Come, we still have to sing For He's a Jolly Good Fellow. Are you coming too, Colonel?"

"In a minute." Hogan had Newkirk by the arm "I promised Wilson I'd bring Newkirk for his shot and then, make sure he'd stay in bed for the rest of the evening."

"Hold his hand and tell him a story, that'll keep his mind away from the needle." Carter grinned.

"Go to the bleeding party, Cart," the British corporal glared.

Hogan nodded. "It's okay to feel like you do, Carter. That's better than feeling nothing at all. We can't allow the war to change us that much, you know." He turned to him one more time before start walking. "And remember; when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."(1)

Carter frowned as he gave some deep thought to the colonel's words. Then, he heard the last of his explosives on the factory, he saw his friends' looks of relief at one less threat to the Allies' planes, and Newkirk, healing smoothly. Becoming a legend did not seem too high a price all of a sudden...

He turned to enter the recreation hall. Sabina's toy was on the bench. Carter picked it up and smiled. He held the stick vertically, bounced his arm up and down... and the ball fell gracefully into the cup.

IL FINE

Little Big Man (1970)

*The Experts season 6 episode 2

Quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)(but I'm pretty sure they stole it from Colonel Hogan)

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel Chapter 16-17-18

XVI Ambush

Hogan ran to the window. One black car and one truck parked in front of the building. The colonel shook his head. He turned off the lights and crouched down.

"Gestapo indeed, and half the members of Lorenz Police Department." He took his gun in his hand and turned to his men. "How many guns do we have?"

"Les tziganes took mine, remember?" LeBeau said. Hogan reached inside his boot for a small pistol and handed it to him.

"Hey, you asked the lady for a gun. Why didn't you take this one out?" LeBeau asked.

"This tiny pistol against the Romany's machine guns?" Hogan chuckled. "It might be good at a very short range, but size matters, LeBeau."

Newkirk sat up slowly and stretched. "Well, that was unexpected." He reached for his boots and started to put them on.

Hogan stared at him with a frown. "What do you think you're doing?"

"When I got in this bloody war, I promised meself that whatever happened I'd die with me boots on," he shrugged.

"Good policy." The colonel nodded. "Do you have any weapon with you?"

"Carter has me knife and me gun is somewhere over there." He pointed to the opposite wall.

Hogan sent LeBeau to look for it. "Is there a story behind your gun being on the floor?" He saw Newkirk's unreadable expression and knew that he would not get anything else from him. He went on with his roll call. "Carter, where's your gun?"

The sergeant sat up and pretended not to have heard.

"Carter? Your gun."

"Colonel," Carter grimaced. "I don't think I can-"

"Oh, yes you can," the colonel said. "We don't have time for feeling guilty. This is war, Sergeant, and you're in it whether you want it or not."

Carter sighed and took his pistol out of his belt. "You'd better don't put me on the front line. I don't wanna be the first one to start shooting."

"Very well. Then, check this place. The building is empty but the police guys might have left a weapon or two. Some ammo would be great," Hogan said. "Any other request for a better shooting position?"

Newkirk took the gun from LeBeau and tucked it in his belt. He seemed to recover his wits in a rush of new energy when he approached the colonel. "I could go upstairs and take the window."

Hogan hesitated. The Englishman was sweating with the fever and the loss of blood. He was already on his feet but there was no way to know how long this surge would last. Although feeling guilty and selfish, Hogan nodded.

"I can't deny I could use a sniper. Are you up to it?"

"I can fire a few shots, that by the way, it's all I've got in me gun, sir," he said leaning on the wall.

"Carter?"

"Nothing in here, sir. Maybe we can find something on the second floor. I haven't checked that one yet,"

"Agree," Hogan said. "Help Newkirk to get upstairs and stay with him."

Carter took his friend by one arm. They climbed up very slowly, allowing Newkirk to lean on the walls every other step. Carter came behind to prevent him from falling backwards.

"I saw your... little number outside with... Anton..." Newkirk gasped in one of the stops. "T'was great... how proud you must be-"

"Don't wanna talk about that," Carter mumbled giving him one push up the last step.

"Why now? It was amazing... The best gun duel I've ever seen outside a movie..." Newkirk chuckled. "Well, the only one, actually..." He let Carter lead him by the hand to the front window. "The duels I remember were all with sabres... there was one once with broadswords at the circus and I-"

"Could you stop it now? Last thing I wanna talk is about duels, okay?" Carter pushed him down in a corner.

"Sure, mate. Whatever you want," Newkirk said with a frown. He looked through one corner of the window down to the street. "We have a real crowd over there. Those little bastards of Gestapo can deal with gunfights, they have to bring reinforcements to make their own party."

"How many are they?" Carter squinted. It was still dark and the street lamps did not offer much of a light. "Can you take them from here?"

"I see three Gestapo and about six police men." He cocked his gun. "Barely... They will stay out of range for the first two rounds. Just to give us time to say our prayers." He sat back. Carter was pensive as he caressed his pistol. "Andrew, are you all right?"

The sergeant looked at him and shook his head. "Have you ever thought about the last thing you'll do before dying?"

"What?"

"I mean, I just shot a man on the street. A civilian... not an enemy... Is that the last thing I'm going to do on this planet?"

Newkirk winced in pain. "Are you getting philosophical on me now? Carter, the last twelve hours I've been shot, stabbed and burned; not to mention a couple of kicks to me ribs that still hurt. Do you think I'm ready to leave this world? This won't be me last day, no bloody way! And yours neither. There are a lot of things we still have to do around here. War isn't over yet and then, you still have to write your memories-"

"Write my memories," Carter snorted a laugh.

"Sure you will. You've got to write about the interesting people you met during the war." Newkirk stopped and clenched his teeth. Carter lent him his hand to squeeze it through the spasm on his side. "We'll get out of this, Carter... You've got to believe that. Now, go and look for those weapons."

LeBeau tried his shoulder while holding Hogan's gun. His arm was stiff and weak when he lifted it. "I'll be fine at short range, Colonel."

"Short range is all we have here," Hogan said. He longed for a rifle or one grenade at least. "If I'd have known we were going to engage in combat, I'd have brought my deluxe arsenal." There were voices outside and he turned to see.

"Can you hear what they're saying?" LeBeau said.

"Overall: Shoot first and ask questions later." Hogan sighed. "You do as much as you can, LeBeau."

"I should take his pistol. I have the right to defend myself," Dalibor said.

"If the time comes for that, I'll give you a pistol."

"Colonel, why don't we radio for aerial support?" LeBeau pointed at the radio under the desk.

"I'd have to radio Kinch to radio London to radio RAF and see if there's any plane available. By the time they get here, we all be knocking at the pearly gates in heaven," Hogan said. "Plus, there wouldn't be guarantee that they wouldn't blow us along with our friends outside."

"That would be better than doing nothing. Why don't you open this cell. I'd like to take my chances."

"Dalibor, this is all for you. I can't throw a party without the honor guest, can I?"

The last words were echoed by two shots against the door. Hogan ducked and turned to LeBeau.

"I'm okay!"

"Watch Dalibor!" The colonel rose to fire and ducked. One burst and bullets whistled over his head. "Hey! Those guys are using a machine gun on us!"

The noise was uncanny after so much silence. Carter looked for shelter behind the wall. He watched Newkirk attentively for any sign of weakening. Taking over was not in his immediate plans. When they stopped firing, he went on checking behind the doors.

"Bloody bastards! They're using a machine gun on us," Newkirk mumbled.

Carter felt the wall resonating on his back. He panic for a second. It had been more than a while since he was engaged in combat. The nature of their job took them usually behind the scenes. Machine guns and grenades were for units in the field. Although he knew that sound, it was rarely directed against them.

"Are they shooting at us? I think they missed." Carter looked around but the bullets seemed to have hit only the outside of the building.

"It's a warning. They want to know what we have to defend ourselves." Newkirk straightened up to peer through the window. He cocked his pistol and aimed.

"Can you get any of them?" Carter raised his pistol, not sure of wanting to open fire.

"One, maybe." Newkirk said. "But, that would only attract their attention towards us. So far, they're guessing where and how many we are." He turned to Carter. "Any luck with the weapons?"

"There's only one more door." Carter crawled to his left and tried the lock. "Newkirk, can you open this one?"

Newkirk made an attempt but he could not even get on his knees. He sat back and shook his head. "This is a good time for plan B, Carter."

"Plan B?" Carter frowned.

Newkirk reached inside his left sock and took out two locking picks. He tossed them to Carter. "Just do as I say."

Carter grinned. "You really don't believe I can do this, do you?"

"Have faith, me lad. It's not as hard as it looks..." He lowered his head for a moment while catching some air. "Put them inside the lock, one above the other... rotate the upper one clockwise and use the other one as a tension wrench... you'll feel it touches something inside, release the tension and you'll hear a click..."

Carter tried several times and sighed. "This is gonna take forever. I can't do this."

"Let's put it this way, whether you do it and we find an arsenal, or you don't and we die. Anyway we'll be like heroes under siege... Like in the Alamo," Newkirk said with a shrug.

"The Alamo?" Carter grimaced.

"Isn't in that one where Daniel Boone lost his furry hat?"

"That was David Crockett." Carter stared at the little pick in his hand when another round of bullets shattered the windows of the first floor. "Jeez! What are they doing?"

"Taking no prisoners, I suppose," Newkirk turned to the window and fired two times and ducked. Shooting whistled over their heads.

Carter went back to the lock and followed the instructions for a couple of minutes. The noise was getting on his nerves but he kept rotating the locking pick until he heard one click. "Oh, my God! Oh, my God, Newkirk I did it! I did it!" He turned with a wide smile. "Look, it's open! Yes! Yes!"

"My word, was I so overenthusiastic when I opened me first lock? I hope not." Newkirk hid his satisfaction with indifference. "Let's see what's in there."

Carter entered and turned on the light. It was a small storeroom with a pile of mattresses, shelves of ammo boxes and several dusty civilian clothes. Carter's recently acquired confidence diminished when he saw that the boxes were all empty. He was on his way out when he spotted something leaning on the wall.

"Newkirk!" His happiness was greater than when he had opened the door a few seconds ago. He took out two shining rifles. "I think they're loaded, half at least."

"All right, Carter," Newkirk smiled. "You're living up to your own legend. I'll take one of those beauties. Give the other one to the colonel. Let's keep the boys busy for a change."

"I'll be right back, Newkirk." Carter ran downstairs.

"Keep your head down, mate." Newkirk felt very sleepy all of a sudden. He had to switch sides deliberately provoking pain. He shuddered but he did not pass out.

Hogan was more than pleased by the findings upstairs. He could hear Newkirk firing his rifle back and forth as he provided cover to the first floor. He took the rifle and turned back to the shattered window. He fired and the guards outside stepped back a little.

"Sir?" Carter said shyly. "I think I'm ready to use my pistol again."

Hogan nodded proudly. "All right, gentlemen, we need to save as much ammo as possible. Don't shoot until you see the white of their eyes."

"Shall we pray for the cavalry to get us in time, General Custer?" LeBeau chuckled.

Hogan rolled his eyes. Of all the historical names, the Frenchman had to come up with that one...

TBC
XVII High Midnight

Carter returned to his post upstairs. The shooting and yelling on his street had stopped and he wondered if the Nazis were preparing to charge already. He was grateful for a pause to regroup. He was still feeling down because of the recent events with the Romany people but he would not allow that to interfere with his performance in the group.

Newkirk was sitting in the same corner where he had left him. His back was against the wall, the rifle was cradled in his arms and his head dropped to one side. His eyes were closed and he looked asleep.

Carter hesitated to shake him up. The corporal did not move and his breathing was so shallow that it was almost imperceptible.

"Newkirk!" he called.

The corporal lifted his head very slowly and winced. "Carter..." he sighed and smiled. "Did I miss roll call again?"

"No, no," Carter sat down next to him. "Are you feeling poorly?" He put an arm around him and allowed his friend to lay his head on his shoulder. Carter could feel through his shirt the warmth irradiating from Newkirk's forehead. "The fever is going up again, Newkirk-"

"Don't tell the colonel, please. He's got a lot on his mind right now..." he mumbled. "I'll be back to meself in a minute... just need to rest..."

Carter could not tell whether Newkirk was asleep or unconscious. He would wait for a couple of minutes before telling Hogan. If Newkirk's condition worsened, there was not much they could do. Outside, the sound of war had been replaced by the sound of thunder.

Hogan kept watch through the window. The Gestapo unit had parked right in front of the building. The torrential rain seemed to have slowed down the action and that was just in the colonel's favor. His best ideas always came under pressure.

"What time is it, LeBeau?" he asked to break the silence.

"A quarter to one," the Frenchman said. "Aren't we going to be late for the rendezvous?"

"I don't think so," he shrugged. "On foot, the airstrip is about twenty minutes west from here. Less if you take a shortcut through the forest." He kept thinking. "You and Carter could make it on your own. We only need a diversion-"

"Quoi? Us, taking Dalibor? And what about you and Newkirk? You can't stay here with the Boches outside." LeBeau crawled towards Hogan.

"I can't walk without a cane, LeBeau, much less run," Hogan looked at the stairs. "And Newkirk is too weak. You couldn't take care of him and keep watch on Dalibor at the same time. We'll stay to give you some cover."

"I don't like it." LeBeau sat in front of him. "Besides, it's pouring, the road must be muddy, or flooded. We couldn't go cross country with this weather."

"It'll stop soon. What we need now is time. We need to distract our friends outside so you can leave..." His brow wrinkled as a thought struck him. He stood up, keeping away from the window. He looked around at strategic points and then, he grinned. "It's crazy, but it might work."

"Qu'est-ce?"

"LeBeau, have you ever heard of *Beau Geste?"

Oo-HH-oO

Hogan climbed up the stairs two by two. The last step took good revenge on his injured foot, but he was so excited with the ideas forming in his head that he did not mind the pain. There was no time for complaints. If he wanted the plan to be executed perfectly, they had to work out every single detail.

He entered the only office on that floor and found Carter keeping watch over the street and over Newkirk at the same time. The Englishman was lying down on an old mattress on the floor. Hogan crouched next to him and checked for his pulse.

"He collapsed. I was going to tell you but he-"

"-didn't want to bother me, eh?" Hogan shook his head. "Well, it's nothing unexpected. He must be fighting a hell of an infection."

"But I thought that by cauterizing the wound, it'd kill the infection too." Carter left his post to come closer.

"That stops the bleeding; unfortunately the infection needs antibiotics and special care." Hogan touched Newkirk's forehead. "Fever's too high." He stood up and put his mind back on track. "Carter, did you say something about old clothes and mattresses?"

"Well, yeah. There are some in that storeroom. I didn't see them before, they could've come handy." Carter frowned. "I suppose the police officers used it as a changing room and forgot about their clothes when they left. May I ask you why you are interested in them?"

"First, let's take Newkirk downstairs. He needs a proper bed. I'll tell you my plan right away."

Oo-HH-oO

Hogan sat at the desk waiting for his men to ask the questions. After almost three years together, he would have expected them to be used to his elaborated plans. However, once the cards were on the table, they always managed to come up with the Buts and Hows.

"I don't know, Colonel." LeBeau stopped pacing. "It seems a little too much, don't you think?"

"I like it," Carter said, sitting on the cot. He wiped sweat off Newkirk's forehead and smiled to see him open his eyes. "It was a great movie."

"Bien sûr, only that Colonel Hogan is not Gary Cooper and those men outside will shoot real bullets at us."

"Don't forget the best part of the movie. They all end up dead," Dalibor said, walking up and down in his cell.

"Do you have to be such a spoilsport?" Hogan shook his head.

"How did you stand him for so long?" LeBeau asked Carter.

"He was quiet at first," Carter shrugged.

"LeBeau, all we need is time for you and Carter to leave. That distraction is perfect." Hogan walked to the cot to check on Newkirk. "How're you doing, Corporal?"

Newkirk turned his head to him and grinned. "Can I be Cooper? I mean, since I'm already wounded."

"Très bien, let's say we can do this. It might take us some time to put all the things together. The Boches aren't going to wait outside while we get prepared," LeBeau said.

"That's even easier," Hogan put on his coat and smoothed his German uniform. He took his cane and left the pistol on the desk.

"But, Colonel. What are you doing, sir?" Carter stood up as if to stop him.

"Buying us some time." Hogan headed for the door with his handkerchief in one hand. "You start working, we need to be ready as soon as possible."

"LeBeau!" Carter turned to him.

"What?" LeBeau shook his head. "He's the colonel, if we tried anything, it would be the court martial for us."

"Give the bloke a chance, Andrew. He has never let us down, has he?" Newkirk rested one arm over his eyes. "It's going to be all right... you'll see..."

Oo-HH-oO

Hogan took the Gestapo lieutenant waiting on his car by surprise. At one signal, the soldiers came forward aiming their weapons at the colonel. Hogan smiled and pointed at the insignias on his uniform.

"Obersturmbannführer," he said. ["Lieutenant Colonel, Ruppert Hoganspieth."]

The lieutenant saluted. ["What's going on here? We've come following the suspects of the attack at the Gestapo HQ at Lorenz. What do you know about that?"] He made a sign for his men to lower their weapons.

["Actually, Lieutenant,"] Hogan kept one hand up and the other on his cane. ["I've come to tell you that we're being held hostages inside that building. I've been sent as a messenger carrying a list of demands."]

["Held by whom, Lieutenant Colonel?"]

["Me and Brigadier General Peter Newkermeyer were intercepted on the highway and brought in here when they saw your unit coming behind them."] Hogan's face got serious and his voice, apprehensive. ["They shot at us, the brigadier got seriously wounded. We don't have any medicine or food. These men are desperate and they might kill us if you don't do what they say."]

["How many are they? Underground?"]

["I lost count at twenty-five, maybe thirty..."] he shrugged. ["They call themselves the United Front of Freedom."]

["Never heard about them... Must be a new organization."] The lieutenant looked up at the second floor. Two silhouettes moved by the window. ["And what are their demands?"]

["First of all, they gave me permission to ask for medicine. They don't want the brigadier dying on them."]

The lieutenant yelled at the police officers and one came running with a portable first-aid kit. ["This is all we have. It might help for now."] The lieutenant handed it to Hogan. ["Anything else?"]

["Food would be nice."] He leaned on his cane with both hands.

There was movement and rumors among the soldiers. In a matter of minutes, one came up with a paper bag.

["Those are our rations for the day,"] said the lieutenant. ["It's not much, but you won't be there for much longer, I promise."]

["I thank you very much. But I need to ask you to wait until they come up with more demands. I'm talking to them and I believe that I'll be able to convince them to abandon this operation and surrender to you."]

["How much longer do you want us to wait?"] The lieutenant seemed concerned. ["Maybe we can take the brigadier out, if he's that badly hurt."]

["No, no, they'll kill him first if they sense trouble. They are very desperate men. You must stay put and wait for my signal."] Hogan gave him a reassuring smile. ["Give me thirty minutes. I'll take care of everything."]

He was turning back when the lieutenant stopped him.

"Warte!" He secretly handed his gun to him. ["Take this with you."]

["Oh, no, I couldn't... What about you?"] Hogan pushed it back.

["Are you sure? You could use it for protection... But if you think it's not necessary-"]

["Well, if you insist."] Hogan snatched the gun from the lieutenant's hands before he put it away. ["Remember, thirty minutes."]

["I'll keep the time, sir. Heil Hitler!"] He saluted. "Und viel Glück!" And good luck!

Hogan responded the salute and turned on his heels. He was still laughing when he came back to the office.

"I put Digby and John upstairs," Carter said coming downstairs with more pants and shirts. "Do you have more hay? I think I want Beaujolais right in front..."

"Le Major Beaujolais wasn't in the fort, he came later with the relief column... the only thing that we desperately need." LeBeau torn the old mattress and took a handful of hay. He stuffed the last sleeve of another dummy for Carter to put by the windows. "Here, there's another corporal."

"Why is it that they always put the corporals on the front line?" Newkirk was sitting on the cot watching his two friends work.

"Tais-toi! Silence! You should be sleeping." LeBeau walked to the cot to check on Newkirk's temperature. "Your face is too hot. Don't you feel weird?"

"You're the ones making ruddy dummies out of hay and naming them like real people, you tell me who is feeling weirder here," he grinned. Sudden pain threw him on his back again, moaning.

LeBeau spread a blanket over him. "You're pushing yourself too far, mon ami."

"We all are, LeBeau," he whispered. "Blimey, it's been the longest day of me life."

"Yeah, you can say that and it ain't over yet," Carter shook his head. He positioned the dummy and stepped back to appraise his work.

Dalibor came to the bars and laughed. "You're all children. Playing with dolls while the war is out there. You think this stupid prank is going to impress the Gestapo? Maybe I switched to the wrong side after all."

"Where's me gun, LeBeau? Let me get you a more realistic dummy to put on the window." Newkirk's voice trembled with anger.

"I think we have enough now, but I'll keep him in mind." LeBeau clasped Newkirk's shoulder and pushed him down. "Forget about him."

"It's okay, Newkirk. In less than two hours he'll be out of our hands for good." Carter smiled and began to stuff another pair of pants. "Let's put our minds on nicer thoughts."

"D'accord, I'll go first. Wait till I tell Kinch what Carter did tonight. The boys won't believe it," LeBeau laughed. "I should've taken pictures."

"Can we forget that, please? I feel so embarrassed." Carter sighed. "I would've wanted to talk to him; explain our motives but he just wanted to fire his stupid gun. That poor man, I hope his hand is okay. "

"That poor man is bigger than you and me together, and stronger." Newkirk tried to sit up again but LeBeau stopped him. "He could've crushed you with one hand behind his back."

"I know, but he was only defending what he thought was right. And more, Newkirk kidnapped his daughter."

"Newkirk kidnapped that giant's daughter?" LeBeau grinned. "Why? Was she that pretty?"

"That's bloody irrelevant, LeBeau!" Newkirk yelled despite the discomfort. "I didn't kidnap her, I just used her as a shield. And who bloody cares if she was pretty? She's just a child young enough to be my daug- niece!"

Carter laughed. "She didn't care much about ages. You know that her mother wasn't so much older than she is when she married Anton?"

"Now I feel sick," Newkirk fell on his back and pulled the blanket up to his face.

Carter and LeBeau laughed and went back to the dummies. In matter a of fifteen minutes, they had made two more and sat down to wait for Hogan. Carter turned to watch Newkirk's restless sleep every other second as though anticipating something.

"He'll be okay, it's just a little fever," LeBeau reassured him. "We'll be back in the Stalag very soon and we'll take care of him."

"I've tried to help him as much as I could, LeBeau..." Carter whispered. "I've never felt so useless. This is my first shot wound, you know? Newkirk is very tough."

"He's tough and stubborn. " LeBeau heard Newkirk moaning and he turned to the cot. "But above all, you have been keeping him alive, Carter... It's all right, we're together now and things will go easier."

Carter would have liked to believe that. He would have liked to believe that the worst of their ordeal was over. But he would not rest until they were back in the Stalag and far away from that horrible man. Dalibor had put to the test all that was good in them. Carter still did not know how he had managed to go that far to help such an evil soul. He dreaded that in the process, his own spirit had been shattered beyond repair. He also wondered if Newkirk felt the same way he did and how strong he really was to overcome the hatred Dalibor inspired.

The walls vibrated with a clap of thunder and Newkirk woke up with a scream.

TBC

High Noon (1952)

*Beau Geste (1939)

Digby, John, Major Beaujolais, characters of the movie.
XVIII True Grit

"No! No!" Newkirk struggled to sit up while Carter kept him pinned to the cot.

"Newkirk, listen to me, please." Carter tried to keep his voice down. "It's just a dream. Come on, buddy, wake up."

LeBeau brought a bowl of water to cool off Newkirk's face. The Englishman shuddered and opened his eyes. "Ça va, mon ami?" LeBeau smiled. "You're awake now, n'est pas?"

"Wh-where-" Newkirk panted as his eyes wandered around. "C-Carter?"

"Here," Carter held his hand again, just as he had been doing since Newkirk was shot.

LeBeau breathed with relief to see Newkirk calming down. He turned to the door when Hogan opened it. Now, he felt that things would get better.

"What happened?" Hogan said, walking straight to Newkirk's bedside.

Newkirk rubbed his eyes with the talon of his hands. He inhaled and exhaled deeply before talking. "I had a nightmare..." he said.

"Wanna talk about it'"

Newkirk hesitated but he was too exhausted to deal with anything on his own. "I was back in London... I saw Mavis..."

"Your sister?" Hogan asked.

Carter moved over so Hogan could sit down in his place.

"Men in black uniforms came to the old neighbourhood and t-they kicked everybody out of their houses... mothers with their children... out of their houses..." Newkirk twisted as if the images in his mind caused him enormous pain. "They formed them in lines... and... s-shot them...I-I saw them fall down... in a common grave..." He shuddered. He covered his face with his hands. "Oh, God..."

Hogan laid down one hand on Newkirk's shoulder. No matter how well prepared they were to face the war, it would always come back with more horrors. His only hope was for it to end before it became too much to handle.

"That comes from listening to those fairy tales that gypsy girl told you," Dalibor said.

Newkirk opened his eyes and turned to the cell. He glared. "Ruddy fairy tales indeed... And we all know who the bloody monster is, don't we?" He made an attempt to spring up but Hogan held him down.

"Don't overdo yourself, he's not worth it." Hogan said.

"See? Those spawns get into your mind and make you see things that aren't there. They're a plague, a disease that must be wiped off before it spreads uncontrollably." Dalibor's voice was soft but intense.

Hogan kept Newkirk pinned on the cot with one hand on his shoulder. He could feel the Englishman's muscles tensing under his grip. Were it not that he was injured, Hogan would have probably allowed Newkirk to give Dalibor what he seemed to be asking for.

"Colonel, please..." said Newkirk between his teeth. It was hard to tell if he was trembling with fever or anger.

"I won't let you kill yourself just because of that man."

LeBeau and Carter watched them very closely. The tension in the room was rising to unbearable levels. The Frenchman took a purposeful breath and changed the course of the conversation. "You came back in one piece, Colonel. What did you tell them?" LeBeau sat at the desk looking at the things Hogan had brought.

The colonel's eyes glowed with excitement and relief. They had to go back to business.

"I'll tell you in a minute. First, we need to clean this wound. Carter, open the First-aid kit and see what's in there that might help." Hogan did not take his eyes off Newkirk. The corporal clutched the blanket and shuddered.

"We have bandages, a couple of aspirins, sulfa..."

"Bring everything. LeBeau, we need more water." He looked at Newkirk. "Don't need to tell you-"

"It's going to hurt, yeah." Newkirk nodded resignedly. "That's all I've been getting from people lately."

The Frenchman kept an eye on the window and another on his friends. He would not get closer to avoid any sight of blood. Carter sat on a chair next to the cot with one hand on Newkirk's shoulder.

The colonel rubbed the skin with a wet cloth and then poured some sulfa on Newkirk's wound. "I know that the aspirin might not do much for the pain, but it'll help to take down the fever." He said finishing with the bandages.

"It's all right, thank you, Gov'nor." Newkirk smiled despite the agony.

"Thank the good old Gestapo boys outside. They sent this all up for you, Brigadier."

"Oh, jolly good. I'm touched," he snorted. "Remind me to send those chaps a thank you note when I get back to London."

"How did you manage to make them give you all of this?" Carter said, peering inside the paper bag.

"I told them we were hungry," Hogan shrugged. He looked at the windows and smiled. "You've done a great job with the dummies."

"Oh, yes. By the way, may I have your coat, sir?" Carter asked with a smile. "I'm placing Sergeant Markoff on that corner over there."

Hogan grinned. "I'd be honored." He took his coat off and went to the desk where he had left the bag. "We'll have some of this and then, Carter and LeBeau will rest at least ten minutes. I got us half an hour of truce."

"And then, what?" Carter asked as he stuffed the coat with hay.

"You and LeBeau will sneak out through the back door and run to the airstrip."

"But you and Newkirk-"

"I told LeBeau, we'll hold the fort with our men by the windows." His smile was rather sad. "Those guys need weapons. Do we have a cleaning room with broomsticks and mops?"

"Maybe," LeBeau shrugged. "There's another door by the bathroom that we haven't opened yet."

Carter took Newkirk's lock picks and smiled. "I'll do it." He went to the other room.

"Newkirk, what have you been teaching our boy?" Hogan grinned.

"Blimey, Gov'nor, the lad has a mind of his own." He crossed his arms on the pillow and rested his head on them.

LeBeau stood up. "I think I'll go with him just in case he needs help to kick down the door."

Newkirk waited until the pain subsided a little to sit up. Under any other circumstances, Hogan would have protested but right now, he needed as much as he could get from each one of his men. The Englishman leaned his back against the wall and closed his eyes for a moment.

"You don't have a plan beyond from what we've done so far, do you?" Newkirk kept his eyes closed.

"I got us food and medicine," Hogan shrugged. "And the sympathies of the Gestapo and Lorenz PD."

Newkirk laughed and shook his head. "Beau Geste, eh? How many times did you see that movie?"

"A couple, and you?"

"Five times..." He opened his eyes and saw Hogan laughing at him. "What can I say? Me girlfriend is mad about Gary Cooper and I had just enlisted... She was really grateful our last night together," Newkirk grinned. "You ain't going to tell me that you went to see Cooper all by yerself, are you?"

"I liked the strategy under desperate situations," Hogan said. Then, he sighed. "And yes, I didn't have a girlfriend but Cooper worked like a charm with my dates... both times."

LeBeau and Carter came back with the broomsticks and placed them on the dummies' arms in the position of rifles.

"That'll do." Hogan was satisfied. He went to the radio transmitter and turned it on. "You two get some rest. I'll call Kinch to confirm the rendezvous with Tinkerbell."

"To confirm it? They know we're coming, don't they?" Newkirk frowned.

"I had to put the operation on hold after the blast at the Gestapo HQ. I needed to make sure that you hadn't been arrested or worse. If I can't give the go ahead within the next ten minutes, our plane will turn around and go back empty handed to London."

Newkirk stared at the colonel as he talked to Kinch. The time seemed going more slowly now that they were closer to their goal. Barely one hour more and it would be all over. He turned to see his friends asleep on the floor, on what was left of the mattresses. A sudden sadness clouded his spirit.

Hogan turned off the radio and looked at Newkirk who was unusually quiet. "What's on your mind?" he asked.

"I don't know, something that Carter said actually...about that you're as good as your last performance." he said.

"I've heard that." Hogan crossed his arms. "Does it bother you that this might be it?"

"No, I think not... If this is me last performance, I'm glad it was in such a good company. And I say it with all me respect and admiration, Gov'nor... sir."

Hogan smiled and nodded. "Same here, Corporal." He turned to his other two men. "At least, they'll have a good shot."

"That makes it all worth it, doesn't it?" Newkirk looked at his watch and exhaled. "It's time, sir."

Hogan crouched down and gently woke up Carter and LeBeau. They did not talk much. LeBeau took one pistol for him and another for Carter. They prepared for the rain and the mud as well as they could and said their goodbyes.

Carter picked up Sabina's toy and hid it in his coat. He did not want to leave. He knew that it might be the last time he would see Hogan and Newkirk alive and that was tearing him apart. But they had to go on with the mission. No matter how, it had to end that day. He went to the cot.

"Newkirk, I suppose I'll see you later, eh?" Carter smirked. "I thought we would go till the end of this together but-"

"Let's not get sentimental, Carter. You've got to finish the mission. Go and do your best, mate."

Newkirk shook hands with him. He said something of the same sort to LeBeau and looked the other way.

Carter took Dalibor out of the cell and they were ready.

Hogan walked them to the back of the office. He helped Carter to remove boxes and other junk piled up against the door. As Hogan expected, the alley was empty. He hugged his men as good friends would do and saw them leave.

When he returned inside, he found Newkirk near the window. He could barely stand up but he had his gun ready.

"They're moving," he said when the colonel was next to him. "I think this is it, then?"

"Seems like it," Hogan said, cocking his gun.

Outside, the Gestapo officers and the police began to take positions. Shadows with shining guns ran around looking for the best place to shoot from. Hogan hoped that they could keep them busy long enough for Carter and LeBeau to get to the airstrip and complete the mission.

"It's been a pleasure to serve under your orders, Colonel." Newkirk smiled. "And I've served under quite a few."

"I know. It's been a pleasure to work with you, Newkirk," said the colonel with a nod. "Let's make this our best performance."

TBC

True Grit (1969)

Sergeant Markoff- character in Beau Geste

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel chapter 14-15

XIV Showdown

Carter finally went back inside. Sabina had gone back to sleep a little earlier and Dalibor seemed lost in his own thoughts. He was grateful for that. At that moment, he did not want to engage in any fruitless argument with that man. He was too exhausted to process all that that happened right away. He would check on Newkirk, just to make sure he was still breathing. One brief glimpse to put his mind at ease and then, he would go back outside.

Newkirk's eyes were closed; his breathing was steady and calm. However, he was still too pale and his skin had a feverish glow. Carter touched Newkirk's forehead just to confirm that it was warm. Before he could withdraw his hand, Newkirk opened his eyes.

"'ello, Carter..." he said under in his breath.

"How do you feel?" Carter whispered. He sat down on the edge of the bed.

Newkirk took time to answer. A simple all right would not satisfy Carter. "Hanging there. Sleepy..." He exhaled and closed his eyes.

"Are you in pain?" Carter knew that Newkirk would not answer that. After a long pause, the sergeant said, "I'm so sorry,"

"Andrew." Newkirk frowned. "You didn't shoot me. It wasn't your fault at all."

"Not for that... but for the pain..." He rubbed his brow and shook his head. "It had to hurt so much."

Newkirk struggled to stay awake. Carter's grim look worried him. "Carter, you saved me life... it was very brave what you did."

"I wasn't brave at all. I wanted to run away."

"Me too, but I was handcuffed," Newkirk said. Then, his eyes met his friend's. "Listen, Andrew... I'm the one who's sorry..."

"For what? You didn't plan for this to happen," Carter said.

"Not that... For having told the colonel that I felt safer with Kinch or LeBeau. I meant it back then, and now I feel awful... You've been more than a good friend to me... LeBeau could've never done what you did tonight... If we make it, it'll be all thanks to you, mate."

"You've got to say if ? We'll be back at the Stalag by next roll call, you'll see." Carter chuckled. "Tomorrow morning, LeBeau will fill you up with herbal tea and chicken soup; Kinch and I will make you company playing cards and Colonel Hogan will make up another story about how you got hurt so Klink excuses you from working in the field for the next two weeks."

"He can confine me in the cooler for one month, I'll sleep through it." Newkirk smiled for the sake of it but he was slowly losing his battle against exhaustion. He put one arm over his eyes and sighed. "There are moments in life when we have to do extraordinary things. Some are good, some are not quite... This was a good one, Carter... Don't feel bad about anything you've done..."

Carter looked at his friend sliding back into consciousness. He wished he could do the same. When they returned to Stalag XIII, he would sleep for one entire week.

Oo-HH-oO

Anton slowed down when they entered the main street. He was prepared to search and turn every corner, find nothing and go back to the road. But just as he was ready to do so, the stolen car appeared parked at the corner at the end of the street, right under one lamp post.

"Amateurs," Virgil snorted. "Now what?"

"We'll crush them," Anton cocked his rifle.

Oo-HH-oO

The clock struck 11. Carter yawned and almost fell off his chair. He had been listening to those bells every hour since they arrived and always caught him out of guard. He checked his own watch. They still had some good four hours to kill. He got up and prepared to make his rounds. Just like in the Western movies, he felt like the sheriff; pistol and all.

The stillness of the night was broken by the motor of a car coming down the street. Carter ran to the window. He could not see clearily the car that had just parked one block from the jail building. But in his guts, he felt it had to be Anton and his men.

"Oh, boy," he said. "How could they come so fast?"

Newkirk woke up first. He sat up, clasping his hand to his right side. "Carter, what's going on?" He groaned as he tried to get on his feet.

Carter ran to stop him. "Go back to bed. I'll take care of this."

"They're here, aren't they?" Newkirk's voice trembled. "You c-can't take them on alone." He looked around. "Where's me pistol?"

"Forget it," Carter grabbed him by one arm. "You're too weak."

Newkirk stumbled as he claimed his arm back. "You can't... you can't face them on your own, Carter." He turned to the desk where Sabina was still asleep. He walked slowly towards her. "Hey, lassie, wake up. Your daddy has come for you." He shook her shoulder gently.

The girl opened her eyes and stared at him. She did not understand at first but then, her eyes opened wide. "He's going to kill you!" She sprung up from her chair.

Anton honked twice before giving his ultimatum. "Hey, Americans! Come out with my daughter and I'll be generous with you!" His voice was strong and clear. "I'll give you a fast and painless death!"

Dalibor woke up, startled by the shouting. He jumped up when he saw the gun in Carter's hand. "Now what? Are you going to shoot all of them? At least give me a weapon to defend myself."

"Shut up!" Carter yelled. "I can't think with everybody telling me what to do!" He walked towards Newkirk. "Get in bed right now! You are not helping if you faint in the middle of the fight."

"But, Andrew-"

"Not a word. I'm in charge, remember?" He turned to the girl. "Sabina, when I tell you, go out. Anton's come for you. We're not going to fight over that."

Sabina stood up and shook her head. "I don't want him to kill you, Carter."

The sergeant hesitated as he realized what was going to happen. "So," he faked indifference, "you go out there and tell your daddy not to shoot at us, okay."

The girl walked to the door but turned at the last moment. "Newkirk?"

"Go, luv. We'll see you later," he smiled and sat down on the cot.

Dalibor beat on the bars of his cell with his open hands. "You're both crazy! I don't want to die here like a rat! If you can protect me at least, let me out of here!"

"Carter, give me a gun! Let's give this bloody bastard what he deserves!" Newkirk yelled and stood up. Blinding pain shot through him and he fell on the floor. "Bugger," he said struggling to his knees.

Carter helped him up. "Okay, I'll give you your pistol, but you'd better don't use it unless it's absolutely necessary. Do you hear me?"

Newkirk stared at him with a puzzled look. This was a different Carter, indeed. "All right," he shrugged. "Whatever you say, Andrew."

Anton was about to shout at them again when he saw Sabina coming out. He felt on his knees with opened arms and she rushed into them. His eyes closed to hold back tears as he clasped her tight against his chest. Since the war had taken everything from him, he had not treasured anything or anyone more than this girl. Nothing else mattered but her.

"Are you all right? Did those men hurt you?" He held her face in his hands.

"They wouldn't hurt me." She smiled. "They are my friends." She frowned. "You're not going to hurt them, are you?"

"Just stay in the car, we'll take care of them." Anton kissed her on the forehead and smoothed her hair as he stood up.

"But, Dadro, they're good people, really." She clenched the sleeve of his jacket. "Let's go home, now. Please."

Anton lifted her into the car. "Don't worry about anything, angel. We'll take care of them." Then, he turned towards the building, and a mighty surge of anger swept all the tenderness from his face.

"Carter! Andrew Carter!" He thundered. "My daughter is on your side. She doesn't want us to hurt you! Let's make a deal! Dalibor for your lives!"

Carter turned from the window. "What do you think?" he asked Newkirk. "Do you believe him?"

"Who bloody gives a damn?" Newkirk said from his bed. "Let's give them the bastard and go back to camp."

"I thought you said that the mission-"

"Sod the mission, Andrew. This bloke is not worth it." He rubbed his forehead and shook his head. Staying awake was taking much of his energy.

Carter sighed. He had to make a decision before things got ugly. They probably would anyway but he should stick to the original plan. "Anton! No deal! We have our orders! Dalibor is coming with us!"

"I'm sorry, but Dalibor stays. You may leave!"

"No deal, Mr. Havel. This is a military operation and we have orders-"

"The hell with the orders! If you want to die, it's your choice!"

"Do you have to take us with you?" Dalibor insisted. "If you don't mind being shot, go outside and give him what he wants!"

"One more word and you'll get what you're asking for," Newkirk said, aiming his pistol at him.

Carter rushed to his side. "Newkirk! We need him alive, okay?" He was not sure if his friend would actually obey him. The Englishman could be very stubborn at the most awkward moments. If he had decided that Dalibor should die, there was little Carter could do to change his mind.

"What do you want to do?" Newkirk looked at him.

Carter stared at the door and sighed. "Go out there, I guess. Anton needs to know that Dalibor is our prisoner. We can't surrender."

Newkirk knew that it was a bad idea. Outside, Carter would be face to face with Anton and under his own terms.

"Come out, Americans. Let's talk!"

Carter opened the door. He walked slowly, hands up and the gun in his belt. His face was pale, but it did not show the fear inside. Besides Anton, there were five other men. They glanced at Carter with their rifles ready. Sabina was in the car, watching nervously through the window. Her eyes met Carter's and both tried a faint smile.

He kept walking until Anton told him to stop.

"I can hear you from here, American. I guess your friend is not as strong as we thought, eh? Where is Dalibor?"

"He's under my custody, Mr. Havel. I can't relinquish him to you just like that." Carter had to make an effort to keep his voice under control. One hint of hesitation and he would lose the little respect that those men seem to have for him. "I'm terribly sorry for we kidnapped your daughter, but we were desperate."

"Don't try to excuse yourselves." Anton growled. "Sabina is a very clever girl. She could have escaped at any time if she had wanted to. I respect her decision to stay with you, children see things in people that we don't." He shrugged. "She's unhurt and even calls you friends. That's why I won't kill you right away." He walked towards Carter and straightened up. That made him look taller. He loomed over Carter like a mountain. "For the last time, boy. Give me Dalibor and you and your friend will be free to leave."

Carter's jaw tightened. This was the second person in less than twelve hours that had called him boy. He was getting tired of that. "Sorry, I can't do that."

Anton glared at him and nodded. "In that case, there's no more to talk about. Let's him be the winner's prey." He rolled up his sleeves to show a pair of massive forearms, brown and scarred and heavy with rock hard muscle.

Carter's eyes opened wide. He swallow thick, blinked. He would not last ten seconds in a fist fight with that man. Anton's men knew it too, and they laughed and shook their heads. Carter was as good as dead.

"Mr. Havel, sir..." Carter's voice was calm, polite, but firm. "I won't fight you."

"Certainly not," Anton laughed loudly. "I want this to be a fair fight." He reached for the his gun in his belt. "We'll do it as gentlemen. A duel, of course." He turned and went to the middle of the road. He walked several feet up the road and waited.

Carter held his breath. In a fistfight he was at a complete disadvantage, he would be the most likely to get hurt. With guns, his chances of killing the man increased. He did not like that, though. Hurting Anton Havel was not in his to-do list, much less shooting at him in front of his own daughter. His options were limited. He could refuse to fight but then what? Anton and his men would charge against the building, shooting at everything. This time, they might kill Newkirk.

Boy, where's Colonel Hogan when you need him? He thought in despair. It would be so great to see him driving down the street and taking control of the situation. He would know how to get out of the problem without anyone getting shot.

Newkirk managed to half walk, half crawl to the window and he was following the events very carefully. Anton's gesticulations were clear enough to understand what was happening. He saw the Romany draw out his gun and he shuddered. This was the second time Carter and Anton had stood face to face and almost under the same circumstances. There was little Newkirk could do to stop the confrontation.

The cards are on the table, Peter. You'd better get a good hand because it might be the last one... He held his gun as steady as he could. Get a hold of yerself, me lad... Don't fail us now...

TBC

XV. The Wild and the Innocent

Hogan stopped the truck one block away from the main street and Milena did the same behind him. LeBeau looked at the two men in the middle of the street and gasped.

"Look, Colonel! It's Carter!"

Hogan squinted. It was his man all right. He was holding a gun in his hand. Several feet in front of him, there was the huge man that had stolen Hogan's car back at the farm.

Milena and the other women got out of the other truck. She went to Hogan's door. "That's Anton. If he shoots first, your man will die."

Hogan rolled his eyes. How his men managed to make an epic adventure of every mission they went into, it was totally beyond him. He got out to have a better luck.

"Is this a duel?" LeBeau asked. "He's going to kill Carter!"

"Will everybody stop saying that?" Hogan turned to Milena. "Do you have a weapon with you?"

She took out a pistol but held it against her chest. "Are you going to shoot Anton?"

"I ain't going to shoot anybody, okay? But I'll feel better walking among those guys with a gun my hand." He took the radio out of the truck and gave it to LeBeau. "Stay close."

Milena handed him the pistol. Hogan signed for LeBeau to follow him. "Be quiet, we don't want to make them nervous."

"Raise that pistol, boy. Didn't your daddy teach you how to shoot?" Anton laughed loudly.

Carter was starting to hate that laugh. He raised the pistol and aimed. He was not too close; this time, it would not be a certain shot. He might miss his target by inches without even trying... And Anton would blow off his head.

Anton raised his gun. Carter was a small target. He could aim anywhere and scare the hell out of him. Just the thought of that made him laugh again.

Newkirk observed the body language. If he had calculated the odds correctly, the man would shoot after Carter. Provided that the sergeant missed the shot miserably. In that case, Anton would be in a position to chose killing or just hurting Carter. Any case of which was completely unacceptable.

Carter did not want to shoot. If he missed, he would die. If he did not miss, Anton would be badly hurt... or die. He did not want to hurt that man in front of his child. He was loud and overbearing, and had a mean attitude but those were not good reasons to kill him. On the other hand, he did not want to die.

Anton stared at Carter, trying to guess what his next move would be. The young man was shy and sort of clumsy, shaky but for all of that, he had shown remarkable guts all through their confrontation. It would be a pity to kill him.

Newkirk kept his eyes on both men's hands. They were now aiming at each other and ready to shoot. There was no turning point. Who would go first? Newkirk had to make a guess. He raised his gun and aimed. His brow was beaded with sweat and his hand shook slightly. He cursed under his breath.

"What's going on out there? What do you think you're doing?" Dalibor grinned. "If you shoot they'll come after us! If you don't shoot yourself first, that is. Can't you see you're about to faint?"

The sound of that hated voice hit Newkirk like an electric charge. His jaw clenched and his grip on the gun tightened. It took a lot of him not to turn and put a bullet into the man in the cage.

"Not now, Dalibor," Newkirk did not move. He stared at the action on the street. His pulse was as steady as it could be and his sight cleared just at the right moment.

Hogan could not run and LeBeau did not dare to leave him behind. They were coming right in front of the group of men when a clap of thunder echoed the sound of the shot. LeBeau cried out almost at the same time. Carter began to fall.

"No, No!" LeBeau forgot his injured shoulder as he pushed through the men, who turned around, startled. Hogan came after him, limping as fast as he could.

Carter was sitting in the middle of the street, white faced and with the gun still in his hand. Hogan crouched in front of him and laid one hand on his shoulder.

"Carter?" He said. "It's okay, give me the gun." Hogan took the weapon gently from Carter's limp fingers.

"Didn't mean to... didn't mean to..." Carter mumbled.

"Are you okay, mom ami?"

"He's in shock." Hogan heaved a deep sigh of relief. Carter was not injured at all. Then, he turned to Anton Havel who was standing a few steps away from them.

The man's eyes were fixed on Carter. He was holding his right arm with his left hand and his gun was on the ground. Blood dripped from a flesh wound on his right forearm, just above the wrist. More than rage or hate, Hogan read surprise on his face. The men around them began to whisper. LeBeau could understand one sentence Anton Havel has been shot.

"You..." Anton finally spoke. "You shot me."

His voice was neutral. He seemed wrapped with amazement at the improbability of the situation.

"I-I didn't mean to, really," Carter said as Hogan helped him to his feet. "I had no choice... Colonel I-"

"Colonel?" Anton straightened up and glared. "Your men have caused us a lot of trouble."

"And I take full responsibility. They just did what I ordered them to." Hogan remained calm.

Anton shook his head. Then, he laughed and nodded. "This one here is good. I've never been shot in a duel, Colonel. He has my respect." He came and clapped Carter on the back, nearly knocking him down. Then, his expression hardened. "I have to honor my word. Take Dalibor. Your man has just won him for you."

Hogan exhaled in relief. They would not have a chance against all these men if they had decided to take Dalibor with them. LeBeau held Carter's face and kissed him on both cheeks. The victory had never come that easy for them.

"Are you sure, Mr. Havel?" Carter asked.

"Don't ask again, or I may change my mind." Anton turned to his men. "To the trucks! We're leaving!"

Sabina clung to her father's neck and turned to see Carter. She was tearful and not happy at all. "You shot Dadro! You could have kill him!"

Carter was off balance as he dropped his head unable to utter a word.

"*Chey, Chey," said Anton. "It's nothing but a scratch. It was a fair fight, you saw it. These Americans are the good guys. Brave men. He stood for what it's right to him, just like we all must do."

Sabina hide her face against her father's neck and would not look at Carter.

"She'll understand," Anton said to Carter. "She needs time." Then, he looked at Hogan. "By letting you take Dalibor, we're giving up our right to our revenge. Do you understand what that means for us? We're sacrificing our war for yours."

After a long moment, Hogan answered quietly, "There are not more than one war, Anton. And you and your people are in it too. Your loss is beyond repair but by relinquishing this man to us, you might be helping to shorten this bloodshed."

Carter saw both men looking at each other. Whatever Anton Havel saw in Robert Hogan's eyes must have satisfied him, because he nodded and turned to his men.

Hogan, LeBeau and Carter saw the trucks and Anton's car leaving. Although their destination was uncertain, Hogan prayed for a save voyage.

"What's happening outside? Did you kill Havel?" Dalibor asked clutching the bars.

"No, I missed." Newkirk stood up staggering like drunken man.

"Damn!" Dalibor hit the bars. "You're the worst spies I've ever worked with. Now what? Are you selling me to those hound dogs to save your lives?"

Newkirk threw himself against the bars. He grabbed the man by the neck while putting the pistol against his head. The anger in his eyes was like the lighting in the window. "One word, Dalibor," he said pressing the barrel of his pistol deeper on the man's temple. "Just one bloody word, and no one would get you on time... I don't need a key to open this door and beat you to death... or I could brake your ruddy neck right here... or I could shoot you and blow off your miserable little brain once and for all..." He grinned. "But why bother, right? You're already dead. You think that getting out of this country will erase what you've done? The ghosts will follow you... They will haunt you till the last day of your bloody existence..." He let Dalibor go, so suddenly that the man hit the ground, coughing and shaking.

Dalibor shuddered. The unexpected attack had frightened him; the Englishman seemed mad enough to be dangerous. He crawled to a far corner in his cell and hid his head in his hands.

Newkirk was suddenly out of breath. He could not stop shaking. He looked at the pistol and threw it away from him. He tried to get back to the cot but his energy was gone; one step forward and he fell unconscious on the floor.

Oo-HH-oO

Carter was returning to life little by little. He looked at LeBeau and then at Hogan and laughed shakily. "It's so good to see you, guys. You have no idea what we have been through." He paused. "But, how did you get here? Colonel, your ankle and Louie-"

"We heard rumors about an accident and casualties," LeBeau said. "We got concerned."

"We thought you could need some help." Hogan put the gun in his belt. "I'm glad to see you managed the problems very well."

"I'd wish," Carter brushed his hair with his fingers. "Things got really desperate."

"You'll tell us all about that later. How's Newkirk?" Hogan asked.

"Oh, God, Newkirk." Carter ran to the police station.

Hogan had to forget about his bad foot to keep the pace. He did not like Carter's expression at all and he feared the worst.

LeBeau ran in first. Newkirk was on the floor, his eyes close and his face extremely pale. Hogan knelt down beside him and checked for the pulse on his neck.

"Is he...?" LeBeau whispered.

"His pulse is too weak." Hogan laid his hand on Newkirk's brow and shook his head. "The fever is high." He sent LeBeau for water and asked Carter for a pillow to support Newkirk's head. Hogan turned him around and examined the wound. "What happened here?"

Carter shook his head. "It's a long story, Colonel." He crouched by his friend's side. "He was still bleeding and we didn't have any medical supplies... we had to improvise."

"It's okay. The wound looks fine," Hogan smiled. He splashed Newkirk's face with water. "Hey, Newkirk, wake up. Come on, Peter. Open your eyes."

Newkirk obeyed slowly. He saw Hogan first and frowned. "Colonel? What're you doing here?"

Hogan looked at the others and laughed. "We had the crazy idea that you might be in trouble."

"Charmed," Newkirk chuckled. "After all these years, you still don't know what we're capable of?"

"That's what I told him, but he insisted on coming anyway," LeBeau shrugged. His face could not hide the happiness of seeing his friend awake and alert.

"Louie, me mate," Newkirk stretched out one hand for LeBeau to hold in his.

"Let's get you off the floor." Hogan pulled him up to his feet. "Easy now. Very slowly to the cot." They spread a blanket over him. Newkirk fell asleep the moment his head touched the pillow.

"That's what he needs," LeBeau said. "A lot of rest and his friends watching over him."

Hogan nodded and came to find Carter watching the door. "You don't have to do that, Carter. Take a break," he patted him on the back.

Carter headed for the desk, and just then, he saw the famous wooden toy on the floor. "Oh, no, Sabina forgot this." He picked it up. "Her brother made it for her..."

Hogan could see the sadness clouding Carter's face. He came closer. "You must sleep now. We still have two good hours before going to the airstrip. There's nothing else to do."

LeBeau put the only two chairs against the wall, one facing the other to form a makeshift bed. He improvised a pillow with his coat and called Carter. "Now, you'll try to sleep, ça va?"

Carter took a deep breath and lied down on the chairs, his knees almost touching his chest. He cradled the toy in his arms and tried to put his mind at ease. Hogan stared at him and then at Newkirk; both tired and beaten. He worked with heroes, he had no doubt.

"Colonel, qui est-ce?" LeBeau pointed at the man in the cell.

Hogan walked to the cell. "Vasile Dalibor, I suppose."

Dalibor looked up at him and sighed. "Papa Bear in person, I hope."

"Why is he in a cage?" LeBeau asked.

"Because he's a weasel." Newkirk rolled on one side to see Hogan. "Colonel, I wouldn't turn me back on him if I were you."

"Keep that man away from me!" Dalibor stood up. "I've offered my generous cooperation to the Allies, but I could change my mind."

"And we'd be all sorry," Newkirk shook his head.

"Colonel! This man has been disrespectful and abusive. I'll complain to the appropriate authorities as soon as I get to London."

"Blimey, I'm shaking in me knickers-"

LeBeau sat on the cot and tried to keep him quiet.

"Newkirk, that's enough," Hogan said. Then, he turned to Dalibor and glared. "I don't know how Newkirk learned about you, but I was widely informed about your extracurricular activities in your country. London is not happy about having to negotiate with a man linked to such atrocities. They'll keep on doing research on your files for future reference."

Dalibor sat down and crossed his arms. The environment was getting too hostile for comfort. He would rather be at his own devices. He decided he would stay put and wait for the best opportunity to run away.

The growl of a motor interrupted the peace and quiet of the wee hours. LeBeau ran to the window and swore. "Sacre bleu! Gestapo!"

TBC

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel chapter 12-13

XII. Angel And The Badman

Carter was still trying to convince Dalibor of getting in the cage. It might be a security measure, he said. But the man did not even try to pretend that he was impressed by Carter's authority manners. The sergeant was reaching his boiling point when Sabina came in running.

"Carter," she said under her breath. "N-Newkirk!"

Carter's first impulse was to storm outside but he stopped. He turned to Dalibor and shouted.

"Get in that goddamn cage now!"

Dalibor did not show any reaction at Carter's outburst but he obeyed at once. The sergeant locked the cell and made sure to put the keys in a safe place. He ran outside with Sabina following him very closely.

He got to the car and opened the door on Newkirk's side. He knelt down, frightened beyond reason at Newkirk's stillness when he checked for his pulse. Newkirk was still breathing; some seconds later, he opened his eyes.

"Hey, Newkirk. How are you, buddy?" Carter made an effort to sound casual.

The effort was mutual. "Fine, Andrew... I just dozed a bit..." Newkirk sighed shakily. "Did you- did you find anything?"

"You won't believe it," Carter smiled. "A five-star room. It even has a bed."

Newkirk nodded. That word actually sounded like heaven. "It's cold, innit?"

"You should wear gloves." Carter took Newkirk's hands to chafe them. "Are you in pain?"

"I'm numbed," he said. "Where's Dalibor?"

"Secured, don't you worry about anything. I'll drive us closer to the building, okay?" He got up and signed for Sabina to get in the car too.

She got on the back seat but leaned forward behind Newkirk. She caressed his cheek and turned to Carter. "He is too warm."

"I know, honey. It's been a long trip. He needs to lie down." Carter sighed. He parked the car in front of the jail building. He got out and walked around to Newkirk's side. "All right, put your feet on the ground. I'll do the rest of the work." He gently pulled his friend up. He put his arm around Newkirk's waist and Newkirk's arm around his neck. "Short steps, okay? One foot after the other."

Sabina ran in first to put the cot in order. Then, she went to the bathroom for fresh water. Carter helped Newkirk to sit on the cot.

"Can't stop shaking," Newkirk said while Carter pulled out his boots.

"Me neither," Carter smiled. "Lie down, you may rest now."

"T-The lassie, she needs to eat..." Newkirk shuddered.

"I said I'll take care of everything. Let me check on the wound first." Carter opened Newkirk's shirt. He winced at the sight of soaked, red bandages. "Oh, boy," he whispered.

"What is it?" Newkirk tried to sit up but Carter stopped him with one hand on his chest.

"The wound is still open." He turned around as though looking for something. "We don't have bandages..."

Sabina brought a bowl of water. She sat on the floor next to the cot and gave Carter her handkerchief. "Use this."

Carter smiled at her. "Can you clean up the wound? I'll go outside to look for food and supplies, okay?" He turned to Newkirk. "Newkirk?"

"I'll be all right, go," the Englishman smiled at him and closed his eyes.

Dalibor saw Carter going out in the rain and smirked. "He'll find nothing. This town has been dead for months."

"No one asked for your ruddy opinion," Newkirk said. He clenched his teeth to bite back a scream while Sabina cleaned the wound. He shuddered and she jumped. "It's all right, luv. It has to hurt..."

"You and your friend are fools." Dalibor sat down on the floor of his cell. "You must let me go before her people come. You don't have any idea of what they're capable of."

"Blimey, he keeps talking!" Newkirk turned his face to the cell. "You're the one that doesn't know what I am capable of."

"You're already dead. If that wound doesn't kill you, her father will-"

"Shut up! Just shut up!" He moved so fast that the pain stabbed him mercilessly. "Bloody hell!"

Sabina took Newkirk's hand between hers. "It's all right, it's all right. I'll talk to Dadro, he will not hurt you or Carter. I promise."

Newkirk saw the anguish in her eyes and shook his head. "You shouldn't be here... you should be home... playing with your dolls..." Tears began to roll down her cheeks. Newkirk dried one with his finger. "I should be the one cheering you up." He smiled. "I used to work in a circus, you know?... The Amazing Bloomingtons... George and Freddie...Freddie was a chimpanzee..." Newkirk was pleased to hear Sabina's giggle. "That's my girl..."

"You wouldn't like these people so much if you knew where they come from-" Dalibor insisted.

"Don't pay attention, he's a bad man," Newkirk told the girl.

"They're crazy, chasing innocent men to avenge a stupid rumor!"

"It's not a rumor!" Sabina shouted at him. She turned to Newkirk. "I was nine, but I remember what happened..."

"Lassie, it's all right..."

"It was Monday morning... I was in class. Someone came to warn my teacher about the Ustashi coming for the Romany children. We were going to hide but it was too late. The men in uniform came and took us outside to the backyard... My teacher whispered to us. She told us to run to the forest behind us and hide..." She gasped. "We did, we ran... Hanna, my best friend took me by the hand and I took Clarissa, the smallest of the class... We ran together... I don't know what happened... I lost Hanna and Clarissa fell behind me... I couldn't go back, bullets were flying everywhere... I had to keep on running..." Sabina's eyes met Newkirk's. "D-Do you know that if you run in zigzag, the bullets don't reach you? Dadro taught me that... I ran and ran... I hid... I saw them shooting." She glared at Dalibor. "I saw him shooting..."

"Sabina... " Newkirk was stricken.

"I wanted to go home... with mamma and my sister and my brother... But everything was on fire... they weren't there anymore..." She broke into tears.

Newkirk pulled her against his chest and stroke her hair. "Shush, it's all right..." He did not know what else to say. He closed his eyes praying for words of wisdom. He began to remember his own childhood back in London... Stormy nights when he and his little sister used to look for shelter in their mom's bed. And how she would sing a lullaby to them...

Oo-HH-oO

Carter walked three blocks up from the police station and three blocks down. He entered four or five places on each street. He found little things such as pieces of fabric in a clothing store that might do for bandages. There was also a bookstore, almost empty except for the old newspapers scattered on the floor. He could use those to cover the windows. The other places did not provide much. Food had expired, medicine was gone. Frustration weighed on his shoulders.

He entered one last place. A grocery store. He walked around and turned to the door empty handed. He was about to leave when he saw a small door almost hidden behind the counter. He had to force it open. Inside, there were several boxes of condensed milk cans. He breathed with relief. At least, they would have some comfort food to pass the time.

He went back with three cans, which he reckoned would be enough to wait till 3 o'clock. The rain had dwindled to a steady drizzle but the thunderstorm was still roaring. He was wet and sad; this thing of making decisions was exhausting. All he wanted was to go back to the Stalag and agree on everything Colonel Hogan said. If he was lucky, they would send him to a another barrack to live a peaceful existence until the end of the war...

Carter put his hand on the doorknob of the police station but did not turn it right away. He could hear Newkirk singing quietly in a dialect that he did not recognize. He peered through the window. Sabina was sitting on the floor with her head on the cot. She seemed asleep. Newkirk caressed her hair absently as he droned:

Paid ag ofni, dim ond deilen
Gura, gura ar y ddor;
Paid ag ofni, ton fach unig
Sua, sua ar lan y mor;
Huna blentyn, nid oes yma
Ddim i roddi iti fraw;
Gwena'n dawel yn fy mynwes
Ar yr engyl gwynion draw. (1)

Carter stepped in slowly. Newkirk put one finger to his lips. "She just fell asleep..." he said.

"That song you were singing, sounds nice." Carter put the cans on the desk and shook the water off his coat. "It isn't in German, is it?"

"Welsh... it's an old lullaby me mom used to sing to me and me sister when we were a wee laddie and a wee lassie." He looked at the girl and shook his head. "It's a bloody war, Carter... children should be left out of it..."

"Definitely," Carter agreed. He was not sure what Newkirk was talking about but he did not like the Englishman's gloomy tone. "Are you hungry? Look what I've got." He showed him the condensed milk. "This was my favorite food when I was a kid. How about you?"

"I suppose," he shrugged. "But I'm not quite hungry right now."

"Well, I am. Mr. Dalibor?" Carter opened one can with Newkirk's knife.

"Don't waste it on that git," Newkirk snapped. "That rat may starve for all that I bloody care."

Carter looked at him and then at Dalibor. There was animosity in the air that he had not seen before. He understood that Newkirk must have his motives, though. "This town gives me the creeps, you know? The stores are half empty, very much a mess. And the houses are open, as if people had had to leave in a hurry."

Dalibor snorted and Newkirk glared.

"This is war, young man. They were probably deported." Dalibor stood up and leaned on the bars.

"Deported where?" Carter frowned. He suddenly remembered Anton Havel's story and his stomach turned. "Gosh," he whispered.

Newkirk could have replied to that but Sabina began to wake up at that moment. He shook his head. "Never mind, Carter." He smiled at the girl. "Feeling better, luv?"

She nodded. "Carter!" She got up and went to examine the cans. "Good! I haven't had this since I was little."

"Glad you approve," Carter gave her one can. "It's all yours, enjoy."

They both sat on the desk. Carter saw in her eyes that she had been crying. He also could guess that Newkirk's quiet façade hid more than physical pain. And Dalibor, well, the man was sitting on the floor again, staring at him. If Carter had been superstitious, he would have sworn that he was scrutinizing their minds one by one to play his evil games on them. He shuddered.

TBC

Angel and the Badman (1947)

(1) Suo gan, Welsh lullaby

verse III:

Do not fear the sound, it's a breeze
Brushing leaves against the door.
Do not dread the murmuring seas,
Lonely waves washing the shore.
Sleep child mine, there's nothing here,
While in slumber at my breast,
Angels smiling, have no fear,
Holy angels guard your rest.

XIII Blazing Blade

"We'll never catch them in this old truck!" LeBeau protested. "That man is going to kill Newkirk and Carter."

"Stop saying that," Hogan commanded. "I'm driving as fast as I can." He looked at his watch. "Good, we still have six hours to get Dalibor in Schienbein Stadt and catch the plane at three ten."

"But the gypsies are going to kill Newkirk and Carter!"

"LeBeau!" Hogan glared. "They'll be okay, I promise." He tried not to think of them too much or he would lose his concentration. "See if the other truck is still behind us."

LeBeau rolled down the window. "Oue, mon Colonel, they're coming right behind us."

"That Milena is a hell of a good driver." Hogan smiled. "Now, keep your eyes on the road. We can't discard patrols coming this way too."

"Dieu ne le permet pas," LeBeau laughed. "I think that's the only thing missing."

Oo-HH-oO

The Gestapo unit arrived at Lorenz in the middle of the thunderstorm. They studied the place, witnesses and the suspects' MO. They concluded that it must be at least a ten-man operation, well planned and executed to the letter. They prepared weapons and men and went back on the road to follow the leads to the perpetrators.

Oo-HH-oO

Carter's eyes closed involuntarily. His head was heavy and he realized that he had not slept in more than 12 hours. But unplugging from the world was out of the question as long as he had to look after Newkirk and the girl. He would not let any of them out of sight at any moment.

He stood up and walked about. Little Sabina was asleep on the other desk and Newkirk's eyes were closed. He might be sleeping although he looked restless and his breathing was shallow. He could not stop thinking that Newkirk might be dying and that help would not arrive on time to safe him.

Unexpectedly, the Englishman sat up with his eyes wide open. Carter rushed to his side and grabbed him by the shoulders. "You mustn't move, Newkirk. Lie down." He kept his voice calm but there was a hint of desperation pushing to come out.

Newkirk held Carter's arms, struggling to stay awake. "You've got... you've got to go on... Carter... Finish the mission... got... to..."

"I know, I know. There's still time." Carter nodded. "Newkirk, please. You need to lie down."

Sabina raised her head and rubbed the sleep off her eyes. "What's happening?"

"Newkirk's burning up," Carter finally pushed him down. "Would you bring water, please?" He opened Newkirk's shirt. The wound was bleeding in a slow but steady trickle. Carter pressed it with one hand and his friend moaned. "I know it hurts, I'm sorry." He hated to cause him pain.

Sabina came back with a bowl of water. She took a look at the wound and shook her head. "You have to close it up."

"But how? There's nothing to stitch it with," Carter cleaned up the area surrounding the wound. Newkirk tried not to move but his hand clenched involuntarily on Carter's arm. The sergeant stopped and his despair grew. "Newkirk, I have to do this."

"It hurts..." Newkirk panted.

Sabina sat on the floor near to the cot. She thought over the situation and something came to mind. She put her hand on Carter's knee to get his attention. "Virgil's brother got really bad hurt once. We were on the road and Milena had to close his wound with fire."

"What?" Carter shook his head. "What're you talking about?"

"Caut- cauterization..." Newkirk gasped. "You b-burn t-the skin to stop the...bleeding..." He half opened his eyes. "It's not t-that odd..."

"Sounds awfully painful," Carter said. "I don't think we have to do that, do we?" He looked concerned. Inside he knew it might be the only solution.

"It will stop the bleeding, help to fight the infection." Sabina clapped Carter's knee as though giving him strength. "It can be done."

"But it'll hurt like hell," Carter told Newkirk.

"I can take it," Newkirk mumbled. "You can use me knife..."

Carter shook his head. "No, no. I can't." He stood up and walked to the window, suddenly in need of fresh air.

"Come on, Andrew... I'd do it for you," Newkirk propped himself up on his elbows. "It's all right," he smiled faintly. "I won't scream, I promise." He heaved a deep sigh. "Do you want the lass to do it?"

Sabina pushed Newkirk gently on his back and cleaned up more blood from his side. "Carter?" She looked shyly at him. "I think I can."

Carter shook his head. "You're just a child," he said.

"I'll do it," Dalibor came to the bars of his cell and grinned. "I don't mind the screams at all."

"Not this ruddy side of hell!" Newkirk shuddered. "Carter, please..." He blinked. "I don't want to die on you..."

Carter took a deep breath. He walked to the desk where he had left Newkirk's knife. He grabbed it with both hands and closed his eyes. Tears were already forming but he stopped them. He remembered his father telling him how war changed people, how war made people do things that they would not do under normal circumstances... At that time, he had nodded at his father. I got it, he had told him... But until now, his father's words had held no real meaning. He did not want to change, he wanted to go back home good old Carter. But that was just the illusion he had fought to keep since he had enlisted. His father had been right all along...

He gave the knife to Sabina. "Wash it thoroughly."

Then, he went to the cot. Newkirk stared at him but neither of them said a word. He reached Carter's hand and smirked. The sergeant blinked and took a deep breath. He nodded firmly.

Sabina ran to the sink in the bathroom and came back as soon as she could. "Now, we need fire," she said.

"Newkirk, you have your lighter." Carter swallowed and almost choked.

The Englishman's hand trembled when he reached for it in his pants pocket. He handed the lighter to Carter. "Until the blade turns blue, all right? Don't wait till it's red..." He instructed him. "Just pretend you're ironing your favorite shirt," he smiled.

"Oh, d'you have to say that? Haven't you see me ironing the colonel's shirts? I've burned them all!" Carter was not kidding but Newkirk laughed anyway.

Dalibor smirked from his cell. "You don't know what you're doing, boy. This is not a job for weak stomachs. The stench of burning flesh will make you sick. And the pain is unbearable. You'll want to stop half way as soon as you see your friend screaming and twitching-"

"Shut up! Just shut your bloody mouth up, you noisy git!" Newkirk rolled on his side to glare at the man. "One more ruddy word from you and I'll take you to hell with me!" The effort caused him pain and he had to lie on his back again. "Blimey!"

Carter sat on the edge of the cot and rubbed Newkirk's arm. "All right, all right. I'll do it now. Just stay alive, please. I wouldn't know what to tell Louie and Kinch if I'd lost you." He even gave him a reassuring smile.

Newkirk exhaled. "How disappointed they would be."

Carter cleaned up the area on Newkirk's side. The quiet moaning and sudden shudder made it clear that lying still would take every ounce of strength that the Englishman had left. Carter looked around.

"Sabina, bring me those handcuffs on the wall." He turned to Newkirk. "Sorry, I need to make sure you won't move at all."

"I promise I won't break them," Newkirk smiled nervously. He did not protest when Carter pulled his arms at head level and cuffed them on the bars at the back of the cot. He just closed his eyes and prepared for the worst.

Carter put the knife above the flame and waited a few seconds. He tested the heat the same way he would do it with an iron. At the touch of one finger, the blade sizzled.

"All right, clench your teeth," he said. He laid down the knife very slowly. Only at that moment did Carter notice how steady his pulse was. Just as it was when he made those volatile combinations of chemicals down in the tunnels.

"Just two seconds, each time," Sabina reminded him.

"Each time?" Carter paled and lifted the knife before it touched the skin. "How many times do I have to do it?"

"Milena did it twice," she said.

"Twice?"

"Carter," Newkirk stared at him. "Just bloody do it."

Carter prepared the blade and proceeded to press it against Newkirk's skin. Sabina sat on the floor at Newkirk's eye level. She put one hand on his cheek to turn his head towards her.

"Do you know that the moon was created after man?" She smiled at him. "In those days there was a woman called Lechikovitza, she was a zhiratzi... a priest."

Newkirk did not feel the blade at first. He was held by the girl's voice and the story she was telling. The pain began after Carter lifted the blade. Newkirk's hands struggled to get free while he hid his face on the pillow. He moaned and groaned but did not scream.

Carter felt short of breath. His jaw trembled and his hands began to shake. He would have thrown the knife far away right there but his inner voice of reason kept him focused. He examined the wound, trying to ignore his friend convulsing in pain. The bleeding had diminished but the wound was still open. He sighed. "One more time." He heated the blade again.

Sabina held Newkirk's head turned towards her and she caressed his hair. "Lechikovitza was the only one able to heal people without pain..." She saw the struggle in Newkirk's eyes and had to force herself not to cry. "Every night... she collected the moon in a tub of water..." She turned to see Carter lifting the blade again.

Spasms of pain hit Newkirk's entire frame. He clenched his teeth and closed his eyes. His body twisted, trying to get rid of the agonizing torment. His hands pulled violently the handcuffs making all the cot tremble. Carter examined the wound and nodded. He was so exhausted that he could not even smile.

"It's done," he whispered. He opened the handcuffs and laid Newkirk's arms down. He brushed the hair off his friend's forehead and tried to smile. Newkirk half opened his eyes to meet Carter's. "Rest." That was all the sergeant could say. He turned to the girl and pointed at the water. "Cool his face, please and then, sleep a little, okay? I need fresh air."

Sabina watched him as he stood up very slowly. He was too pale and fragile and seemed suddenly old. She feared he might pass out at any time. He headed for the door and turned the lights off before he went out.

Newkirk opened his eyes and moaned. His arms felt heavy as he rubbed some tears from his eyes. He was regaining back control of his body although the pain was still quite bad. "Carter?"

Sabina wiped his face with a wet cloth. "He went outside. You must rest." Her voice trembled as if she were on the verge of tears.

He regarded her for a moment and reached for her hand. Under a heavy shade of exhaustion, he managed to give her his best Newkirk smile and said, "Sabina, luv, what happened with Lechikovitza and the moon?"

The girl smiled again. She wet Newkirk's brow with the cloth. "She used the moonlight water to cure her patients..."

Carter stepped outside. The falling rain looked like sparks under the streetlights. Apart from its pattering on the rooftops, it was peacefully quiet all around. Carter rubbed his hands together but he could not stop them from shaking. He was cold, and suddenly sad. Overwhelmed, he had to sit on the sidewalk for a moment. He hugged his knees and rested his forehead on them. He wanted to cry but he was too tired to do even that...

He did not feel the time until Sabina came to join him.

"Newkirk?" Carter whispered.

"I think he fell asleep," she said. "Are you okay?"

"I'll be in a moment."

"You did very good."

Carter shook his head. "I almost passed out... Boy, I've never been so scared in my whole life. Not even the night before I left my family, you know?" He smiled. "But I knew what I was getting into... I knew I'd have to fight... maybe shoot at the enemy..." He blinked and had to rub his eyes. "But tonight... for a moment I thought... I-I was killing my best friend..."

Sabina patted him on the shoulder. "Carter, you're a good man."

He chuckled. "What about you, girl? Weren't you scared?"

"Very much, I couldn't stop crying."

"That story you told Newkirk helped a lot to keep him calm."

"Milena taught me stories to tell when she cures us. She has to work like this all the time." She hugged Carter's arm and laid her head against it. "We travel so much, I can't make friends out of our group. I think you're my friends now. I don't want to lose you..."

"We are your friends, Sabina. Don't ever forget that." He covered her hands with his and both stayed like that for some time.

TBC

Blazing Bullet (1951)

Lechikovitza and the Moon, a legend. (Roma in Bulgaria and their folklore.)

ACT VI: You should not leave without saying goodbye.

"Mayela, I need you to scream," Napoleon said, tossing a chair against the wall. The girl did not understand what was going on at first but she obeyed all the same.

The guard knocked on the door. "Cut it out in there!"

"Go to hell," Napoleon replied.

"I know all those tricks, Mr. Solo. You won't make me open this door," the guard grinned wittily.

"What did you say? I can't hear you," Napoleon said, placing himself behind the door.

The guard leaned his face closer. "I said-"

Before he finished, Napoleon opened the door and pulled him inside by the collar of his overall. He took advantage of the surprise and punched him on the face. The guard fell unconscious. Napoleon grabbed Mayela and rushed out.

The first corridor took them to the air duct grill. Napoleon looked around to make sure no one was coming. "Keep an eye on that corner, please," he told Mayela. Then, he took out his shoe and proceeded to disassemble the sole and the heel.

Mayela raised her eyebrows at the wires and plasticine. "I think I saw this in one of my brother's comics."

"The aisle, dear. Mind the aisle." Napoleon grinned, looking for something else in his other shoe. He connected the wires and nodded, satisfied. "Next stop, on the right, that way."

(o)(O)(o)

Illya sought for support on the wall. The echoes of distant voices hit him in waves and made it very hard to breathe. At times, he doubted of his own perception of reality. He needed to stop and think of his next step before he forgot why he was there in first place. "I'm lost."

Spencer did not seem to mind while he accepted a call on his communicator. "Yes?"

"Laslo here. Solo escaped."

Illya pretended to be busy remembering which way to go. He could see that Spencer was neither surprised nor angry.

"You know what to do. Be careful, don't blow it this time." He listened for a reply but there was only a long silence. The doctor took a deep breath. "What else?"

"The scientists are running away."

"Is that it? I couldn't care less for those little rats abandoning the ship at the first sign of trouble. I don't need them for the rest of my plan. Stick with Solo."

"How did you know Mr. Solo would escape?" Illya asked out of curiosity.

"I'm a great judge of characters. I supposed that two Uncle agents working in the same mission would divide their tasks. One of you must be the decoy to the other one; he shrugged, putting his communicator away. He pointed lazily at Illya. "I don't have your time. We're moving out. If there is no VIRGIN to activate the volcano device, I'll have to turn on the self-destruction mechanism and blow out the mountain altogether."

Illya turned to look at him. "You'll kill hundreds of innocent people just because your precious machine doesn't work properly?"

"We can't leave witnesses."

"Witnesses to what? What's the point?"

Spencer took a deep breath. "We came here because this volcano offered the best conditions to test our newly improved device. The natural eruption was about to finish a couple of months ago, I succeeded in prolonging it indefinitely. Just imagine the bids on the device with such a new feature. Unfortunately, we didn't take you into account. If the reagent isn't replaced, the device is useless. Hence, there is nothing else for us to do here but-"

"Destroy the lives of hundreds of innocents..." Illya pinched the bridge of his nose. "This is so wrong."

"Well, your stealing the VIRGIN makes you an accomplice in our crimes, think about it." Spencer smiled mischievously.

Illya had to make an effort to ignore Spencer's observation. Deep inside, he knew the doctor was right. "What about the activator? It will be destroyed too."

"It doesn't matter. I have it all here," Spencer tapped his temple with his finger. "I can build those little buggers with my eyes closed; as many as I want."

"If you can do that, what's the point of causing so much chaos? Why don't you take your machine and leave quietly?"

"Give me my VIRGIN and I might do that."

"Do you promise?" Illya narrowed his eyes on the doctor. He concentrated on Spencer's heartbeat. It accelerated at some points, and slowed down at others. Suddenly, it was very easy to tell when he was lying.

"I only want to see my device working properly. I can spare the lives of these people if you show me where the reagent is." He smiled.

Miserable sneaky rat, Illya thought. You're lying through your teeth. He straightened up and took a weakened purposeful breath. "All right, give me your word. I think I'm remembering where I put the VIRGIN."

"Oh, please, you have my word, by all means."

With Spencer's phony smile, Illya had no need to rely on his heartbeat.

(o)(O)(o)

"I don't understand." Mayela sat down on the aisle while Napoleon worked on the second air duct grill. "May I ask you something?"

"Ask away," Napoleon said without stopping in his task.

"If you blow out this place, wouldn't you blow out the volcano too?"

"With these explosives, we'll only shake the foundations. It'll cause a small avalanche that will bury this place altogether. The volcano won't feel a thing." He finished and offered her a hand. "Now, we need to find the storehouse."

(o)(O)(o)

"... and the ionic reaction will enchain a domino effect that will cause destruction and chaos," Spencer said. "Impressive, isn't it?"

"Eh, what? I'm sorry. I lost track of your jabbering due to lack of interest." Illya shrugged. "Did you notice that you didn't breathe once while you were talking?" A wave of pain took him by surprise. He leaned a hand on the wall and waited in silence for the dizziness to pass. The worst part was having Doctor Spencer stare at him with quizzical eyes.

"Your ears can't take any more noise, your lungs are about to collapse for lack of fresh air and your eyes are losing the sense of perspective," he grinned. "Oh I wish I'd have time to stay and witness your downfall. Alas, there are more urgent things." He came close as though to whisper in Illya's ear. "Get me my VIRGIN now!"

Illya suppressed a scream. He just covered his ear with one hand and even managed to smile. "Please, stop calling the reagent your VIRGIN, it's rather disturbing." Illya stretched his neck and shoulders. Being hung by his feet only for several minutes was as uncomfortable as it was painful. He stopped at one corner where the aisle split in two opposite directions.

"Now what?"

"I'm lost," he said. "And don't protest about that, that freaking Plus-X drug doesn't heighten the sense of direction."

Spencer put the muzzle of his pistol at Illya's eye level. "Does this heighten your memory by any chance?"

Illya squinted. He raised his arm and pointed to his right. "Maybe that way..."

"I've got the feeling that instead of getting closer, you're taking me away from the VIRG-, the reagent," he corrected. "If you say we go right, we should go left. Right?

Illya frowned. "Left, you said."

"Right," Spencer confirmed.

"Oh, I get it," Illya chuckled. "Yes, right... left, I mean."

Spencer turned him towards the left aisle and rolled his eyes. "It's a pity that the drug doesn't do anything for the sense of humor, either."

(o)(O)(o)

"Two o'clock east..." Napoleon said, placing himself in front of the storeroom and turned to his right.

Mayela shook her head. She was completely clueless, watching him circling and measuring his steps. "Anything wrong?"

"On the contrary," Napoleon said with a smile. He took a grill out and introduced his hand in the opening. "Le voilà, mademoiselle."

She came closer. The object in Napoleon's hand was rather small and insignificant, nothing that should cause so much fuzz at all. "Is that a VIRGIN?"

Napoleon nodded. "I knew I'd recognize it when I saw it."

"You don't look too surprised." She looked at Napoleon's cunning grin. "You knew Illya would put that thing there?"

"I knew that he couldn't keep the reagent with him," he said. "He just told me where it was back in the laboratory." He came closer and put it in Mayela's jeans front pocket. "It was all part of the plan."

"Getting caught too?"

"Well, that was the only way to find you." Napoleon put another set of explosives in the air duct. "Illya's getting caught was not in the plan but, in his present condition, I didn't expect much more from him. I suppose he didn't either, since he managed to hid this thing here before they found him." He chuckled.

"But he said he would show the doctor..." Mayela exhaled with concern as she realized the last part of the plan. "He's distracting the doctor, right? They will never get to the VIRGIN."

"The kiss was the master's touch," Napoleon nodded. "I thought I'd have to spend some explosives on that door."

"But you can't leave Illya. They'll kill him when they find out-"

"The rest of the plan is getting you out of here," Napoleon said, feeling angry all of a sudden. How could he explain the dynamics of his profession to a civilian? Sometimes, even Uncle agents were not sure about them. "This is the highlight of our job, Mayela. The mission is what matters... at any cost. We're expendable, you're not," he shrugged painfully.

Before she could protest, Laslo appeared around the corner, aiming at them with his pistol. "You should not leave without saying goodbye, Mr. Solo."

"Laslo, I was wondering if we had lost you after the last turn."

"I knew you would guide me to the VIRGIN." He grinned at Mayela. "She has it in her pocket, I saw you putting it there."

Mayela stepped back. Napoleon took her hand and nodded. "It's all right," he told her. "Laslo, you still can change your mind. I'll speak in your favor if you help us to get out of here."

"No dice, Solo. Thrush was my first choice," he chuckled. "You think I changed sides just because they have better dental health plans? I never had to. I've been undercover, working for Thrush."

"That makes it easier, I think," Napoleon nodded. Then, he frowned. "They have better dental health plans?"

Laslo almost answered the question. It took him a second to realize that Napoleon was just making time. "Stop distracting me! Miss, you have the VIRGIN, give it to me please."

"Don't come any closer," Napoleon walked forward.

"I'm the one with the pistol." Laslo looked over Napoleon's shoulder at the guard coming behind Mayela. "Give me the VIRGIN and I'll go easy on you two."

Napoleon was about to give up. He would not put the girl in danger. There would be plenty of opportunities to escape... He raised his hands, but before he said I surrender, a noisy group of people turned around the corner right behind Laslo.

The scientists came up, running and arguing at the same time.

"I told you it is this way," one of them said. His voice was weakened from having run all the way. He was talking to the rest of his colleagues without paying much attention to what was ahead of them. "I remember very well-"

Laslo felt the man just when he stumbled against him. Laslo fell forward and the gun went off several times. Napoleon had barely time to duck, pull Mayela down and cover her with his own body. The bullets impacted on the wall and on the guard behind Napoleon and Mayela. Napoleon jumped over Laslo before he could get up. One punch to the jaw and Laslo was unconscious.

The four scientists stopped on their spot and raised their hands at once. "We surrender!" they screamed, their eyes fixed on the pistol that Napoleon was holding in his hand. He grinned.

"Of course you do," he said. "You are-?"

"Innocent scientists. Dr. Spencer brought us here to work on his volcanic device," said one of them.

"There was a malfunction and we couldn't get the machine started. We were about to abandon the project but Spencer suggested that before doing so we should blow out the mountain and the surroundings."

"We couldn't do that..."

Napoleon listened to them until the four men began to speak all at the same time. "Gentlemen, you'll have enough time to write down your memories and complaints later, all right? We have to get out of here right now." He signed for them to follow him and Mayela.

The way to the main entrance was chaotic with people running around, carrying boxes and weapons. Napoleon read a sign on a door. COMMUNICATIONS. He opened it and pushed his reluctant group inside. He found the radio console.

"That's only for internal communication," one of the scientists said.

Napoleon studied the mechanism and opened one channel. "Attention all shoppers!"

The staff members of all departments stopped in the aisles.

"This place has been wired. You have exactly ten minutes to abandon the compound! You've been warned."

Spencer and Illya were one story below. They heard Napoleon's announcement and the doctor growled. Illya could see the veins in the doctor's temples dilated. He grinned. "More rats abandoning the ship?" That cost him a punch in his guts. The pain did not matter anymore; his team was winning.

"You'll laugh when I finish with the entire mountain and your precious Hallmark card town." He pushed Illya against the wall. "For the last time, where is the VIRGIN? Give me the wrong answer and we'll end here and now."

Illya felt all his body shivering at the edge of collapse. Passing out right there would be such a relief, and yet, that would not help anyone. He had to go on, until his last drop of energy and beyond.

"A-all right... I'll show you..." His voice sounded small and defeated. He closed his eyes for a second, and Spencer pushed him harder.

"Where?"

"D-down stairs... in the cave..."

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon guided his flock to the exit. Guards and other staff where already running away in their cars and on foot. Napoleon got to the extinct crater they called Playa Hermosa, where he had left the jeep. He took out rope and other climbing gear.

"Get in, everybody," he said. He grabbed Mayela's hand. "Can you drive?"

"Sure but-" She felt the keys in the palm of her hand. "But, how about you? The place is going to explode in ten minutes!"

"Twenty," he whispered. "I just gave me a head start."

"You're going back for Illya!" She smiled.

"You must take these men to town." Napoleon made sure the scientists were all there. "Don't stop until you get your house. You'll find some nice men that work for the same uncle as me. Ask for Fonseca and give him the VIRGIN. Only to him. Then, tell him that Napoleon says that he will need the whirlybird after all."

"Whir-ly-bird?" Mayela shook her head. "You guys come up with the most peculiar words."

"It's because we're peculiar men," he said, kissing her hand. "Now, go and don't stop for anything."

He glanced at the vehicle one last time and went back to the compound.

The aisles were almost empty. The last living souls were already running for the exit. Napoleon turned around, suddenly overwhelmed by time. He realized that Illya and he had overlooked the most important detail in their plan: their escape. He had no idea where to look for Illya. Moreover, in the state the Russian was in, survival must be the last thing that would cross his mind anyway. Napoleon was alone in the rescue operation.

He ran aisle after aisle until he arrived to the stairs. He stopped to catch his breath and think. Illya could not be nearby but he was still in the compound. Napoleon turned around and mumbled, "Illya, where are you? Illya?"

(o)(O)(o)

Illya was two stories below, still wondering what else to do to distract the doctor from the real action. He was not even trying to understand the cacophony surrounding him. The men above, were yelling on their way out. The subterranean lake bubbled as temperatures began to rise. The gases from the water were making Illya sick and he did not care if it showed. He crawled into a corner, with his eyes shut and his ears covered. At least, he would spare himself the search for something that was not there to start with. Spencer's patience was running out as he looked frantically for his precious reagent in the cave.

Suddenly, above the yelling and cursing from the staff fleeing away, Illya heard his name coming in the air. Illya? It was Napoleon, looking for him. Something must have happened. Their training was clear about the degree of importance during a mission. Unless the mission depended on their survival, their own lives were completely expendable. Illya figured out that Napoleon had not been able to retrieve the reagent and now, he needed his help. Damn it! He must drag his friend's attention to this place.

"Oh, God!" Illya said unexpectedly. He screamed and stood up. "Stop it! I can't take it anymore!"

"I beg you pardon," Spencer turned with his hand on his heart. "You gave me a start, what's wrong with you?"

"What's wrong? Can't you smell the sulfur in that lake? The noise upstairs, the humming of your blasting machine, the steps, the yelling... I can feel... I can see, I can smell... I can..." Illya saw the doctor coming toward him. Spencer looked genuinely concerned. Illya crawled away. He tumbled intentionally over the noisiest objects in the cave. The place was a mess by itself. It seemed that all these people had done since they arrived was to store their own junk down there. Illya clung to a rusty metal desk full of bottles and books, and turned it over with a strength he did not know was still in him. He screamed with the hullabaloo he had just caused and rolled on the ground, covering his ears.

"Stop it!" Spencer yelled. He grabbed Illya's shoulders and pulled him back on his feet. "What the blazes are you trying to do? Have you gone mad?"

"Mad? Oh, yes," Illya managed to laugh through the pain. "I'm mad, MAD!" He screamed again.

"Illya!" Napoleon's voice was barely audible over the noise around. "Spencer! Stay away from him."

Illya did not have to see his friend behind him. Spencer's expression of surprise and frustration was enough. Illya fell on his knees, exhausted. Whatever happened next, Napoleon was in charge.

"Mr. Solo, I knew you would not abandon your friend. All that rubbish about the Uncle agents being expendable is just a cover, isn't it? Deep inside, you're soft and weak."

"But we're still cleverer than you," Napoleon said. He had to make a great effort to keep his eyes on the doctor instead of checking on Illya.

"You found the VIRGIN?"

"Yes, I found it."

Spencer aimed at Illya's head and cocked the pistol. "Very well, then. Give it to me." He waited but Napoleon did not move. "Oh, come on, you didn't come all the way down here just to rub the VIRGIN on my nose. You came to save your friend. I give him to you for a price."

Napoleon looked into his pocket. "I don't know..."

"Napoleon," Illya sat on his heels and turned to him. "Please, don't-"

"The VIRGIN! Give it to me! Now!"

Napoleon took out something and shrugged. "All right. Catch!" He tossed it over Spencer's head. The doctor did not notice the lake behind him when he jumped to reach the object. He missed and lost his balance. He fell into the water.

There was not much of a scream. The bubbles did not last long as the darkened waters covered the doctor. Illya could not take his eyes from the water. He listened to Spencer's heartbeat as it decreased. The echo remained in his ears for a little while. Then, he sat back and rubbed his forehead. "He's dead," Illya said finally.

Napoleon pulled him up gently and supported most of his weight. "Are you all right?"

"Tell me you didn't throw the VIRGIN in the water," Illya gasped, his eyes were still fixed on the subterranean lake.

"Of course not, it's safe now." Napoleon said. "You owe me a pen."

"Where is Mayela?"

"I sent her away in the jeep... with the VIRGIN."

Illya turned to him. "You should have gone with her, that was the plan!"

"We met some funny characters on the road and there was no room for me in the jeep," he shrugged. "Come, let's get out of here."

(o)(O)(o)

The chaos outside was not as bad as Illya had imagined. The noise was deafening, though, and he could barely listen to Napoleon. He kept very close to him, hoping for Napoleon to know where to go.

The last of the people in the compound were coming out, but no one seemed to pay attention to Illya and Napoleon. They were much less interested in seeing what Napoleon was looking for in one of the corners of the building.

"Climbing gear?" Illya whined. "That was not a part of the plan."

"The original plan is over, I'm playing by ear now." Napoleon made an effort to keep his casual tone. Illya was not the whining type. If he did not feel like climbing, it was because he was actually in no shape for it and he must think that he would only slow Napoleon down. "But it will be safer for us to be up there than down here." He smiled at his friend's weariness. He spoke softly and reassuringly. "I'll do all the work, all right. You just have to hang in there."

"Isn't that what I have been doing so far?" Illya gasped. He was not joking when he stared at his friend. "Just one thing, Napoleon. If I can't go on at any time, you have got to promise to leave me and save yourself."

Napoleon straightened up and saluted. "Boy Scout's honor, I promise." Then, he gave him a belt and fastened the rope to the rings. "How's your sight?"

"Quite acute, why?"

"I can't climb and hold a flashlight at the same time."

Illya rolled his eyes and smirked. "The best point to start climbing is over there," he pointed at the darkness. "There are little landslides here and there, but they're harmless. We can go through them without much trouble."

"Good, that's what I'm talking about."

(o)(O)(o)

The first feet were not bad at all. With Illya's senses, it was easy for them to avoid the most dangerous zones. The ground was mostly ashes and it was loose, but those conditions meant nothing for two experts like Illya and Napoleon. All things considered, they looked in great shape. Napoleon reckoned they were already half the way up and everything was well. He did not expect any trouble, or at least, not until they reached the top.

Suddenly, the volcano roared. For Napoleon, it was just a little rumor, but for Illya, it sounded like a plane taking off right in front of him. He screamed at the same time that he let go the rope. Napoleon felt as though he was being dragged down and he had to cling with all he got. He looked down at Illya, nearly passed out, hanging on the air.

"Illya!" Napoleon yelled with all his might. He stretched his hand toward him. "Hold my hand. Come on, Illya!"

TBC


ACT VII: On a clear day
Napoleon waited one long second but there was no answer. He panicked, Illya was about to give up, if he had not already. No,no. No! "Give me your hand, you, little Russian annoyance!" He was yelling but he did not care about Illya's ears any more. "You're dead wrong if you think I'm going to let you fall! We're just there, Illya! But if you fall, I'll fall too!" He waited again, his eyes fixed on Illya's blond hair, the only thing he could actually see in the dark. If Illya did not move in the next few seconds... Oh, well, there was no plan B if Illya did not move in the next few seconds.

The wind whistled along the rocks, making the robes vibrate. Just a couple of minutes more and the laboratory would blow up. It was still too dark for Napoleon to reckon if they were safe from the blast. He would not stay there to find out. He wanted to be at the top of the mountain when that happened. He looked down at Illya, so close and yet, so far. Come on, little friend, don't give up...he mumbled.

Illya raised his hand with a last surge of strength and grabbed the rope. "Who's giving up?" His voice was hoarse with the simple effort of talking. "Are you going to pull me up or what?"

Napoleon laughed. "That's the spirit," he said.

"Please," Illya whined as he reached for Napoleon's hand, "lower your voice..."

Napoleon pulled him over his head and did not breathe until Illya was safe on the top of the mountain. Illya was able to crawl a few meters before giving up. Napoleon felt the dirt getting deep in his nails as he clenched the ground with all his might. He too, reached the top and stood on his feet for an entire minute before falling on his knees.

The blast from the laboratory was fast and sudden. It thundered inside Illya's head, causing excruciating spasms. Napoleon rolled over to protect him with his body while Illya clenched his head in his hands and screamed. Ashes rained over them and the earth moved for several seconds.

The silence after the chaos was so deep that Napoleon would have sworn he had gone deaf. Illya had stopped convulsing, and now he was lying on his back, apparently unconscious. Napoleon rose to his knees to check on him but exhaustion overcame him.

"Can't breathe..." Illya gasped with his eyes closed.

"We're too high... climbed too fast..." Napoleon panted. "Calm down, exhaled slowly... breathe in, breathe out... you know how it goes..." He found it difficult to form any more words. He barely had time to make sure that his friend was still breathing before he passed out next to him.

The day was beginning to break when Napoleon opened his eyes. The sky was light blue, no more gray clouds to dim its light. He turned to see Illya, still unconscious. He decided to let him be for some more minutes. He got up and looked around. He recognized the place from the pictures in his booklet. The path for tourists was on his left and the path to the TV tower, the landing zone for their helicopter, was on his right.

Illya woke up and had to turn his head to one side. The sky was getting too bright for his sensitive eyes. He rubbed his face and the first thing he noticed was that the sulfur was not that heavy in the air anymore. He still could not breathe normally but at least, his nostrils did not hurt.

"Illya?" Napoleon's voice echoed in Illya's eardrums. He moaned. "Sorry," Napoleon whispered. "How are you doing?"

"I can't see..." Illya gasped. He blinked, as he tried to focus his eyes on his friend.

"Your eyes hurt? Put this on," said Napoleon, giving him his sunglasses. "Don't panic, it'll pass soon. Can you sit up?"

Illya supported himself on Napoleon's arm and let him to prop him to a sitting position. His head spun for several seconds and his ears began to ring. Napoleon noticed that Illya had been bleeding from his right ear. He cleaned it up a little with his handkerchief and Illya winced.

"Can you hear me all right?"

Illya nodded painfully. "With my left ear... Along with nine drummers drumming in my head." He still could sketch a smile. "The explosion perforated my right eardrum."

"I'm sorry about that," Napoleon whispered. "Help is on its way."

"I know," Illya panted. "I can hear a helicopter coming." He rubbed his temple and groaned.

Napoleon looked around for some distraction from the pain. He grinned at the sight of the observatory. "Illya, can you walk?"

"Like a drunken man in New Year's Day," he joked.

"Come, I want to show you something." He helped him to get up and led him to the observatory post for tourists. "Look over there."

Illya followed Napoleon's eyes and squinted. "That's the Pacific ocean," he said.

"Right," Napoleon smiled. Carefully he helped him to turn to the opposite side. "Now, look that other way."

Illya was so interested in the view that he did not mind the dizziness and the void inside his head. He smiled faintly. "The Atlantic ocean... I read about this but they say it happens rarely..."

"On a clear day you can see both oceans. How do you like it?"

"Breathtaking," Illya agreed. His voice was weak and he staggered a little. He grabbed Napoleon's arm.

Napoleon tightened his grip around Illya's waist. "You'd better sit down, before the wind blows you away."

"Napoleon?"

"Yes?"

"It occurs to me that there is nothing in your files that says that you were in the Boys Scouts..." Illya gasped.

"And you're point will be?" Napoleon took his safari jacket and wrapped it around Illya's shoulders.

"I almost fell... you didn't let me go..."

"Don't you do that for me once in a while too?" He grabbed his canteen and helped Illya to take a sip.

Illya coughed a little and cleared his throat. "What happens to being expendable?" Illya grinned.

"Oh, Illya," Napoleon patted him on the shoulder. "We haven't got there yet."

Illya shook his head. He frowned painfully as he covered his ear. "The helicopter is getting closer."

Napoleon looked warily at Illya. The noise of the blades was already crawling in Illya's tortured ears. The Russian endured it stoically but cold sweat began to bead his forehead. "It'll be here in a minute... The noise, Illya... your ears..." Napoleon mumbled. His concerned grew as he thought desperately of some way to spare Illya from additional pain.

"I'll be all right," he shuddered. The pain began to intensify. He covered his ears and winced, "It's all right!" He felt the engine vibrating inside his head. "It's getting closer."

Napoleon held Illya close to him. He could see a small black dot on the horizon. If you're hearing nine drummers drumming now, wait for the ten pipers piping, Napoleon thought. "Illya?" He got his attention with a pat him on his shoulder. "I know we'll talk about this later but-"

Illya looked up at Napoleon. Before he could realize what was going on, his friend's fist connected with Illya's jaw. The Russian fell heavily in Napoleon's arms.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Napoleon whispered as he knelt down with Illya against his chest. He stroked his friend's hair, protecting his ears from the whirlwind while the helicopter landed. "It's all right, Illya. It's all over..."

The pilot came out and ran towards them. Napoleon laid Illya on the ground and stood up to shake the pilot's hand. The man was not much younger than they were, with dark hair and a big smile. Somehow, Napoleon recognized him immediately.

"Agent Fonseca, I presume."

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon paced around the waiting room a couple of times before he stationed himself in front of the window. The private clinic offered a beautiful view of the city of San José, and a clear sight of the Irazú volcano. The clouds had lifted and the mountain looked impassive against the blue skies. For the first time since Napoleon had arrived, there were no ashes or gray shades. The news announced positive changes in the weather and the possible ending of the volcano eruptions.

"How elegant!" Mayela took him by surprise. "What's the occasion?"

Napoleon glanced at his tie and suit and shrugged. "I usually dress like this." He looked at her from head to toe and smiled. "Same to you," he said. "Nice dress."

"Thank you, I was dying to wear this dress, but the ashes would have ruined it." She smiled shyly. "Does Illya wear suits too?"

"He prefers turtle-neck sweaters." Napoleon saw a light on the girl's face, as she probably pictured Illya in such an outfit.

She stood next to him and looked through the window. "Wow, I've never been in such a high building. I think I can see my town from here."

Napoleon put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed her against him. "I thought I wouldn't see you before we leave."

"Your boss, Mr. Waverly, gave me a ride to the capital. He thought that we should say goodbye in a proper manner."

"Mr. Waverly is here?" Napoleon frowned. Sometimes, the old man seemed to move faster than light.

"He went to visit my parents; to make sure we were all right after all that happened. So nice of him, isn't it?"

"Yes, that's much like him, all right." Napoleon smiled and took one last look at the volcano.

Doctor Tower came in with a long face. "Napoleon?"

"Look, George, I was unconscious when they hung him by his heels," Napoleon said. "The diving was unavoidable and the fighting-"He looked at the doctor's shocked expression and stopped. "You haven't talked to Illya yet, have you?" Doctor Tower shook his head. "Never mind then," Napoleon smiled. "Forget about that."

"Gladly," Tower cleared his throat. "We're controlling the pneumonia with antibiotics. His right eardrum is going to bug him for several weeks, but it's very likely to heal without surgery. If he keeps his feet on solid ground for a while, that is." He glared at Napoleon. "I'm writing down a list of recommendations."

"And I'll see he follows them to the letter," Napoleon smiled again. "Is he awake yet?"

"Yes, he is and asking for you." He pointed at Mayela. "He heard you when you arrived."

"So, he's still suffering the effects of Plus-X?" Napoleon asked.

"Actually, the few hours he was unconscious helped his body to recover a little. I think that he'll be able to sleep off the rest of the drug with some more hours of total rest." He turned to Mayela. "Now, mind his ears and speak in whispers, okay? If you will follow me, please. You can come too, Napoleon."

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon noticed that the room had been adapted to Illya's immediate needs. The curtains were closed, the lights were out and the room temperature was above normal. The silence was almost palpable, as well as Illya's usual I-hate-hospitals attitude. He was wearing sunglasses and a long face that melted somehow when Mayela entered.

"Mayela," he whispered, stretching his hand towards her. "How are you?"

She took his hand and sat on the edge of the bed. "I'm fine, thanks to you and Napoleon."

Illya shook his head. "I haven't told you how sorry I am for everything you went through."

"But it's okay," she smiled.

"No, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I had to kiss you..." He saw eyes grow big and stammered. "I mean, I shouldn't have kissed you, it was not right-"

Napoleon read the disappointment in Mayela's face. He grinned and sighed. "Illya, you're sinking faster than the Titanic, my friend." He turned to Mayela. "What my articulate partner is trying to say is that he would have enjoyed the kiss more under other circumstances."

Mayela blushed and nodded. "Me too," she whispered to Illya. Then, she looked into her purse for Illya's ring. "I suppose you want this back now."

Illya took it in his shaky hand. Although the temperature in the room was rather warm, he could not help shivering. He stared at his ring for a long minute before giving it back with a smile. "You keep it, as a souvenir."

Despite the dim light, Napoleon could see the girl's eyes glowing. Undoubtedly, she would treasure this present for a long time.

"I-I've got to go now," she stammered, getting up. "I have to go back to San Juan... summer school starts in a week and I need to prepare my classes..." She tried a smile to disguise her sadness. Slowly, she bent forward and kissed Illya on the cheek. "Take care, Illya and come back soon."

"I will... Mayela?" He stared intensely at her.

"Yes, Illya?" She asked, mesmerized by his blue eyes.

"Gracias por la ropa de tu hermano." Thank you for your brother's clothes He held her face in his hands and kissed her on the lips.

Illya's soft accent impressed Dr. Tower. Although he did not understand Spanish, the words seemed to work well with the girl. After a second of awkward silence, the doctor shrugged. "You've got to admit that he has something that women like," he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

"I guess," Napoleon tilted his head and squinted. "But I still don't see what."

Mayela sighed when Illya freed her. She smiled dreamily and said, "De nada." You're welcome. Then, she walked towards Napoleon and kissed him on the cheek. "It's a Costa Rican custom," she said bashfully. "You too must come back soon, okay?"

"I'll put it on my list of pleasant things to do," Napoleon told her.

Illya's expression hardened as soon as Mayela was gone. He stared at Dr. Tower and Napoleon warily. Napoleon frowned. If he believed in the sixth sense, he would have thought that Illya's had been heightened too.

"So," the doctor said, "they hung you by your heels?"

Illya looked at Napoleon and shrugged. "Only for a couple of minutes," he said.

"And the diving?"

"Only for a couple of minutes," Illya insisted.

"Ah, but I shielded his ears from the loud noise of a helicopter." Napoleon smiled triumphantly.

"What a relief," Tower snorted, as he got an injection ready.

Illya winced. "Must we go on with this? I think I can go to sleep without any help."

"He has something against opiate analgesic drugs," Napoleon grinned. "Do you want me to knock you out again, Illya?"

"Hilarious, Napoleon, but this is not a joke," Illya glared.

"I need to give your brain time to rest too, Illya," the doctor injected the serum in the IV with the antibiotics. "The sooner you fall asleep, the better you'll feel when you wake up."

Mr. Waverly entered the room unexpectedly. He took off his hat and came to the bed. He put his hand on Illya's and smiled when the Russian looked at him. "You've been a brave young man, Mr. Kuryakin," he whispered.

Illya's jaw tightened. He nodded but did not say a word. He was not used to praising words, especially coming from Mr. Waverly. It was not that the old man did not appreciate their sacrifice and commitment, but those things were taken for granted as agents from Uncle.

Napoleon cleared his throat, as a way to get the attention away from Illya. "When did you arrive in Costa Rica, sir?"

"Oh, I decided to come shortly after we talked. I had to come and visit our facilities sometime, anyway." He turned to the doctor. "Is he going to sleep now?"

"In several minutes," he took his flashlight and came to Illya's bedside. "Take off your glasses, please." Illya obeyed reluctantly. He knew that the light was going to hurt his eyes, even for two seconds. Tower nodded with satisfaction. "Pupils are dilating already. Lie down and go to sleep."

Illya put on his glasses again. "Right now? We still have time for debriefing, haven't we?" he said apprehensively. "Did you receive the reagent, sir? Is it in a safe place? And the laboratory? Did you make sure that nothing is left to be used again?"

Doctor Tower rolled his eyes and Napoleon almost said something, but it was up to Mr. Waverly stopped them with a sign of his hand. He looked at Illya indulgently. He smiled like a father, and patted Illya's hand. "Everything is being taken care of, Mr. Kuryakin, including you. There will be plenty of time to discuss the outcome of this assignment on Monday when we all are back at the office in New York."

"This Monday?" Napoleon said.

"Why, yes, Mr. Solo. You don't think this is a good time for going on vacation, do you?" Mr. Waverly frowned. "There is still work to do. We can't take more than a break while Thrush keeps conspiring against the free world on our free time." He turned back to Illya. "Of course, Mr. Kuryakin will be assigned to mild work for a while." He did not notice Illya's frustration at the perspective of hours of tedious office work, signing papers and writing reports.

"So, I take it that you're going back to HQ today?" Napoleon asked.

"Of course not. There is a blizzard over New York as we speak. I'll spend the upcoming weekend monitoring our activities from our offices in Puntarenas." His features relaxed at the thought of his plans. "Would you want to come with me, Mr. Solo? Two days of sun by the seaside might count perfectly as a holiday."

Illya sighed, rubbing his forehead. His eyelids were getting heavier, but he did not want to miss this conversation. Napoleon looked like a mouse cornered by the big cat.

"Well, sir," Napoleon began to talk very slowly as though looking for the right words to say, "I met this girl in the Rent-A-Car agency and she offered to be my tour guide for the weekend." He ended with a nice smile.

"Oh, well. It's your weekend. You're entitled to use it at your convenience. Doctor Tower, take good care of Mr. Kuryakin. And you, Mr. Kuryakin, quit being so difficult and do your best to get better."

"Yes, sir," Illya said lowering his eyes. His respect for his elders always went beyond his own stubbornness.

Mr. Waverly put on his hat and headed for the door. "I'll see you on Monday, gentlemen."

The three men remained silent for a minute, as though waiting for Mr. Waverly to be out of earshot.

"Two days of site seeing?" Illya smirked to Napoleon. "Some of us do all the work while others have all the fun."

"Don't complain. After forty-eight hours of good sleep, you'll be as good as new to go back to work on Monday." Napoleon straightened his tie and smiled. He turned to the doctor, who glared at him with wild eyes as if he had said something wrong.

"Forty-eight hours? Forty-eight hours?" Illya yelled despite his sore ears. "That's two days! I haven't got time to sleep for two whole days!"

Dr. Tower had barely time to grab Illya before he sprung out of bed. "Calm down, you'll wear off the sedative before it kicks in." He kept his voice down but his tone was intense when he turned around. "Napoleon is just kidding. It's only twelve hours, as I told you. Right, Napoleon?"

"Oh, yes," he smiled, still a little surprised. "My mistake. Twelve hours of good sleep..."

Illya looked at him and the doctor. He narrowed his eyes warily. "Twelve hours," he said, more like an order than a question. The nods were not too convincing but he did not offer resistance when Dr. Tower pushed him gently down on his back. "Just twelve hours... that's all I need... all right...?" he dragged his words lazily. "P-promise..." He grabbed Tower's arm.

"S-sure... I promise... twelve hours," he said, looking at Napoleon. He spread the blanket over Illya and checked his pulse.

Napoleon waited without moving from his place, as if by doing this, Illya would fall asleep faster. After a moment, he dared to step forward. "Is he-?"

"Dead to the world? Yes," Dr. Tower said, tucking Illya's arm under the blanket. "You almost ruined everything."

"I said I'm sorry. I forgot," he came closer. He removed the sunglasses carefully from his friend's eyes and examined his features. For the first time since Napoleon had found him in the mountain, Illya looked at peace. "Are you sure he will be all right?"

"I'm sure. If he follows my orders and takes it easy for a while, he'll be back to normal..." Dr Tower looked at Napoleon, who seemed immersed in deep thoughts. "It's been a couple of rough days, Napoleon. It must have been very hard on you seeing your best friend going through this."

"You can say that again," Napoleon exhaled without taking his eyes off his partner. "He couldn't be closer to me if he were my brother." He turned to the doctor almost immediately. "I never said that, Tower."

"My lips are sealed, Solo," the doctor nodded. He connected several electrodes to Illya's chest and turned on a monitor. He regulated the volume so the beeping would not disturb the quietness in the room. Dr. Tower made sure that Illya was still asleep before turning to Napoleon again. "The worst is over. He just needs to rest, I mean serious rest."

"I'll work on that as soon as we get back to New York." He glanced at the doctor. "Now what?"

"Nothing," he shrugged. "Just checking those dark circles under your eyes. You need to rest too, Napoleon. Let's get out of here." He looked for his coat and hat. "So, you have a date for the weekend?"

Napoleon shook his head and snorted. "I just said that to get off the hook with Mr. Waverly. An imaginary date is better than a weekend with your boss."

"I'd say," Tower chuckled. "He asked me the same thing. I put him as an excuse," he pointed at Illya with his thumb. "But, what are you going to do for two days, then?"

"Oh, well, I thought of staying close, just in case Illya wakes up."

"He'll sleep for forty-eight hours," the doctor shrugged.

"You'll need me to deal with Illya when he wakes up and finds out that you lied to him," Napoleon grinned.

"Me? You were here too!"

Napoleon put his arm around the doctor's shoulder and led him to the door. "Never mind that. We have two whole days to prepare ourselves... First, we'll keep him away from the news papers, the TV and the radio..." he took one last look at his sleeping friend and closed the door behind him.

Illya wrinkled his nose and could finally sneeze without giving himself away. He sniffed and turned to look at the door. He still could hear Napoleon in the hallway.

"Illya will never find out..."

"Hmm, that's what you think," said Illya, twisting his mouth. He sighed and went back to sleep.

FIN

Chapter 4: I told you about those analgesic drugs


ACT IV: I told you about those opiate analgesic drugs...

"I understand your frustration, Mr. Solo. Mr. Kuryakin can be a little exasperating sometimes," said Mr. Waverly.

"Exasperating? Yes, that's another way to put it." Napoleon stared at the cows sleeping nearby. He almost envied them, living without any worry at all. People taking care of their necessities... "I just want to know how I can help him. I think he's getting worse."

"I sent for Doctor Tower.* He was in charge of agent Campbell after we found him."

There was a little pause. Napoleon used to remember Louis, a very efficient young man. He had talked to him; they had worked together in several occasions... Last time Napoleon saw him, Louis was too concerned about the smells and noises around him than to keep a straight conversation with anyone. His eyes had shifted from one thing to the other... He had screamed in pain and desperation... Napoleon had signed his discharge papers... Mentally unfit...

"Mr. Solo, here's the doctor. Go ahead." Mr. Waverly passed his microphone to the doctor.

"Napoleon, I've been analyzing the data you sent. I have to trust Mr. Kuryakin's figures about the overdose. If he was given four times the usual dose of Plus-X , we're in trouble.."

Napoleon rubbed his forehead. Until that moment, he had still hopes for a simple solution. As though we ever had one of those, he thought. "I see, Doctor. Any suggestions? What should we expect?"

"Plus-X is a drug with very particular properties. It works directly on each one of the five senses."

"I know that already, George. What else can you tell me?"

"Well, in order to work properly, our senses must be in constant communication with our brain. That's the only way we can identify and discriminate what we see, touch, smell, hear and taste. When that communication is interrupted or altered, our perception of the world changes. See? Take hearing, for instance. We're surrounded by constant noise, all the time. There is no such a thing as complete silence. But our brain protects us from being overwhelmed by the sounds that we don't need. We hear them, but we don't listen to them. Plus-X heightens the senses but only to levels still manageable by the brain. Are you following me?"

"I'm afraid so. If Illya received an overdose, his brain must be going through an overdrive. No wonder he's got those headaches."

"Headaches? Is he presenting other symptoms? Bleeding nose or ears?"

"Bleeding nose. It started this morning, so I was told." Napoleon looked at the house. Somehow, he knew Illya was staring at him. He must be listening to the conversation too. "Is there anything we can do to help him?"

"If he were here, I'd get him sedated and isolated for a couple of days, or the time it takes for his system to wear off the drug. Every minute he's awake must be excruciating, and it will get worse. There could be permanent damage; he could lose his hearing or his sight... More so, too much stress and constant pain could cause him a nervous breakdown."

Napoleon pinched the bridge of his nose. He had come prepared for Thrush's low blows, but not this low. He cleared his throat. "I understand, Doctor Tower. I suppose the best course of action at this point is to send Illya back to the States."

"The sooner, the better, Mr. Solo."

Napoleon opened his mouth to say something else when Illya appeared on the road walking determinedly toward him. He stopped right in front and glared at him. "Enough of talking about me behind my back. If you think you can take me out of this operation just like that, you're-"

"Is that you, Mr. Kuryakin?" Waverly's voice was soft but firm as always. "We did not mean to talk about you behind your back. We're actually concerned about your health. How are you holding on?"

"I'm rather-," Illya found it impossible to lie to him, "I'm holding on just fine, sir."

"Doctor Tower suggests that it would be to your own benefit if we separate you from the case and bring you back for treatment."

"Mr. Waverly, I can't go back now. My work here is not done." He stared at Napoleon as though calling for backup.

"I understand your urgency, Mr. Kuryakin, you've worked this mission from the beginning. Having destroyed the first volcano activator, you must feel responsible to put an end to this operation once and for all. But due to your present condition we think that it would be wiser for you to step back and let Mr. Solo carry on with the rest of the mission."

Napoleon saw Illya clench his jaw. He could feel the quiet despair of someone determined to put up a fight till the very end. Illya would not yield. The way Napoleon saw it, he had only two roads to take, and either could mean the loss of his dearest friend. He took a deep breath. "With all due respect, sir, I don't think I'm qualified to complete this mission on my own."

"Mr. Solo, we have no time to play games. Either you are ready, or we suspend the mission. There is no way Mr. Kuryakin can continue-"

"Mr. Waverly, this is a two-man mission. Illya got in trouble because he was betrayed by his partner. If you want me to complete the operation, I'm going to need Mr. Kuryakin with me."

A long period of silence preceded the answer. "Mr. Solo, you're at the head of the operation. Mr. Kuryakin, don't overdo it, if you're in no condition at anytime-"

"I'll remove myself from the mission," Illya almost smiled.

"Proceed with caution, gentlemen."

The communication ended and Napoleon put away his pen. He looked at Illya who was getting ready for a reprimand. "I will be fair and not accuse you of eavesdropping. But still-"

"I'm sorry. I just can't go back like this." Illya lowered his eyes. "If something is happening to me, I need to do this before it's too late."

"It's not too late, Illya. They can help you, you heard Dr. Tower."

"And do what? Give me a nice padded-wall cell next to Louis'?"

"I don't want to hear another word about Louis. It's a completely different situation and..." He paused to lay his hand on Illya's shoulder. "That will never happen to you, I promise." Then, he looked seriously into his partner's eyes. "Now, you have half a day to convince me that we can complete this mission."

"Thank you," Illya nodded. Then, he shut his eyes. "Napoleon, I was coming to tell you something else and I almost forgot... Three men in a truck came out of the compound a few minutes ago."

"You heard all that from the house?"

Illya glared at him, as it that should had been understood already. "Aren't you paying attention at all? At this point, the only thing I still can't do is read minds." He shook his head. "We still have some minutes before they arrive. I can hear the engine coming down the hill as we speak."

Napoleon brushed the hair off his brow. He did not have plans for any more confrontations that evening. "What if they don't find us home? We still have some work to do regarding the mission," he shrugged.

"Are you suggesting we run like cowards?" Illya's eyes glowed mischievously. "How would you call that in a report?"

"I'll call it regrouping and we're not running away. Technically, we shouldn't know those men are coming after us," Napoleon said. "I don't hear a thing, and you?"

Illya understood and sighed. "I hear everything, but it's hard to say what is what."

"That's all we need to know," Napoleon smiled. "Get in the car. Let's take a look at what we're up against this time."

(o)(O)(o)

They took a secondary road to avoid any unwanted encounter. Napoleon kept struggling with the poor visibility and the innumerable bumps. He squinted through the darkness and chuckled. "Good thing we have a full moon tonight."

"It's only five in the afternoon," Illya barely acknowledged the joke. He was too absorbed in more immediate things. "You'd better pull up here. We have to walk the rest of the way."

Napoleon reached for his backpack. He took out two pairs of infrared binoculars and offered one to Illya.

"I don't need them," Illya said, getting out the car.

Napoleon followed him, keeping his concerned hidden behind occasional superficial jokes. "Show off," he whispered.

Illya thanked him quietly for underplaying the gravity of his situation. At least, one of them would keep the other from going insane. "There is a path in that direction. It goes all the way up to the top. We will have a better view of the base from th-" A violent cough interrupted his last word. He leaned on the car until it subsided and he could catch his breath. He glanced at Napoleon, staring at him impassively. "Allergies-" he gasped.

"Sure," he passed Illya his canteen. "Have some water."

Illya grimaced. "I don't think I can drink it."

"It's just water, Illya. You need it, no matter how funny it might taste, all right?" Napoleon pushed the canteen back to his friend. "Hold your breath; cover your nose and drink." He tried not to laugh as Illya's face wrinkled in disgust. He would not even comment upon it. "Good. Now, lead the way, Superman."

(o)(O)(o)

"Dr. Spencer? Daniels just reported. The house is empty." Laslo Dorian hated his work as the doctor's aid and it was worse when he was the bad news bearer. The doctor was not a patient person.

"I have no time for a wild goose chase, even if they are geese from Uncle. We're almost done here. You should be helping with the packing. Forget about the agents and-"

"But we have a lead, sir."

"A lead?" Spencer turned from the console and took off his goggles.

"There are witnesses that saw Solo getting in the car with one of the locals. A woman. That was right before the Red Cross reported the accident on the road."

Spencer smirked. The "accident" involved the loss of two of his men. He knew that the man responsible for it must be one of Uncle's top agents. "Is she still with them?"

"Her family lives in town. Our agents are going to her house now. Daniels requests instruction of how to proceed in case they don't find the agents."

"In case they don't find them, they should not leave witnesses, of course." The doctor shrugged and went back to his work. "Now, pick up the maps and blueprints. We must leave this place as we found it."

(o)(O)(o)

"On your right, you can see the main entrance," Illya pointed at the semi-darkness. "That's the official building, but the real action occurs underneath."

Napoleon followed Illya's voice with his binoculars. Through the infrared lens, he could spot certain points, images of doors and platforms. Even so, telling the objects apart from each other, required a lot of interpretation.

"The first structure is just a decoy; the laboratory of experts, so they call themselves. The authorities leave them alone because they think it's just part of some research on geothermal energy. Do you see the trapdoor in that corner?" Illya pointed to his left.

"I can't even see the corner, Illya," Napoleon lowered the binoculars and rubbed his eyes. "I hate these things. My eyes are getting sore and my knees are killing me." He sat with his back against a rock. "And I have ashes in the most uncomfortable places."

Illya chuckled. "Tenderfoot." His tone was more like a reproach than a joke. Some of his usually caustic sense of humor was missing. "We could get closer, but it's getting late and they might detect us with their security sensors."

Napoleon looked at him. Illya's eyes were reddish and teary. He seemed constantly irritated and shivery. Doctor Tower's talk about permanent damage made Napoleon felt guilty for not insisting on getting Illya out of that mission. Although he had been trying hard not to think about Louis, the name kept coming back at every step. He wondered how long it would be until Illya finally snapped. "How are you doing?" He spoke in a casual way.

Illya sighed and shook his head. "I have to ask you one thing; two things, actually. One, stop asking me the same question every five seconds and two, keep your voice down. Everybody here who is not Napoleon Solo, is on Plus-X. Their senses might not be as acute as mine, but I'm pretty sure they are listening."

"Right. I'm sorry-"

"Don't be sorry, just do as I say!" He sat back, rubbing his temple. "Damn!"

Napoleon picked up their equipment without saying a word. He could not stop thinking about how mad Louis was the last time they saw him, so aware of everything around him and yet, completely out of his senses. "We can call it a night." He spoke softly. There was no reaction from Illya. "I think this is doable... It's just about planning and a good set of explosives. You may draw a diagram of the compound and we'll prepare a surprise visit." Napoleon lowered his eyes, searching for the right word. "Look, Illya... I just want you to know that I'm here, you're not alone."

Illya stood up as quickly as he could. He did not have time for mawkishness. His mind was occupied in more urgent things, like not passing out with the next wave of pain. "Napoleon," he whispered, "I don't mean to be rude... it's just that-" He clenched his teeth and held his head in his hands. He had to make a big effort to stay on his feet.

Napoleon came closer. He got Illya's attention by grabbing his arm. "Illya, what is it? Just tell me, I need to know what you feel."

Illya closed his eyes and for two long seconds, he did not talk. He fell on his knees and waited for his voice to come back. "Have you- have you ever had sinusitis?" Napoleon nodded and Illya half smiled. "Think about ten times that pain, drilling mercilessly towards the center of your brain." He sat back on his heels, exhausted all of a sudden. "Do you have a handkerchief? My nose is bleeding again."

Napoleon searched inside his pocket. "Here, you can keep it. Now you know what to give me for Christmas." He sat next to Illya until he regained his composure. Then, he spoke again. "If you need it, I have painkillers in my survival kit."

"Those things will knock me down. You need me in my five senses." He shook his head. "I can't draw the map of this place half asleep, can I?" He coughed.

"You shouldn't have taken that shower, Illya, being so prone to colds."

"My breathing is too shallow because the smell of sulfur irritates my nostrils." He panted for air. "I think I'm coming down with pneumonia."

Napoleon patted Illya's shoulder. "My poor friend, this is going to be one of those missions, eh?"

Illya chuckled. "At least you're here. I won't have to tell you about it."

Napoleon put away his binoculars and took a last glance at the darkness. "It looks like a big emptiness. Nothing moves there."

"You should see it in the daytime; it's an extension of gray sand, just like the beach, only without the ocean. They call it Playa Hermosa."

"Beautiful Beach? It looks more like the Forbidden Planet to me.*" Napoleon said, standing up to pull Illya to his feet. "Is it safe to go back to the house now?"

Illya shrugged. "I can't tell. Everybody is back from their workplaces, has their TVs, and radios on. I can barely listen to my own thoughts."

"It's okay. If we find uninvited guests, we'll just kick them out." He did not let go Illya's arm until they got in the car. With or without a confrontation with Thrush men, this was going to be a very long night.

(o)(O)(o)

The house was dark and quiet. Napoleon discovered some footprints in the ashes. "At least three men."

"Only one entered the house," Illya confirmed. "They're all gone now." He felt suddenly overwhelmed as the pain began to strike again. He rubbed the back of his neck but it did not help. "Napoleon... things are happening around..." He covered his ears and moaned. He bent over until his knees and hands touched the ground.

Napoleon crouched next to him, and Illya grabbed his arm with so much strength that made him winced. "Illya?"

Illya's eyes were shut while his head moved in different directions. "I hear cars coming and going... people knocking at the door... voices over voices... everybody talking at the same time!" He gasped. "Start packing, we're leaving... who's packing...? who's leaving...? She's not there... the weather man says it's going to rain tomorrow..." He looked at Napoleon with wide eyes. "I can't stand this... Can we turn it off? Please, we've got to turn it off..."

"We'll find the way... I'll find the way," Napoleon said. He supported his friend until he was strong enough to get back on his feet. They walked slowly to the house and straight to the bedroom. Napoleon put Illya to bed and he sat on a chair nearby. Illya tossed and turned with his eyes closed, his fists clenching on the blankets until his knuckles went white. Sometimes, he mumbled in a language that Napoleon identified as Russian. "You're not making any sense, tovarich," he whispered, "not even in your native language." He looked in his first-aid kit for a hypodermic.

Illya opened his eyes. He stared at Napoleon as the needle entered his arm. "I can hear you breathe... I can hear your heartbeat..." He gasped. "I think I can hear you blink..."

"Relax, Illya. It'll take only a couple of seconds."

Illya shook his head violently. "The map... I've got to draw the map..." He tried to sit up but Napoleon stopped him with a gentle hand on his chest.

"There will be time for that, don't worry." Napoleon kept his voice calm and reassuring, although he doubted Illya could understand him. "I'll be in the living room," he said, spreading an extra blanket over his friend. "Try to sleep, now." He closed the door behind him and went to sit on the porch. Despite the clouds of ashes, the day refused to fade away just yet. Napoleon could see hints of light still sneaking through the branches of the trees. He took a deep breath and felt ashes in his throat. He closed his eyes and tried to hear the sounds of the night. Everything was so still that if he strained his ears hard enough, he could listen to the music in the only discotheque in town. He covered his ears and the noise was gone. It should be as easy as that... he thought.

The volcano roared a couple of times. Napoleon could not care less. His only concern for the night would be to see Illya back to normal in the morning...

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon did not remember having fallen asleep on the couch or for how long. He just woke up to someone singing outside. He sat up and checked his watch. It was not even six yet. Napoleon rubbed his eyes and frowned. "Illya?" He barely recognized his voice.

"...But it's too late to say you're sorry, how would I know, why should I care ..." Illya was on his knees drawing on the ashes with his fingers. He barely acknowledged Napoleon when he came closer. "Please don't bother tryin' to find her, she's not there..."*

"Hey," Napoleon said. "You got up early. How do you feel?"

Illya looked up at the sky and squinted. "The weather man was right. It's going to rain early today." He resumed his drawings. "Did you sleep well?"

"Me? Sure. I didn't hear you coming down. How's your headache?" Napoleon tried to get Illya's attention, but his friend kept drawing and humming the song. "Illya?"

"Napoleon?" Illya smiled mischievously. "You want to know something funny about those opiate analgesic drugs you gave me last night? They really stimulate creativity... I feel so light... I could fly... if I had wings, of course."

"Of course," Napoleon frowned. "Why don't we go back in the house? Before it rains." He pulled Illya up, without paying much attention to the whimsical drawings on the ground.

"Oops!" Illya said pushing Napoleon away. He staggered as a drunk as he went forward and tilted his head. "S-someone is coming up the hill."

"A car?" Napoleon looked at the horizon.

"Of course not. No motor car. Can't you hear it flapping?"

"Flapping?"

"Yes, flapping. It's a bike... flap, flap, flap..." He chuckled. "You can't hear it yet... The bike is too big and his legs are too short... It'll take him half an hour to get here, I reckon."

"He? Who?"

"Marcos, I suppose," Illya shrugged. "Mayela's brother." He rubbed his neck and sighed. "It's hot isn't it?" He entered the house and went straight to the shower. Before Napoleon could stop him, he was fully clothed under the icy water. He let out one loud scream and then, he leaned exhausted against the wall. He turned off the shower and looked at Napoleon, who was staring at him with curiosity and concern.

"Feeling any better?" Napoleon handed him a towel.

"Fab," Illya smiled, stepping out. He was soaked wet, and a little shaky, but his eyes had recovered their usual glow. "I guess I have to change my clothes, again."

"Take your time," Napoleon sighed. He followed Illya with his eyes until he disappeared in the second level. "Two weeks in La Riviera, Mr. Waverly, you owe me that much." He entered the shower and closed the door.

(o)(O)(o)

Illya rubbed his hair vigorously with the towel. He sat on the bed trying to put his thoughts in order. He hated painkillers because they always left him with a monster headache and a cloudy mind. Had he been dreaming all the time? Voices, noise, screaming and music... It was hard to concentrate on just one thing at the time. On top of it, someone was humming.

He came downstairs to find Napoleon combing his hair in front of a very tiny mirror hanging by the stove. Illya did not know how he managed, but with his black satin bathrobe, expensive cologne and aftershave lotion, Napoleon always looked as if he had spent the night in a five-star hotel.

"You must be in a good mood, humming and everything," Illya said sitting at the table. "Were did you get that song?"

"What?" Napoleon shrugged. "I heard it somewhere... I think I heard it from you." He failed to see why Illya gave it so much importance. He went into the bathroom to get dressed. "Catchy, isn't it?"

Illya closed his eyes, humming the melody. He shook his head. "She's not there... It reminds me of Mayela... she was playing it on her radio when we first met. I probably dreamed of her last night..."

Napoleon buttoned his shirt and looked around for his shoes. He smiled. "That's nice. Now you have a crush on the girl. Maybe you're not that hopeless after all."

"What are you talking about?" Illya looked at him. "I just..." An alarming thought crossed his mind. "Napoleon, I didn't dream of her. I heard her. She was screaming last night." He sprung up. "She might be in trouble!" He ran toward the door.

"Hey! Wait up!" Napoleon followed him with his shoes in his hands.

Before Illya got in the car, the bicycle finally arrived. He and Napoleon waited as the boy ran toward them.

"Marcos! ¿Qué pasa?" Illya asked.

"Se llevaron a Mayela," The boy gasped.

"¿Quiénes se la llevaron?"

"Tres hombres vestidos de negro."

"Three men in black took Mayela," Illya translated.

"Thrush, no doubt," Napoleon said, hopping while putting on his shoes. "What about his family? Are they okay?"

Illya translated the question and listened to the answer. "He doesn't know, they sent him to us with a message."

Napoleon took out his pen. "Open channel B. This is Napoleon Solo speaking. We need a survey-and-protect for the family... ¿Cuál es tu apellido?" What's your last name? He asked Marcos in slow Spanish.

"Gonzalez López," he said.

"Gonzalez López, in San Juan de Aquinas."

"Understood, this is Agent Fonseca, Puntarenas division. I'm sending a local patrol; they'll be there in ten minutes."

"Thank you, keep me post, Solo out." He clicked twice. "Relay channel F to New York, with Dr. Tower, please." He looked at Illya glaring at him. "Sorry, but I promised to keep him posted," he told him, walking away while Illya reassured the boy that everything would be all right.

"Napoleon? Any changes?"

"He's getting really cranky." Napoleon whispered. Keeping the conversation away from Illya was rather useless but he trusted his friend's discretion. Of course, that would have been too much to ask for.

"He sedated me last night against my will." Illya stood in front of Napoleon, in a defiant position, arms crossed over his chest.

"He was in terrible pain and talking nonsense."

"I asked him not to do it!"

"Guys, please. I have two ears, but I can only listen to one of you at a time," the doctor said. "Illya, I need to know what kind of symptoms you are experiencing so far."

"He's having difficulty breathing and he's coughing like crazy."

"Napoleon!" Illya snatched the pen from his hand and turned his back on him. "I've been having..." he cleared his throat and sighed, "difficulty breathing." He warned Napoleon with a glare. "...and coughing."

"He thinks he has pneumonia," Napoleon said behind Illya.

"And he's probably right. If he's not breathing properly, he might have developed an infection in his lungs," Tower sighed. "Do you have a fever, Illya?"

Illya slapped Napoleon's hand when he touched his forehead. "No, I don't."

"Oh, yes, he does."

Doctor Tower took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Illya, I have to believe Napoleon. I'm telling Mr. Waverly to remove you from the mission. You need medical attention."

"George, please, I can't leave now." Illya rubbed the back of his neck. "Besides, I may have an inner ear infection which disables me for flying, right?"

"Illya, you must stop reading medical magazines... but you're right." There was a pause. "You also know you could cause yourself permanent damage, don't you?"

"I'll be careful," Illya smiled and returned the pen to Napoleon. "Mr. Solo will take care of me."

Napoleon rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I'll keep him on a leash."

"Be careful, guys. I don't want the old man giving me any grief on account of any of you. So, if anyone asks, these are my recommendations; eat well, have some fluids, and plenty of rest. Don't go climbing up hills, scuba diving, or fighting... Oh, yes, don't stand on your head."

Illya and Napoleon stared at each other. "At least, I can avoid the last thing," Illya shrugged. "What are the odds of all that happening at once?"

"Don't worry, George. I'll bring him back in one piece. Solo out." He turned to Illya and pointed at him with his pen. "Stop jumping into my conferences, Kuryakin."

"Get over it, we have more important things to discuss." Illya went back to Mayela's brother, who had been sitting on the porch all that time. "He says that the men in black will release his sister when I return the reagent." He shook his head. "Napoleon, it was my fault. I shouldn't have come this way."

"They probably saw her getting in my car."

Napoleon's pen beeped again. "Fonseca here. My men are at the Gonzalez' house. They have secured the perimeter, and they'll remain there until further instructions. I'll personally supervise the operations as soon as I get to San Juan de Aquinas."

"Thank you, Fonseca. That will be all for now. Be alert, Solo out." He tucked his pen in his pocket as the boy pedaled away.

"I sent him home. There is nothing else for him to do here." Illya sounded down and lost. He sat on the porch steps with his face in his hands. He shuddered and shook his head. "I heard the men at the laboratory... They're leaving. As soon as they get the reagent back, they're going to blow out that volcano for good..." He sighed painfully, and quoted: "I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR."*

Napoleon paced around, trying not to think of Illya's peculiar behavior. It had to be the painkillers talking... He refused to believe that his friend was losing the battle against insanity. He stared at the ashes, while his mind was looking for something encouraging to say. Knowing Illya for some time, he knew how hard it was trying to lift his spirits. The Russian was rarely down for the count, but once he got there... Napoleon stopped in front of the doodles on the ground.

"I should've make that diagram of the compound last night before you got me drugged... If I could only remember how many corridors... I know there were five... or six..." Illya sighed.

"Six," said Napoleon.

"Yes, and the levels... How many levels are there?" Illya shut his eyes, trying to remember.

"Two levels and a subterranean floor..."

Illya looked at Napoleon warily. "How do you know that?"

"I'm a psychic," he crouched down, pointing at the ground. "This is what you were drawing this morning; the floor plan of the infamous compound."

Illya got closer. The drawing could not be more perfect if it had been made on paper. Illya snorted. "I told you about those opiate analgesic drugs..."

"Normal people just sleep them off." Napoleon smiled. "So, before the rain actually comes and washes off your masterpiece, could you tell me where the air ducts are?"

"Here, here and here," Illya pointed at the map. "The reagent is here, underwater. There are only two ways to reach it, through the main entrance, or through this lake."

"Thermal waters?"

"Most of the day," Illya said. "Temperatures change every eight or ten hours. The lake can get very hot then, but I have figured out the cycles." He looked at Napoleon with hopeful eyes. "Can we do it? Can we at least rescue Mayela; she's innocent in all of this. I couldn't forgive myself if she's hurt-"

"Calm down, Illya." Napoleon stood up and scratched his head. "I might have a plan. I'll tell you about it over breakfast." He saw Illya grimace at the mention of food. "I'm in charge, all right? We'll take Tower's list of recommendations, I think we can follow at least two without much trouble, you need to eat and drink. If we're lucky, you won't have to fight, or climb heights... we'll have to discuss the scuba diving, though."

"Don't forget standing on my head. I don't want to do that either." Illya accepted Napoleon's hand over his shoulder as they both walked into the house.

TBC

*Doctor George Tower, The Brain-Killer Affair, season 1, episode 24: *Doctor George Tower, The Brain-Killer Affair, season 1, episode 24: This was the doctor Napoleon called to watch over Mr. Waverly when he was poisoned at the beginning of the episode.

A/N: He seemed to have a good rapport with Napoleon and be well informed about Uncle's activities. Although he wasn't in The Minus-X Affair, Dr Tower could perfectly well have seen Louis' case. That spared me from coming up with yet another OC.

*Forbidden Planet (1956), science-fiction film

*She's not there, by The Zombies, 1964

*Quoting Roderick Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allan Poe. He suffered from "a morbid acuteness of his senses," that tortured him till the verge of insanity.

ACT V: In the line of duty...

Doctor Spencer entered the small room that served as office next to his laboratory. He was pleased to see the young lady sitting comfortably in the only couch. Two guards watched her from the door. "Miss Gonzalez, I presume. Have these gentlemen treated you right?"

Mayela's initial shock was slowly fading; now, she was rather angry. She did not want to talk with that or any other man in that place. Nonetheless, keeping quiet would not give her any answers either. "My father delivers your milk, my mother and I make tortillas for you," she narrowed her eyes.

"I apologize for the inconvenience but in this business, we can't help making use of the resources we can get." Spencer leaned forward. "Tell me, did Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin say anything about our operations?"

"Solo? Ku-rya-kin?" She chuckled. "What crazy names."

Spencer straightened up and shook his head. "You look like a smart lady. But definitely, you can't lie." He signed for take one of the men to get her away. "Stay put, I want her near to welcome the Uncle agents when they arrive."

Laslo waited until Spencer was alone to come closer. "The boy delivered the message. But our men were attacked and defeated by local police and Uncle agents. The Gonzalez are out of reach now."

"It doesn't matter anymore; we have the girl and soon, we'll have the two agents." Spencer began to gather his things to put them in a cardboard box. "I'm looking forward to see Kuryakin again. I'm curious about how he's handling his new acquired abilities."

"With the dose you gave him, he should be dead by now."

"Don't enjoy the idea so much. If he dies, I'll personally put your head on a silver plate for Thrush." Spencer pointed at him with his letter opener. "Kuryakin still has to give us something back, remember? Something that he stole under your watch."

"You gave him the drug. He was not going anywhere until the drug kicked in and he found the way out." Laslo stopped. Spencer's killer glare was the warning; one more word and he would be in serious trouble.

Surprisingly enough, the doctor softened his expression at the last minute and even dared to smile. "Never mind, Kuryakin is on his way back here and you'll have your chance to rectify your mistakes."

"Doctor Spencer," one of the white-gowned scientists called him from the control panel. "We're ready to test the motor again."

"Good, let's keep our fingers crossed." He came closer and pushed a button. The machine began to hum.

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon made his last calculations. On paper, everything seemed simple and easy. He was not too confident, though. He looked at Illya, working on his own calculations, and hesitated before asking him a question. The Russian did not even bother lifting his head from his writing as he sighed. "Go ahead, ask."

Napoleon stared at him, amused by his friend's perception. "Are you sure you can go on with this?"

Illya shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "First of all, we have to put an end to that device. Second, we can't leave Mayela there, and third, if we don't do the first, we won't live enough to regret not having done the second. If Doctor Spencer doesn't get the reagent back, he will aim all he's got against the volcano, and it is too close to the main cities." He rubbed his temple and shut his eyes. "Oh, and fourth, lower down your voice, please. Between you and the cacophony outside, I don't know how much more I can take."

"I keep forgetting, I'm sorry," Napoleon whispered, going back to his notes. "So, how many air ducts does this place have? I counted three," he whispered.

"Six, but you only need those three. The detonators must go on these points, precisely."

"Precisely?" asked Napoleon with a hint of enjoyment. He did not have any doubt about Illya's accuracy in any way but he could not help toying with his mind once in a while.

Illya ignored him, while showing him his notes. "These are the coordinates, I think I remembered them... precisely," he grinned.

"Precisely." Napoleon folded the piece of paper and put it in the heel of his shoe. "All right, I take the high road and you take the low road. We meet half way and rescue Mayela? Any ideas about where she might be?"

"The place is too small. If she's not in the lab, Spencer must have her in his office, near the main door."

"I hope so. That would spare us a lot of time," said Napoleon. "It looks simple."

"It is, if we don't forget the little details such as opening locks, engaging the enemy, fighting here and there..." He stared seriously at Napoleon. "Do you think you will manage all that on your own? That's the hardest part of the plan."

"Don't sell yourself short, Illya. What about you scuba diving without an oxygen tank?" Napoleon gave him a wary look. He pushed a glass of water towards Illya, the only liquid that he seemed to tolerate for the moment. "You're exposing your ears and your lungs. Doctor Tower will not like this. Maybe we should switch assignments."

"He doesn't have to know. We discussed this already. You don't know what the reagent looks like or where to look for it. It's faster this way." Illya stared at the glass as if it were arsenic instead of water. He took a sip and winced.

"That lake is a little deep-"

"I can hold my breath up to four minutes."

"With pneumonia? You'll be lucky if you don't chock after thirty seconds." Napoleon's expression was now deadly serious. "Not to mention your sore eyes and ears. Illya-"

"Napoleon, if you don't trust me to do my part of the plan just say it. I was doing it exceptionally well before I was betrayed." He drank almost half a glass of water. He felt nauseous but did not show it.

"I trust you with my life, that hasn't changed." Napoleon leaned forward. "But you're sick and getting sicker. I don't know if you're prepared for an early retirement but I'm not prepared for getting another partner just yet."

Illya smiled a knowing grin. "You have no idea how much I've waited to hear you say that."

Napoleon laughed but did not have time to reply with a joke. Suddenly, Illya flinched. Pain was coming stronger; he had to apply himself to control it. He groaned and shuddered. Napoleon stood next to him, pressing a wet cloth over Illya's forehead. He did not say anything, waiting uneasily for the pain to subside. As soon as he felt Illya taking the cloth in his hands, he sat down next to him.

"The buzzing... that blasted machine makes a lot of buzzing..." The cloth on his face muffled his trembling voice. He glanced at Napoleon, who was staring at him seriously. Illya sighed with resignation. "All right, let me have it."

"We passed that point of discussion already," Napoleon whispered. "I just want you to be very careful, Illya. Mr. Waverly would never forgive me if something happened to his golden boy."

Illya looked at him with a slow smile. His gaze was heavy but eager to go on. "I don't care what's on my way... as long as we get this job done," he shrugged.

"Oh, that is a given," Napoleon patted him on the back. "Now, go to bed and try to sleep, I've got the feeling that this is going to be a very long night."

(o)(O)(o)

The daylight was fading. Napoleon glanced at his watch. Soon, it would be their time to leave. He looked upstairs, hesitating to wake up Illya. He would have wanted to watch over his sleep, but Illya's senses were getting so sensitive that the slightest movement or noise was disturbingly painful. Napoleon heard him moaning several times and he doubted that Illya was getting any rest at all.

He entered the room, knowing that Illya had already heard him coming. The Russian was sitting in the bed, with his arms around his knees, struggling with the tremors. His face was covered in sweat and his eyes were red and glassy. There was blood on the pillowcase but Illya shrugged before Napoleon could say anything.

"My nose bled a little, but I'm all right now," he mumbled. "Are you ready?"

"I was going to ask you the same question." Napoleon took a cloth from the table and dried Illya's forehead. "I can call for reinforcements. You don't have to come along."

"Do we have to discuss this again? There is no time for bringing more people. I know it looks bad, but I'm fine... I promise you, I can do this."

"Very well, then." He helped Illya to stand up. "Let's do this."

They took the road up the hill. Although it seemed enemy free, Napoleon preferred driving in the dark. Illya knew that it was up to him to detect any danger ahead. It was hard though, his hearing was so acute that not a single noise escaped him. He could hardly tell them apart from each other, much less identify whether any of them represented a risky situation.

They parked near the lake, at the top of the mountain. Many thoughts came to Napoleon's mind, but he would not want to overwhelm Illya with his concerns. They had come that far and there was no time for second thoughts.

Illya sat on the edge and prepared to jump. "If I don't make it," he said with his eyes fixed on the water.

"I'll make sure that they don't make it either."

Napoleon did not move until Illya disappeared in the darkened waters. He could not help but to wonder if this would be the last time they would see each other alive. Such a grim thought hovered in his mind every single mission and this one could not be the exception. He returned to his car and took the road to the laboratory in the old crater. Before he got to a more open space, Napoleon decided to throw one last safety line. He stopped to make a phone call. "Open channel B, Agent Fonseca, please."

"Mr. Solo? Fonseca here."

"Me and my partner are following a lead to the laboratory in the volcano. I need you to stand by in San Juan de Aquinas in case that something goes wrong."

"Will you need reinforcements?"

"No reinforcements. If something goes wrong, there is a strong possibility that we'll need to evacuate the town." The silence on the other side of the communicator was eloquent. Napoleon sighed. "It's just a very remote possibility, okay? We'll do our best job here."

"I know. My men we'll be ready to evacuate San Juan de Aquinas... Just in case."

"Oh, yes, I might need a helicopter, in case things go well. Could you give me a landing zone near the top of the mountain?"

"With pleasure. There is a clear space next to the TV and radio towers. You just give us a call and we'll pick you up right away."

"Thank you, Fonseca. Solo out."

(o)(O)(o)

"Doctor Spencer, the sentry camera has detected a vehicle approaching the perimeter," the guard in the main entrance said.

"Excellent, just in time for dinner. I'm on my way." Spencer left his office.

Napoleon walked to the entrance. He chose the sector where the light was poorer. The wind shuffled ashes around, forming little tornadoes. After several showers, the ground was muddy, which was an advantage for Napoleon to walk without being heard. He stayed close to the walls, attentive to any shadow moving towards him. The echoes of the wind contrasted with the volcano snoring and that made it almost impossible to detect footsteps or any other kind of noise. Lately, Napoleon had developed some respect for his five senses. If he could not trust them, he would be simply lost. A brief thought of Illya interrupted his concentration. He shook his head and kept walking. There would be time later to take good care of his friend.

A shadow moved right in front of him. It was a man with a machine gun. There was still some distance between him and Napoleon. Fortunately, the annoying noise was now working in Napoleon's favor. It made it easy to prepare a surprise attack from the back. Napoleon held a grip on the guard until he fainted due to the lack of air. He changed clothes with the guard and prepared to follow the next step of the plan.

Illya had plunged in the pool confident of finding his way back to the subterranean cave. There was no light to guide him, but he kept his hands on the mossy walls as he went down deep into nothingness. He could not concentrate enough to calculate the time he had been down and how much longer it would be. He felt his throat tightening and the blood pulsing in his temples. The pain in his ears irradiated from inside out and every single movement of his head and neck was excruciating. Little by little, the curves on the rocks and the change of direction indicated to him that he had finally reached the other side.

Dimmed lights shone on his eyes, as he could see the clarity through the water. His head broke of the water and he breathed. That instinctive reflex cost him a violent cough that threatened him with unconsciousness. With the last drop of adrenaline, Illya pushed his hands on the porous rocks and lifted himself off the rippling water. He felt the warmth of the water running down his back. His body was heavy as he laid his back on the rocks, his chest heaving in a quiet fight to get some air into his lungs. Suddenly, a buzzing in his head made him writhe in pain as he covered his ears with both hands. Struggling with dizziness, Illya was able to sit up. He clenched his teeth and waited for the pain to subside without screaming.

He was lightheaded and for a second, his sight went blurred. Nonetheless, there was no time to regroup. He put his physical pain aside and looked around for any familiar landscape that helped him to remember his last time in that cave. He recognized the entrance and recalled his frantic run searching for a good place to put the infamous macguffin. A couple of rocks placed strategically between a fissure in the wall caught his attention immediately. Illya crawled toward that point; he did not trust his legs to carry him just yet.

The reagent was a small capsule, not much bigger than a matchbox. Illya put it inside his shoe and attempted to get on his feet. He was happy just to be able to walk leaning on the walls. By when he reached the exit into the tunnels, his strength was almost back. At least, this part of the plan was completed.

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon sneaked into the compound without much trouble. The two guards at the door were taken by surprise when Napoleon walked towards them and said hello. He was already too close when they realized that he was not one of them. Napoleon punched one on the stomach with his weapon and the other received a blow on the chin. The retaliation forced Napoleon to plunge down and roll over. He found a desk that served him as a shield. He opened fired and hit one of the guards.

The doors behind Napoleon began to close and he had to run. He barely made it to the other side before the doors slid together. It seemed Solo had scored another point, until the doors ahead of him and that led to the corridor, closed too. He tried to go back to the main entrance but those doors were closed as well. Napoleon knew what would come next. A bluish steam sneaked in and, although he held his breath as much as he could, it was not enough to avoid inhaling.

Napoleon felt his legs and arms getting heavier and he could not keep himself on his feet. He fell down on his knees, putting his hands on the floor as a way of maintaining control. But his strength abandoned him. He did not feel his eyes closing down, one second later; he was unconscious.

Illya reached the second tunnel without more problems than the ones he already had. He staggered like a drunk but stopping now would be suicidal. There were no options. Everything should go according to plan; many lives depended on that. His memories of that place were coming back at each turn. He had had the chance to walk up and down the compound for a while before Laslo betrayed him. That had been these people's first mistake; the second had been giving him the drug. It would have been easier for them to kill him right away. They should have known they could not break him. Torture only made him mad.

He reckoned that the effects of the drug were reaching their highest point. Louis' ghost kept coming to his mind... Illya felt trapped in a box, a very noisy box from which there was no escape. Every second was excruciating torture, but it would not change anything. He was not yielding just because of that. He intended to make the best out of the situation, as long as his brain still worked. He knew it would not last, but if he was going down, he would take these goons with him.

He heard voices. He stopped.

"He put down Harris and Ortega, but didn't go too far after that."

"These Uncle agents have more reputation than brains. He should've known that this place was booby trapped."

The laughs were still at a distance. They were talking about Napoleon. One down, one to go... he thought. Now, everything depended on him.

(o)(O)(o)

The corridor extended for other ten feet before ending on a wall. Illya could hear steps surrounding him. He turned to his left, then to his right, uncertain of which way to choose. Any place he went, someone would be waiting. If they caught him with the reagent, all the mission would be lost... The claustrophobic sensation of being in a box was overwhelming his senses. This had to end soon, before it drove him crazy. He looked around at the doors, air duct grills... he had arrived exactly to one of the places where Napoleon was supposed to put some explosives, how convenient... He reached the reagent inside his shoe. Things should go according to plan from now on.

Illya listened attentively to the steps and whispers. They had found him. This was it. He turned exactly in the direction his captors would appear. He straightened up, glared at them, and raised his hands.

(o)(O)(o)

Illya did not pass out when the men grabbed him and tied him up. He allowed them to half drag him into the laboratory. Dr. Spencer greeted him with a smile. Illya replied with a smirk. His eyes set immediately on Napoleon and Mayela. They both were chained against the wall. Besides being unconscious on his feet, Napoleon looked unharmed.

Illya was so concerned for his friends that he did not pay much attention to the men tying his feet together and lifting him off the floor. He was in an awkward position that would not do any good to his already deteriorated condition. Dr. Spencer came closer to examine his pupils.

"Your eyes are really sore. Has this affected your vision in any ways?"

Illya could not believe that kind of question in a moment like this. Or maybe, he did. This was a mad doctor, after all.

"How about your hearing and sense of smell? Any problems?"

"I take it that you're not asking that because you're concerned about my health." Illya found it difficult to coordinate talking and breathing. His lungs were crashing under pressure.

"Come on, my friend. It's pure scientific curiosity. You must understand the concept. I think you have a very inquisitive mind yourself, don't you? Using this drug as a weapon against the enemy could be a breakthrough for the industry, don't you think so?"

"I'm not in a mood for chatting, as you should understand." Illya kept a neutral tone despite the tremor in his voice. "Could we expedite things a bit I'm not feeling too well in this position."

"Certainly," Spencer smiled again. "Tell me, Mr. Kuryakin, are you going to talk voluntarily or do I have to get a little rough on you."

"Actually," Illya grinned, "I don't think I will talk at all, so..."

Napoleon took a deep breath and waited with his eyes closed until his mind caught up with reality. When he was ready, he looked around. As he had predicted before passing out, he was a prisoner now. He saw Mayela staring at him and then Illya in front of them. Napoleon's eyebrows rose in surprise.

"Illya!"

"Mr. Solo, care to join us?" Spencer said kindly.

"Illya," Napoleon saw his friend turning precariously to look at him. "You're... standing on your head."

"Yes, I realized that already..." Illya panted. "On a bright note, I think my sinusitis is clearing out."

"Oh, Dr. Tower is going to be so happy to hear that." Napoleon sighed, unable to hid his concern. Trust Illya to get into the most uncomfortable situations. "How are you ears?"

"Hurting awfully, thank you for reminding me of." Illya looked at the girl and tried to smile. "Estás bien?" Are you all right?

"Bien, gracias," she smiled in a sad way.

"Enough of silly conversation," Spencer said. "I need answers now."

"Please, lower down your voice," Illya said.

Spencer glared at him. He bent over to see Illya eye to eye. "Where is my VIRGIN?"

Illya twitched in pain. "Ouch!"

"Sorry, the what?" Napoleon frowned.

"The VIRGIN," Laslo stepped forward. "We've been looking everywhere, he must have taken it with him!"

"Illya, you ran away with a VIRGIN? You didn't mention that before," Napoleon smiled.

"Have you looked in the sink?" Illya asked.

"We looked! There aren't any VIRGINS here!" Laslo replied.

Mayela felt several stares on her. "Hey! Don't look at me!"

"I'm completely sure they're talking about a very different kind of VIRGIN," Napoleon told her.

"Would you be so kind as to lower down your voices, all of you! No more yelling, please." Illya managed to swing and turn to Dr Spencer. "I couldn't take it with me because I had to swim, all right? Someone else must have it. Maybe one of your men is a traitor." He glared at Laslo.

"Laslo Dorian, I presume," Napoleon said. "I knew something smelled like a rat in this place... and my senses have not been heightened."

Laslo rushed towards Napoleon and slapped his face. There was no response. Napoleon lifted his chin and grinned. "Certainly, this makes you feel better; hitting a man in chains."

Laslo took his keys to open the shackles but Spencer stopped him.

"What the hell do you think you're doing? This is not the place to pick up stupid fights!" He looked at Napoleon. "Nice try, by the way."

"Can't blame me," he shrugged.

"Now, let's go back to business. Mr. Kuryakin, you have something that's mine."

"Don't blame it on me; it's not my fault that you couldn't keep an eye on your VIRGIN."

Napoleon noticed Illya's voice dimming in energy. Time was pressing. "Well, it's hard to find one nowadays and harder to keep a track on all of them," he smiled and turned to Mayela, who frowned at him. "Sorry, bad joke," he said. He went back to Spencer. "Forgive my ignorance but, what does VIRGIN stand for, in this case?"

"Volcanic Ionic Reagent for Geothermal Isolated Nucleosynthesis," the doctor said proudly.

"H-he came up with that name all by himself, can you believe it?" Illya grinned.

"And I'm not surprised." Napoleon glanced at Illya. The Russian did not move and had his eyes closed.

Mayela looked in the same direction. "Illya?"

"Illya!" Napoleon called him with enough authority to make Illya open his eyes. "Are you all right?"

"Aren't I always?" He answered without opening his eyes. "I was thinking of my uncle Boris..."

"Your uncle Boris?" Napoleon asked warily. He could not tell if this was some kind of clue or Illya was hallucinating.

"Yes, Boris Macguffin... He loved fireworks... H-he got lost once and they found him asleep next to his fireworks... It was two o'clock... east from the storeroom..."

Napoleon made a mental note on that. He winked at Mayela in a reassuring manner. "Illya, you're talking nonsense."

"I don't know if I can do this anymore, Napoleon..." he sighed. "It's just too much..."

Napoleon looked anxious as he shook his chains. "Take it easy, my friend, don't let them break you."

Illya exhaled, frustrated. "I'm sorry... I really am... but I can't take more of this..." He turned to Spencer. "Please..."

"Finally!" Dr. Spencer came closer. "Are you going to tell me where the VIRGIN is?"

"Better yet..."

"Illya, don't," Napoleon insisted.

"Sorry, Napoleon, I suppose you would have been better than me in such a predicament, but-"

"You may write him a letter after you tell me where the VIRGIN is," Spencer said.

"I can't tell you... but I can show you..."

Spencer narrowed his eyes. Could it be a trap? He signed for Laslo to free Illya. "Be careful; unconscious, he would be useless."

"Very much appreciated." Illya reached the floor with his hands and then, his feet and knees. Laslo pulled him up but Illya was too dizzy to keep balance for long. He tumbled and landed on the table where Spencer kept his notes and papers on the weapon. In his fall, Illya pushed several test tubes that went to break on the papers. "I'm terribly sorry," he said, grinning.

"He did it in purpose!" Laslo was about to slap him when Spencer stopped him.

"Never mind. Once we have the VIRGIN, nothing else matters. Just bring him here."

Illya rejected Laslo's reluctant helping hand. He walked straight, then staggered, then, he straightened up again. He pointed at Napoleon and Mayela. "Let them go. You don't need them anymore."

"Nice try, but no," Spencer said. "However, there is no need to keep them here. Laslo, take them to my office and put one guard at the door." Before the man protested about leaving Solo under someone else's supervision, Spencer added, "you have to keep an eye on our working team, remember?"

Laslo grunted but he and another guard opened the shackles. As soon as Mayela was free, Illya rushed toward them. He put his arms around her neck and laid his forehead against hers. His voice was soft but loud enough for anyone to hear.

"Mayela, love, I'm so sorry for what you've been through. I didn't mean to cause you so much trouble..."

She looked puzzled but smiled all the same. "It's okay, I guess. Are you all right?"

Napoleon kept quiet, watching the guards surrounding Illya. At this point, anything could happen and he was not sure how much Illya could take.

"It's not all right. I put you in danger, I'll never forgive myself." Illya panted. His eyes smiled right before he pulled Mayela towards him. Without any more words, he kissed her.

Napoleon had to bit his inner lip to avoid bursting into laughter. He turned to Laslo and Spencer, both surprised and annoyed. Laslo glanced at his watch as though waiting for the doctor to intervene.

"Such a waste of time!" He protested.

"Mr. Dorian, you're not a romantic." Spencer signed the guard to break up the embrace.

Illya felt a pull and a push before ending up on the floor. He met Napoleon's disapproving glance.

"Oh, Illya, of all the places and times, you had to choose this one?"

Illya shrugged and stood up by his own means. He was surprised at how much energy he had lost in so little time. He turned slowly to Spencer and sighed. "Shall we?"

Napoleon put himself between the girl and the guards before they got rough and pushed her to move. She looked at him with inquisitive eyes but he only smiled. "Not a word. We'll talk later."

They walked to Spencer's office. Napoleon waited for the doors to be locked before beginning a quick scanning for mics. There was no time for a thorough sweep but he was satisfied. He came to the girl, who was staring at him. "Do you have it?" he asked, pointing at her mouth.

She nodded. She felt the foreign object between her teeth and her inner cheek. She reached and took out a very small pick. She almost laughed at her own silliness. "I almost gave him away when Illya put that inside my mouth."

Napoleon went back to the door. "You must excuse Illya. His manners get lost in translation when he's under pressure. But he only does these things in the line of duty." He unlocked the door and turned to her. "He didn't mean to-"

Mayela was sitting at the desk, swivelling absently on the chair. She looked disappointed, as she played with the ring in her chain. Napoleon crouched in front of her with a kind smile. She corresponded with a shrug. "Boy, this is so awkward," she said.

"Of course not. It would've been if he had kissed me." He chuckled. "Then, they would have noticed that something was wrong." Her laugh was a relief. "And talking for experience, there is nothing more encouraging than kissing a beautiful girl before going into battle."

She felt blushing. Then, her expression changed. "Is there going to be a battle?" She was alarmed.

"Not before you leave." Napoleon took her by the hand. "I have a couple of errands to do, and then, you go away. You know the drill. Stay behind me all the time."

Mayela did not dare to ask any more questions. She squeezed Napoleon's hand as he walked towards the door.

TBC

Chapter 3: Estos gringos locos


ACT III: Estos gringos locos...

Illya opened his eyes with the certainty that something was about to happen. He had tried to sleep several times but the noise in the surroundings kept him wide awake. The last half hour, he had been counting motor cars, five in total. Not one of them had come close to the house. Until now.

He strained his ears and reckoned that at least two cars were coming up the hill. It must be Napoleon, he thought. It had to be Napoleon. Illya got up and went to the window. It had been almost forty-eight hours since the effects of the drug began to manifest and he was still amazed at what he was capable of doing. Throughout the trees and precarious light, Illya could see the jeep. He smiled with relief.

Almost immediately behind, he saw another car. Illya's heart pounded. Thrush. He had no way to warn Napoleon, or help him whatsoever. He would have to trust that his friend could manage on his own.

(o)(O)(o)

"Do you work together, Illya and you?"

"Sometimes, when the situation calls for it." Napoleon occasionally would look at her, but his eyes were on the rear mirror. "We're not like family, but I think we're good friends. Where did you meet him?"

"In the house. I almost called the police but he fainted. He's feverish and in a lot of pain. I tried to make him eat something but he refused."

"Illya doesn't want to eat? That's a first, indeed," Napoleon frowned. "We'll do something about that," he said. The car behind them was getting closer. There was no doubt now. "We have a tail."

"A what?" Mayela turned to see a black car speeding toward them. The first bump almost threw her from her seat. "¡Ave María Purísima!"Holy Mary!

"Hold on!"Napoleon steered from left to right, keeping the car still on the road.

"Who are they? What do they want?"

"Right now, or generally speaking?" Napoleon took a curve without slowing down. Bad move, we'll roll over in the next one, he thought.

Illya watched desperately through the window. He hit the frame and yelled. "Napoleon! Be careful!" He was helpless, there was nothing else for him but to watch and wait. He sat on the bed, head in hands, trying to figure out what to do. Suddenly, he heard steps coming to the house. One man. Slightly leaning to the left...because he's carrying a gun in his left hand. He cursed himself for getting so distracted. He should have paid attention to other noises coming his way. He ran to the kitchen as quietly as possible. He could hear his own heartbeat and was thankful that the other guy could not.

He would surprise the man from behind; maybe grab some of those iron utensils and beat him repeatedly. One more step and he was in the kitchen. The man seized Illya's hand and pulled him toward him. He punched him and threw him on the floor. Before opening his eyes, Illya felt a boot on his chest.

"Let me guess," Illya gasped. "You are in Plus-X too?"

"Just the correct dosage," the man nodded. He aimed his pistol at Illya's head. "Now, should I put an end to your misery?"

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon took another curve. He felt he was in Switzerland with all the turns and uphill roads. Only these were not as well paved. Holes, gravel and ashes threatened to make the car skid out of the road. He had to slow down, but the guys behind him would not allow it. Napoleon hated to be confrontational, especially with an innocent sitting next to him, but there was no other choice. He turned to the young woman, who was struggling to stay in her seat through the bumps and curves.

"Mayela, listen," said Napoleon in a casual tone. "When I stop the car, open the door and run. Find some big rock or tree and stay behind. Don't move until I call you, okay?"

Mayela could not find her voice to say yes. All she could do was nod and process the rest of the information. The car stopped abruptly, she heard Napoleon yelling something like Now!, and she jumped toward the open field. There was no forest on that side of the road, only open field. She found a group of rocks. There was a first shot and she hid her head in her hands. All the prayers she had learned as a child came to mind at once. She glanced at the shooters and recognized the man in camouflage jacket from the comisariato.

Napoleon used the car as a shield. He counted two men shooting at him. He answered the fire and ran to the other side of the road. He dragged their attention far from the girl, which was good. It meant that they wanted him, or better yet, they wanted to kill him and not her. They must have intercepted the call to Uncle quarters. Anyway, this confirmed that it was a Thrush operation. At least, that was familiar territory.

The men moved forward and ducked. Napoleon rolled over to one side and waited.

"Did you get him?" The man in the jacket asked his partner in the khaki jumpsuit.

"No, I can still hear his heartbeat," he said.

Napoleon's eyebrows rose at once. That answer did not make much sense. He had to try something. Napoleon grabbed a small rock and threw it to his right. The man in the jacket prepared to shoot in that direction but the other man stopped him.

"It's just a small rock, he's on the opposite side."

Napoleon's jaw dropped. It was as though that man could read his mind in detail. Of course, it had to be something else. He had almost figured out it when a flurry of shots raised a small cloud of dust and grass. He waited. The jacket man stood up to get a better shooting position but Napoleon was faster with his gun. The other man took advantage of Napoleon's distraction and opened fire.

Mayela could see one man falling down before the other one shot again. She could hear someone moaning. Could it be Napoleon? She panicked.

(o)(O)(o)

Illya pushed up the boot on his chest, making the man lose his balance. He fired as he fell and the shot felt like needles in Illya's eardrums. He screamed.

"This is too easy," the man said. "I would've preferred that Doctor Spencer didn't waste the drug on you. This stuff is too good to throw it away on simple minded Uncle agents." He got up and shrugged. "I would've shot you in the head, but hell, looking at you like this is rather funnier."

"Funnier? I still can beat you." Illya sprung up and charged. "It's the same drug, you know?"He crushed the man against the wall and punched him in the mid section. The man fell to the floor; he had lost the gun but before Illya could reach it, the man took a flashlight out of his jacket and lit Illya's eyes.

"I know. But in your case, it's out of control," the man laughed. Blinded and in excruciating pain, Illya did not have much choice but to withdraw. He felt the man pulling him outside the house and throwing him on the ground. "Fighting you under these conditions is way too easy." The man grabbed Illya round the back of his neck and rubbed his face in the mud. Now, on top of everything else, Illya was suffocating.

(o)(O)(o)

The Thrush agent turned to look at his fallen partner. He shrugged. At least, he would not have to share the commission for putting down one Uncle agent. He watched the rocks where Napoleon had been hiding. He knew that he had not missed. Napoleon's heart had slowed down. He should be dying. Even so, he hesitated to get closer just yet. After a prudential amount of time, he started to walk. He was still a few feet away when Napoleon rolled on his stomach and opened fire. The second agent was dead before hitting the ground.

Napoleon could finally take a deep breath. He did not put aside his pistol until he made sure there were no more surprises from Thrush. The immediate procedure was to get in contact with HQ.

"Coordinates registered. We'll contact with local authorities immediately."

"Thank you." Napoleon put his pen back in his pocket. He walked to the road and signed for Mayela to come out.

The girl stared at the improvised battlefield. She was pale and shaky. "They're dead."

Napoleon nodded in a condescending way. He never stopped to think about the killing. He had been trained for survival. Only bystanders like Mayela made him talk about it once in a while.

"I can't explain how this works, but our organization ensures and enforces law and order in the world, and they," he pointed vaguely at the bodies, "well, they don't."

"Like police? Interpol?" She still looked concerned and shocked.

"United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, Uncle."

"Uncle! I knew it couldn't be Illya's Uncle on the phone, it sounded like a woman to start with." Mayela glanced at the bodies and frowned.

"What is it?"

"Their uniforms, they're dressed just like Illya."

Napoleon nodded. Now he knew that Illya had been working in the right place and with Thrush people. Napoleon put his arm around Mayela's shoulder and started walking. "We need to go on now, before someone else comes."

"Someone else?" Mayela stared at him.

"Don't fret, we know what we're doing."

(o)(O)(o)

Illya felt dirt in his mouth and his nose. He could barely breathe as the struggle continued. He knew that if the situation did not improve in the next few seconds, he would pass out or worse. In a last-minute move, Illya managed to get on his knees and push his attacker to one side. They wrestle bare handed in the mud. The pistol was not in sight. Several cracking shots made them both turn their heads down the hill. Illya stopped for a second, figuring that the worst had just happened. The Thrush agent laughed and pinned Illya down.

"Well, that's done. Now, I have to ask you a question and then, I'll kill you, okay?"

"Okay?" Illya coughed.

"Where is the VIRGIN?"

"The what?" He managed to chuckle. "I think you're looking in the wrong place my friend. No virgins around."

"Don't get smart with me! You know what I'm talking about!"

"Hey, don't blame me, I didn't come up with that ridiculous name!"

The man loosed his grip on Illya. "Yeah, that Spencer is certainly lacking a couple of screws."

"What do you know? I think I found one right here!" Illya grabbed the man's arms and catapulted him over his head with a knee on his chest. He jumped up through the open door. He saw the pistol concealed behind the sofa. He darted forward as he heard the man running toward him.

The man saw Illya grab the pistol, turn around and open fire, everything almost at the same time. The bullet hit him in the stomach. He fell backwards right in front of the main door. Illya sat on the floor for a moment, catching his breath and thinking of the smartest step to take next.

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon drove to the entrance of the house. The path was nice, surrounded by pine trees and seasonal flowers. The fields were green, although there were spots of yellow in the grass. The sound of ashes under the tires reminded him of the mission yet to accomplish. Despite everything, this was a beautiful place... Except maybe, for the body lying on the porch.

"Cielos!" Good heavens! Mayela covered her mouth with both hands.

Napoleon grabbed her arm to catch her attention. "Stay close," he said taking out his gun.

He walked slowly, keeping the girl at his back. His instincts told him that there should not be any more strangers. He checked on the man and shook his head. Mayela crossed herself. He knew this was too much for a young woman living the peaceful life in a rural town. But the circumstances almost never allowed them to spare the innocents.

"Illya?" He called and waited. There were noises in the kitchen. He left the girl in the living room. "Don't move. If anything happens, run to the car."

Napoleon crossed the kitchen area and two hens jumped out of the shower. He aimed as the door began to open. Then, Illya came out. His hair dripped on a towel around his neck, while he buttoned up the last button of a plaid shirt that Napoleon had never seen on Illya. The jeans, old and faded, were also out of character.

There was no surprise in Illya's face when he saw Napoleon. He reached for his boots and socks and sat on a chair to put them on. "You can put that thing away, I surrender." Illya rubbed his hair with the towel. He looked at his friend and smiled faintly. "What kept you?"

Napoleon stared at him for a minute. Pale skin, reddish eyes, he made the inventory before asking. "Did they torture you?"

Illya looked over Napoleon's shoulder and his expression softened. "Mayela. I think I ruined your brother's clothes. I found some more, though. I hope you don't mind."

"That's okay." She hugged herself. "You took a shower? It's pure icy water."

Illya shrugged. "It reminds me of home. I grew up without hot water too."

"But you have a cold-"

"I don't, it's just allergies." Illya ended the sentence with a sneeze. Almost immediately, his nose began to bleed.

Napoleon crouched in front of him. "Cover your nose with the towel and breathe through your mouth. Hold your head up-"

"It's not my first bleeding nose, you know," Illya pushed him aside.

"It started this morning. I think he should go to a hospital." Mayela shook her head. She turned to the living room. "Mr. Solo, este... what do you plan to do with the-" She pointed at the body in the main door.

Napoleon sighed. He had almost forgotten that part. He stood up. "Get Illya in bed. I'll be right back."

Illya looked at her as she stared after Napoleon. There was anguish in her eyes and who knows what she must be thinking about these two strangers taking over her house, killing people all around. He stood up and checked that the bleeding had stopped. "I think I ruined your towel too," he smiled shyly. "Please, don't be scared, we're-"

"Like secret police, I know. Mr. Solo explained that to me already... It's just that, well, three men have died, one was on my porch..." She turned to Illya. "Do you need help?"

Illya's first impulse was to say no. He was perfectly capable of climbing up stairs. However, this was not the moment of showing his stubborn side. The young woman was scared and in need to be needed. He looked at her gently and tilted his head. "Yes, please." He put his arm around her shoulders and allowed her to put hers around his waist. "Gracias."

(o)(O)(o)

"I still don't know what's wrong with him, but he looks a little beaten anyway."

"Very well, Mr. Solo. Check on him and have him brief you on the mission status. The latest weather report indicates drastic changes coming up over Costa Rica and our experts strongly suggest that they might be related to the unusual volcano activity." Mr. Waverly was not a man of emotional displays. He was satisfied just to know that his agents were still alive and on their feet.

"Well, those three goons did not come just for the ride, I can tell." Napoleon looked for one last time at the three bodies in a car. "Did you talk with the local police?"

"Better yet, we called our division for the Caribbean."

"We have a department in the Caribbean? I thought that the South American division covered the entire zone."

"There are too many countries for just one division. Of all Central American nations, Costa Rica offers the most stable conditions to work. "

Napoleon smiled. "Is there also a Del Floria's and all?"

"Of course, Sastrería Del Floria. It's stationed in Puntarenas, Costa Rica's Pacific coast. They have been informed already about the situation. We got full cooperation from the government too. The reports will indicate an accident related to alcohol consumption. There will be no questions asked."

"Glad to hear that. I'll keep you informed of our progress. I'm now returning to the house. Solo out."

(o)(O)(o)

Illya let Mayela take off his boots and help him to lie down. He felt tired and poorly, but he would fight any cold symptoms all the way. He did not need any sickness on top of everything else. "You don't have to do all this for me, Mayela. Sorry I have been so much trouble."

Mayela wiped Illya's forehead with a wet cloth. "You're no trouble, Illya. It's just that I didn't know that people would try to kill you and your friend."

"We'll leave in the morning and you'll be safe, I promise."

"I feel safe," she shrugged. "More or less. You can stay as long as you want to. I'll bring more food tomorrow."

Illya winced and turned to the window. "Napoleon is back."

Mayela did not hear the car until two minutes later when it rolled up to the entrance and parked outside. Napoleon entered the bedroom. He disguised his concern with a casual attitude. "Good thing that blanket has some color on it. I can hardly see you with all that whiteness."

Illya glared coldly at him. "Meet Napoleon Solo and his unique sense of humor."

"Oh, we already met," Napoleon came to kiss Mayela's hand. "Sorry for the bumpy ride. You haven't seen us at our best yet."

"Por la víspera se saca el día," Mayela said with a giggle.

Napoleon turned to Illya for a translation.

"You can tell the day by looking at the morning."

"Fair enough." Napoleon took a sit on the edge of the bed. "Now, tell me, Illya, what's your story?" He noticed Illya's reluctance to talk in front of the girl. "Oh, Mayela," said Napoleon, "I need to talk with my partner alone, you don't mind, do you?"

"Not at all. I'll be in the kitchen if you need me."

The door closed behind the girl. Napoleon looked at Illya earnestly. "Well? What happened?"

Illya straightened up in the bed. There were details and facts that had to be discussed and he would try not to let anything out. "The volcano activator is working again. Thrush built a laboratory in one of the secondary craters of the volcano. I entered with the last group of recruited scientists and-"

"Illya, I know that part already. Laslo turned out to be a double agent. We'll have time to discuss that further. Now I need to know what they did to you. You really look sick."

"I'm not sick!" Illya snapped. He noticed Napoleon's puzzled look and he calmed down. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, not like that. They injected me with some drug-"

"Plus-X by any chance?" Napoleon caught a surprised glance. "I figured that the men who intercepted me on the road were on something. It makes sense that Thrush didn't throw the drug just because we busted their first trail."

"They have been using that drug on themselves, you know, to keep them alert while working on the volcano."

Napoleon saw Illya shiver and he frowned. "They used it in you? But why? That would enhance your own senses and you could use them against them."

"They gave me an overdose, Napoleon." Illya rolled up his sleeves to show him the marks of needles in his arms. "I passed out at the fourth injection... I reckoned they gave me at least four times the normal dose."

"Illya-"

"They must have thought that I'd collapse right away. But the effects started so slowly." Illya grinned weakly. "It was easy to find a way out. I don't think they knew about my running away after twenty-four hours later. I could see, hear, smell... feel... You should have seen me, Napoleon," he chuckled, "I could anticipate their movements by their heartbeats. It was like magic..."

There was a touch of pain in every word. Napoleon did not dare to interrupt but his concern grew.

"When I finally went outside, I felt so connected. All my senses were open to everything around. I heard everything, saw everything..." He stopped. He closed his eyes, wincing in pain.

"Illya? Are you all right?" Napoleon leaned forward.

"Can you hear the wind in the leaves..." Illya opened his eyes and looked through the window. "I could tell you how many leaves are in each tree from here to town... And under it-"

"I understand, Illya. It's okay. You should-"

"Under it," he gasped, "there is a hum from the laboratory underground... under the mountain... I can feel it in my skin, in the tip of my fingers..." He shivered as he turned to Napoleon. "And I can't turn it off. Napoleon, I hear it night and day..." He grabbed his friend's hand. "I can feel the blood running through your veins, I can hear you heartbeat. I can tell that you're getting scared of me..."

"Not of you, but for you." Napoleon tried his best to calm him. "I'll get help, I'll call HQ-"

"Do you remember Louis?" Illya said suddenly. "He didn't remember us. H-he was helpless, lost in his own madness. He could not stop it or turn it off!"

"Illya, stop it. It's not the same. The drug they used on Louis was still experimental. It was not ready. They have certainly improved the formula since then. Whatever effect it has, will pass soon."

Illya's energy faded as fast as it had risen. He leaned his back on the wall and shook his head. "Well, it hurts all the same. I've been able to control it so far, but I know that it's a matter of time for it to take over... The pain comes and goes, each time, it comes back stronger. And the noise... It's everywhere..." He looked at Napoleon. "I'm falling down and I don't know when it's going to stop."

"Take it easy, Illya," Napoleon said softly. This was not the development he had expected. He had not seen Illya so out of sorts since the time he was attacked with fear gas.* At least, that time he had got medical help almost instantly. Today, it would require some of Napoleon's ingenuity to keep his friend from falling apart.

They heard Mayela from the kitchen, calling them to dinner. Napoleon smiled. "Illya, how long it has been since you ate for the last time?"

"What?" Illya stared at him. "Haven't heard what I said?"

"Yes, and I think that most of it happens because you're too weak." Napoleon stood up. "You need to eat and drink something." He smiled mischievously. "If your sense of smell is growing, you must have noticed that something good is cooking in the kitchen. Stay here, I'll be right back. Try to rest."

Try to rest? Illya almost chuckled at that. The moment he closed his eyes, voices coming from everywhere overwhelmed him. Rest would not come easy any time soon.

The day was fading away and the house was getting darker. Only one light illuminated the was to the kitchen. Napoleon took some minutes to enjoy the simplicity of the moment. The table was already set with pots of different kinds of food. Mayela was still working at the stove, giving the final touches to another dish. She smiled at Napoleon.

"This smells good," Napoleon said, looking at the pots on the stove. He turned to the table and smiled. "What we have here?"

Mayela saw him studying the kerosene lamps and the wood stove. "Yes, we still don't have electricity."

"I've seen those in a museum." Napoleon sat at the table.

"How's your friend?" She poured a glass of lemonade for him.

"Talking weird, but that's the least of his problems, I guess. I'll take him back home tomorrow, he needs a doctor."

"I'm making chicken soup. It'll help with his cold." She noticed Napoleon's condescending look. "He doesn't have a cold, does he?"

"I'm afraid not."

Mayela looked at him seriously. "Mr. Solo, why are you here? You and Illya came to our town looking for something."

Napoleon nodded. "Mayela, for your own safety, I can't tell you everything. But you deserve an explanation. Our organization has good reasons to believe that the volcano activity doesn't respond completely to natural causes. We're here to locate, isolate and dispose of anyone and anything that might be interfering with the normal course of events."

"Those men on the road? Are they responsible for the volcano eruptions?"

"Not all of them, I guess, but we hope that once they're removed from here, the volcano will return to normality, whatever that means for an active volcano." Napoleon smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry about anything. We'll protect you and your people, I promise."

"And Illya? What's wrong with him?"

"Well, he got too close to those men and-"

"I let my guard down." Illya appeared at the door. He had heard enough of the conversation from his bed. He would not say more about his condition. There was no way to explain how his five senses had gone berserk all of a sudden. He nodded barely when Napoleon and Mayela turned to him.

"Hey, Illya, come and have drink." Napoleon was as cheerful as always.

Illya came closer and lifted the glass. The smell of lemon, water and sugar, combined with the kerosene of the lamp made him suddenly nauseous. "That smell is too strong," he wrinkled his nose. "I can taste it in my mouth... Excuse me." He had to walk away.

"I'm so sorry," Mayela said to Napoleon. "It's the kerosene. I can use candles-"

"No, it's okay," Napoleon signed to her to stay put. He took a bowl and poured some soup in it. "I know how to deal with sulking Russians."

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon found Illya leaning on the railing on the front porch. His eyes were absently fixed on the trees and the open field. He was too busy trying to even his breathing to pay any attention to his friend. Napoleon would not be discouraged. He looked at the open field and smiled.

"What do you know? The cows actually come home," he said at the sight of the cattle coming down the hill.

Illya extended an open hand and dust fell on his palm instead of rain. He shrugged with a mirthless smile. "This could be a nice place if it weren't for the ashes."

"It still is, and we'll do all we can to make it better," Napoleon said. "Illya, you need to stay strong."

"I can't eat, everything tastes like ashes." He shut his eyes and tears rolled down his cheeks.

Napoleon's eyes narrowed. "Are you crying?"

Illya glared at him, shaking his head. "What? No! It's those damn ashes. They get in my eyes and it stings."

Napoleon grabbed his arm before he touched his eyes. "Don't rub them, it's worse if you do," he said, taking out his handkerchief. "Here, be careful."

Illya cleaned his eyes as much as he could. He lowered his head and sighed. "This is such a mess, Napoleon. I thought it would be so easy, just hit and run... and suddenly everything went to-"

"Ashes?" Napoleon touched Illya's arm. "All right, tell me, how far did you get?"

Illya shrugged. "I neutralized the unit by stealing a reagent that triggers the mechanism. My idea was to put some explosives around the compound. But they caught me before I could do that."

"A reagent? The macguffin?" Napoleon was pleased to see Illya nod with a smile.

"Before I came to Costa Rica, I talked with the experts in our department of Science. We concurred that the volcano activator must have some trigger. They did not know what to expect, so I came up with that name..." he chuckled. "I could've called it that blasted thing, but that word didn't seem too appropriate in front of Mr. Waverly."

Napoleon grinned. "Do you still have it?"

"No. I had to swim the volcano's lake in order to get out of there. The reagent contains some chemicals that explode at contact with water." Illya turned to the mountain. "I hid it up there, in a subterranean cave."

"You don't think they found it already, do you?"

"I don't think so. The volcano activator stopped working since I left. I've heard them igniting it a couple of times, but it won't work properly without the missing piece. The man I killed came looking for it." Illya did not sound cheerful about that.

"So? What's the problem? You actually stopped the machine."

"Yes, I stopped it, but I didn't destroy it. They're moving out. They'll start it all over."

"We'll be ready," Napoleon shrugged. "We know where to hit them now, it'll be a matter of time-"

"Oh, Napoleon, don't you understand? I was so close... I could have put an end to it right there." He lowered his eyes and rubbed his temple. "Maybe I'm just talking nonsense."

"Look at me. You're tired and weak. You need to eat. I doesn't matter if it tastes like cardboard. Your body needs the nourishment."

"You sound like my mother," he smiled slightly.

"I don't care if I look like your great grandmother. You'll drink this, okay?" He put the bowl in Illya's hands. "Now, close your eyes and hold your breath."

Illya stared at the bowl. His shoulders lost tension as he grimaced at Napoleon. "You really think we can fix this?"

"In a heartbeat. Next time, they'll be history," Napoleon smiled. "Go ahead, drink."

Illya had barely had two sips when something started him. "A car is coming up the road."

They both ran into the house. Napoleon collected Mayela, looking for a safe place to put her while they faced whomever was coming. "Do you have a basement?"

"In this house? No," she said, glancing at Illya by the door, cocking his pistol. "What's going on? What's the matter?"

"I don't want to alarm you, but there's a strong possibility that the men we met on the road have some friends looking for them." Napoleon grabbed her by both arms. "Listen, go upstairs, find someplace to hide."

"And wait until you call me," she sighed. "I think I've learned the routine."

Napoleon joined Illya. He had his gun ready. "Is that loaded?" He pointed at Illya's pistol, the one that the Russian had collected from the man from Thrush.

"It still has half a round, I guess."

"You guess?"

"An educated guess," Illya said, turning to the road. "The car is at the entrance."

As they prepared for a burst of shots, the car blew its horn instead. Illya moaned at the piercing noise and glanced Napoleon for an explanation. "They must be new in spy business," he shrugged.

Mayela did not have to peep through the window. She came running downstairs. "Es mi papá!" She passed them on her way out.

"Her dad?" Napoleon was puzzled, but put away his pistol as quickly as possible.

Illya did the same and came to Napoleon's side. They saw a man in his late fifties coming down an old pick up truck. He was with a younger man. They did not look happy when Mayela greeted them. He stared at Illya and narrowed his eyes in a threatening way.

Illya turned to Napoleon, who looked quite relaxed and smiley. "What's that smirk about?"

"It occurs to me that for once, I might not be the one standing for a shot-gun wedding."

Illya rolled his eyes and took a deep breath. Bad move, the smell of diesel from the truck and kerosene from the lanterns turned his stomach. Napoleon laid one hand over his friend's shoulder and gave him a reassuring glance.

Mayela entered with the men. "Éste es mi papá, Rubén Gonzalez, y mi hermano Antonio."This is my father, Rubén Gonzalez and my brother Antonio.

"Nice to meet you," Napoleon held out his hand but the man only glared at him.

"Esa es mi camisa," That's my shirt. Antonio frowned.

"Su ropa estaba mojada, no moleste," His clothes are wet, don't make a fuzz. Mayela tapped his brother on the shoulder.

"Y estos hombres, ¿quiénes son?" And these men, who are they?

"Ellos, este-" They, er-

"Turistas..." Tourists. Illya rushed to say. "Perdí el camino en la montaña y hasta ahora pude salir." I lost my way in the mountain and I couldn't come out until now. He looked at the men staring at Napoleon. "Él es mi hermano, vino a recogerme." He is my brother, he came to pick me up.

Napoleon saw the man's expression softening a bit, while he conferred with his daughter. Napoleon turned to Illya and whispered. "Now we're brothers?"

"These people respect family, it's a cultural thing."

Illya tried not to eavesdrop but his hearing was extremely sensitive already. From what they said, things were going rather well.

Finally, Mayela's father looked at them and shook his head. "Estos gringos locos, se pierden en la montaña y después tiene que andar la Cruz Roja detrás de ellos." These crazy gringos, they get lost in the mountain and then, the Red Cross has to go after them.

"What did he say?" Napoleon asked.

"Besides we're a pair of crazy gringos?" Illya smiled faintly. A new wave of pain hit his ears. He sought Napoleon's arm for support

"¿Y a él que le pasa? ¿Está enfermo?" What's with him? Is he sick? Mayela's father asked.

"No," Illya gasped, "sólo estoy cansado." I'm just tired.

"He's the black sheep of the family, always getting in trouble. Mum worries so much," Napoleon sighed while Mayela translated.

Illya saw with satisfaction that the older man stared sympathetically at Napoleon. Maybe Solo had managed to connect with him. It did not matter that it was at Illya's expense.

"Está bien, pueden quedarse esta noche. Mayela, usted se viene conmigo." All right, they can stay for the night. Mayela, you come with me.

Mayela nodded. She turned to Napoleon and Illya. "I don't know if we'll meet again. Take care."

"We'll be gone in the morning," Illya took her hand in his. "Thank you for everything."

Napoleon kissed her hand and smiled. "You've been so kind. We'll meet again."

Illya stayed in the porch, staring at the rear lights of the truck. He leaned forward to rest on the railing. "At least, we got the innocent out of harm's way."

The wind whistled in the trees, bringing temperatures down. Napoleon adjusted the collar of his jacket and turned to Illya. Besides a slight tremor in his hands, the Russian looked like a statue. He was obviously lost in thought somewhere else. Napoleon was very familiar with those moods and he usually ignored Illya until they were gone. However, under the present circumstances, that might not be the best course of action.

"Illya, I need to call Mr. Waverly now... for debriefing, all right?"

Illya closed his eyes, making an effort to concentrate on Napoleon's voice. "I crushed that thing once and I'll do it again, and again... until they get tired of rebuilding it."

"I know, and you'll do it, some other time." Napoleon took out his pen. "Those men will come back for you."

"I could come back and finish what I started-" A sudden cough interrupted him.

"I'm sorry Illya, I'm putting my foot down on this one. You're coming home."

Illya grabbed Napoleon's hand before he could turn on the pen. "Let's talk about this. Napoleon, I don't usually beg for anything but-"

Napoleon felt compelled to give his friend a chance. But as senior agent, he had the responsibility of doing what would be better for the mission. There was too much to think about before coming with a decision. "It's been a long day. You must be tired too. Can we talk about this in the morning? I won't make any recommendation until then, okay?"

Illya smirked. He hated it when people were condescending just to avoid the argument. But Napoleon was right. He was beyond tired. He would not gain anything if he could not prove that he was perfectly capable of carrying on with the mission. He turned on his heel and went upstairs. "Don't stay up too long, it's school night."

Napoleon shook his head. There must be nothing more stubborn than a sick Russian. He walked a few feet away from the house, reckoning that even Illya's enhanced hearing would not reach him that far. He took his pen and twisted the cap. "Relay channel D to New York, please."

TBC

*The Quadripartite Affair, season 1, episode 3

THE MACGUFFIN AFFAIR

Title: The Macguffin Affair
Category: TV Shows » Man From UNCLE
Author: Sierra Sutherwinds
Language: English, Rating: Rated: K+
Genre: Adventure/Hurt/Comfort
Published: 01-31-11, Updated: 02-18-11
Chapters: 7, Words: 37,015
Chapter 1: Tomorrow we'll die
My first MFU story.

Disclaimer: the men from UNCLE don't belong to me... I belong to them. No profit on using the characters in my stories, only lots of fun.

Author's note: The story is inspired by real events that happened 47 years ago in my country. The original characters are not based on any actual person, dead or alive. The town in question is fictitious, only the Irazú volcano is real and very alive. Descriptions of living conditions under a volcanic eruption are based on real testimonies from people that lived through it.

Thank you, Uncle Charlie for your input and encouragement.

THE MACGUFFIN AFFAIR

ACT I: Tomorrow we'll die.

Illya blinked and squinted. Gray clouds dimmed the sunlight and it was hard to see more than a few feet ahead. The vegetation was still scarce and almost buried under tons of ashes. There was nothing left around that looked familiar. After almost 30 months' worth of ashes, the place seemed to have been transported to another planet. Illya could not even reckon how far from civilization he was. He had been walking down the hill for hours but there was still no sign of life nearby.

He could hear his heart beating in his ears. He could hear his labored breathing. He had been running in circles, straight lines and in circles again. He knew he had to stop sometime soon. When he stopped things got worse, but his legs were about to give up and his lungs could not resist much more of this contaminated air. No one was after him yet. They probably had not noticed his absence yet. The wind was cold and he could not see farther than the palm of his hand. "Damn ashes," Illya whispered.

He slowed down and kept walking until he spotted the first green plant in miles. He took a deep breath but his lungs were already too damaged to feel any benefit from air thick with ashes. He coughed. His body screamed for a break, but he could not take the risk of passing out.

He rubbed his eyes. First thing they had warned him against. He had ashes in his hands, they got in his eyes. It hurt. A slow breeze began to cool the air. Maybe it would rain in the afternoon. It was hard to tell. He squinted and almost rubbed his eyes again. This time, he was more careful.

It seemed night, although it was still noon. Since he could not use his eyes, he had to depend on his ears. He strained them to hear a sound. Maybe there was a highway nearby, a rural road or something. The minutes passed, no motor cars, or ox wagons. He must be in the middle of the forest. The sounds around were mostly from insects and birds. Suddenly, a growl gave him a start. Were there bears in the rain forest?

"Don't be silly," Illya dismissed his own fears. "It's probably a puma... you get along with cats, don't you?" He shivered. The cold air was getting under his skin like little pins and needles. This was going to be a long, long trip.

He listened for more distinctive noises. His hearing had improved twice over the last two hours. So far, so good. He would profit from it as long as it lasted. Over the birds, insects and beasts, he could hear now a peculiar noise. Drums; not from friendly natives, though. These drums beat at a different rhythm.

Illya frowned and then, he smiled. "The Beatles?" He could hear clearly now the characteristic voice of John Lennon and I wanna hold your hand. "Civilization is at hand, sort of," he said aloud. He kept walking toward the music. He knew it was still far away but at least, now he had a direction to head towards.

(o)(O)(o)

Mr. Waverly received Napoleon with a laconic nod. For once, he looked concerned enough to skip certain manners. Napoleon sat down and waited. His vacation had been just canceled and he needed a good explanation. He would not waste time asking questions when he knew the answers were about to come.

"There has been a breach in security. All operations have been canceled until the problem is solved."

"What kind of breach? A mole?"

"A double agent indeed, Mr. Solo." Mr Waverly pressed a bottom of the panel on his desk and a picture appeared on the screen. "Mr. Laslo Dorian. He was cleared as agent for Uncle in nineteen sixty. Recently, we have learned that he has been working for Thrush too."

"Dorian? Wasn't he Illya's contact in Costa Rica?"

"Indeed. We have been trying to locate Mr. Kuryakin on the matter, unsuccessfully, I'm afraid."

"Illya is missing?" Napoleon felt suddenly guilty for being so upset about his interrupted vacation.

"We're still waiting. He is still in a grace period to make contact before being officially declared as missing. It has not been forty-eight hours yet." Before Napoleon asked another question, Mr. Waverly pointed at the sphere in the middle of the room. "Can you find Costa Rica on that globe?"

Napoleon shrugged. Without hesitation, he turned the sphere until he saw the American Continent. "There," he pointed with his index. "Central America, right in the middle. Nice country, rather quiet."

"Are you familiarized with Mr. Kuryakin's mission in Costa Rica?"

Napoleon frowned. "Something about an active volcano?"

The next picture on the screen showed a volcano. "On March 18th, 1963, at one twenty-five in the afternoon, this volcano began an eruption of ashes that is still going on as we speak."

"Almost two years? It must be extremely annoying. Those people have to be resilient "

"Quite resilient, they are." The pictures showed a city immersed in a cloud of ashes. People sweeping the black dust off the streets and houses. "There is no reason to believe that the phenomenon began but by natural causes at first, but it has been escalating in strength and hazard. However, scientists of the world take it as a natural disaster; some kind of curiosity to be observed and studied."

Napoleon watched the images on the screen and then, he turned to Mr. Waverly. "I take it that we don't agree with that explanation ."

"Not exactly. Eight months ago, a group of geologists established a base in one of the inactive craters. Our sources indicate that it is very likely that they are sponsored by Thrush."

"Not in a humanitarian mission, I gather."

"Not exactly." Mr. Waverly put yet another picture on the screen. He almost smiled to see Napoleon leaning forward. "You recognize it, don't you?"

Napoleon shook his head. "But Illya destroyed it the last year."

"Eight months ago in Tokyo, to be precise."

"The volcano activator device,"* Napoleon remembered.

"Corrected and enhanced by this man," Mr. Waverly changed the picture. A man appeared on the screen, Caucasian, in his mid forties, glasses, short brown hair; the intellectual type. "Dr. Douglas Spencer, three degrees in Geology and Thermodynamics, active in Thrush's Research Division since nineteen fifty-two."

"I don't remember having seen him involved in Harada's project, was he?"

"Apparently not, although he took the reins of it after the device fiasco." Mr. Waverly turned his chair to Napoleon. "We lost his tracks for a couple of months until now."

"Do you think Thrush has anything to do with the eruption?"

"I doubt it, as I told you, the eruption started at least one year before the device was presented. I'd rather say that Thrush is using it to tamper with the volcano. If so, it might be possible that the volcano activator is now capable of prolonging volcanic activity indefinitely. Do you understand the consequences?"

"Besides landslides, changes in the climate, collapsing of the economy and casualties. It would be a more efficient weapon than an atomic bomb," Napoleon said. "But, why Costa Rica? Aren't there more strategic countries in the world?" He gave the big globe a spin.

"We believe that this is just a dress rehearsal for something bigger in another country." Mr. Waverly almost shrugged. "The latest reports indicated that heavy construction material has been transported periodically to the area. They have also been recruiting staff from different parts of the world. We managed to contact one of them, Professor Theodore Manfred, just before he accepted the invitation. With his consent, we sent Mr. Kuryakin in his place." He sighed with disappointment. "Mr. Dorian was his contact. Ironically, he was supposed to watch Mr. Kuryakin's back."

"Was he working for Thrush from the beginning or did he flip sides recently?"

"We're still investigating, although that's rather irrelevant now." Mr. Waverly pressed another button and his secretary appeared at the door with papers and a dossier. "Mr. Solo, you're going to Costa Rica. You'll stay at a hotel in the capital until receiving further instructions. Miss Valerio will fill you on minor details on transportation and so forth. With some good luck, Mr. Kuryakin is just following the protocol regarding breaches in security and he'll report within the next forty-eight hours. You're Mr. Kuryakin's new contact."

Napoleon stood up. He stole a second to bow to the lady before turning back to Mr. Waverly. "I'll do my best to bring Illya back."

"Mr. Solo, this mission won't end with you finding Mr. Kuryakin. There is still one operation in progress that must be completed at any cost. Understood?"

"Loud and clear sir," Napoleon said with a smile.

(o)(O)(o)

The music was getting louder. Illya's ears resented the noise and yet, he almost laughed. He should be the last person to complain about rock' n roll music. He loved The Beatles... but not that loud. He stopped for a second. The road was now in sight. He had to be careful now. No one should know he was there.

A few feet farther, he saw a white picket fence. There was a nice little house in the middle of the field and at least two people around. Illya took cover behind a big rock and some pine trees. He watched a boy playing with a dog and a young woman, cleaning the front windows. She sang along with the radio and her voice echoed against the emptiness of the landscape.

She finished and turned to the boy. "Marcos, ponga la leche en la bici. Voy a barrer aquí y nos vamos." Marcos, put the milk on the bike. I'm going to sweep here and we'll leave.

Illya listened to that and sighed. With some luck, they would go away for the night. All he needed was a place to sleep, a place to regroup and think. He saw the boy, a twelve year-old, loading the basket of his bike with two containers. The woman must be in her early twenties, dressed in a faded striped shirt and light blue capri pants. Her dark brown hair was braided under a kerchief and an old plastic apron protected her clothes from the dust. She finished pushing the ashes away, dusted the broomstick and left her apron somewhere inside the house. She grabbed the small transistor radio and hung it on her bike. Soon, they were rolling down the hill to the rhythm of rock 'n roll.

Illya stood up. He tried to take another deep breath but the ashes dried his throat. He coughed until his lungs hurt. A light drizzle made him shiver and he had to push himself forward to start walking again. His condition was deteriorating too fast and the cold and the ashes did not help at all. He could not think of anything else but lying down and sleeping a little.

The door had a lock, as expected. Illya looked for a pick inside his mouth. Breaking a lock was easy and he had the fastest fingers in the agency. Today, he reckoned he would have broken his own record. Through the tip of his fingers, he could sense every tiny change in the mechanism inside the lock. He smiled. Maybe those men from Thrush did not know actually what they had given to him. Or his body had just assimilated the drug without much trouble and he would be all right after all... Or... the drug was working slowly throughout his system and sooner or later, all his senses would collapse at once. In any case, he would take advantage of his recently acquired skills for as long as they lasted.

The moment he put one foot in the house, he felt transported back in time to the 19th century. There was no electric power. The living room was rather small, although the old furniture was neatly placed. The kitchen area was at the rear. There was an iron stove, iron utensils, and the back door consisted on a big wooden board locked with a chain. The shower was right next to the pantry, and as he had guessed, there was an outhouse several feet away in the open field.

There was a pair of steps heading to a second level to the bedrooms. Illya counted four doors on the aisle, but he did not bother in checking all of them. He entered the first room on his left. Although spacious, there was only one bed and an armoire. Illya looked around frantically for blankets and anything that helped to keep him warm throughout the night. He found only two quilts.

He felt light headed and he could barely keep his eyes open. He was so tired that did not bother to take his shoes off. He threw himself on the bed and regretted it greatly. The hay mattress was as hard as a rock. But the fatigue was stronger than anything else. He would take care of bruises and concussions later.

He lied on his back; his eyes were completely used to darkness. Noises that usually stayed in the background were a cacophony of beats right at the core of his brain. The quilts, made with soft fabrics, grazed his skin mercilessly, and the smell of sulfur was simply unbearable. He thought of Louis Campbell*. An agent from Uncle, a young man with a brilliant future. They had not been friends, they might have worked together, but not so close as to get acquainted with each other. Their conversations had been always at a polite level during Uncle agents meetings or a sporadic party at the office. He smiled a lot, total success with the ladies... second to Napoleon Solo, of course... Then, he disappeared. For three days, they looked and searched. Illya was in another case, he did not learn about Louis until Mr. Waverly took him and Napoleon to see the agent that had been rescued from some Thrush quarters.

This was not the Louis they had met at parties and meetings. This Louis was mad. He screamed and yelled. He shivered, overwhelmed by noises only he could hear and things only he could see. They observed him through a security glass that seemed to mean nothing to his heightened hearing, sight and smell. Napoleon called him but Louis did not recognize him or Illya or Mr. Waverly. Louis laughed at them, he screamed, he cried...

It seemed to Illya that Louis was now in a box. He heard but he could not listen, he saw but could not look... Little by little, he went crazy...

"I'm not going crazy... Not... Going... Crazy... Put your mind on something else, Illya... Count sheep, sing songs... Think about tomorrow..." he said aloud. "Tomorrow... what will happen tomorrow? Oh, yes... Tomorrow we'll die..."

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon put his suitcase on the bed and went to the balcony. The sight was as depressing as it was when he came out of the plane. The sky was cloudy but it did not rain. The colors were dull, the streets were all black. Although the sun was there, people walked with umbrellas, handkerchiefs covering their mouths and noses and glasses to protect their eyes. Life went on. There were always things to do, places to be. At least, the volcano had not taken away that yet.

He went back inside and took some papers out of the suitcase. He would read the files about the volcano while waiting for the phone call. It had to happen soon. Illya was more punctual than he. He would find the way to communicate with Uncle. They could not count him off so fast.

"Volcán Irazú," he read. "From an indigenous village called Iztarú, meaning "Mountain of thunder." Napoleon nodded. "No kidding. Highest active volcano...it is possible to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on a clear day." He raised his eyebrows: that would be a sight to see, he thought. He turned the page to an aerial picture of the volcano. He looked attentively for anything out of normal. "Now, if I were from Thrush, where would I put a secret laboratory?"

(o)(O)(o)

Illya woke up with a scream. He had been struggling to get some sleep surrounded by all kind of noises. Insects, little animals, the rain rattling on the ceiling. Morning broke and the noises changed. Now, he could hear motor cars and people talking miles away from him. Someone screamed. It took him several minutes to realize that it was him.

He got up, shivering and could barely stand straight. After a second, he tried some steps. He staggered but did not fall. His head began to hurt with all the noise and strong smells around. He tried to breathe steadily but his lungs did not receive enough air. He felt cold sweat forming in his forehead and his hands trembled. "Stop it! Don't you dare..." He gasped. He would not allow himself to faint out of an anxiety attack.

Illya was about to resume his way to the living room when the sound of a bicycle coming up the hill alerted him. He reckoned that it was still far enough for him to rush out of the house without being noticed. The stairs were not a problem, and the living room was empty. But when he opened the door, the sulfur in the air took his breath away. He almost blacked out for the second time in less than ten minutes. He closed the door and struggled all the way back upstairs.

He heard music getting louder. "She's not there," Illya whispered the song's title in an attempt to keep himself awake. "T-the Zombies..." He heard steps at the main door, steps around the living room... steps coming upstairs... "A very slender person... probably a woman... tennis shoes..." Under other circumstances, he would have had some fun with his present condition. But there was nothing to laugh about when all his senses were conspiring to cause him as much discomfort and pain as possible. He placed himself behind the bedroom door. "...smells like roses... breathing too fast... scared of the intruder..."

The door closed quickly behind the young woman of the day before. She stared at him with wide eyes and an iron frying pan in her right hand.

"¡No se mueva! ¿Quién es usted y qué está haciendo en mi casa?" Don't move! Who are you and what're you doing in my house?

Illya's intentions were to be polite and dodge the frying pan at the same time. But his strength did not last that long. He leaned against the wall and smiled faintly. "Please... Por favor... no..." Everything went dark after that.

*The Cherry Blossom Affair, season 2, episode 10: Professor Harada, from Japan, has developed a volcano activator for Thrush.

* The Minus-X Affair, season 2, episode 29: Louis is an Uncle agent kidnapped and used by Thrush as a guinea pig to test a new drug called Plus-X which heightens all human senses. The drug was not entirely developed at that moment and the experiment was a failure. Overwhelmed by the erratic effects of the drug, Louis went insane. A/N: They never mention Louis' last name, so I came up with Campbell.



Chapter 2: Wear my ring around your neck

ACT II: Wear my ring around your neck.

Illya saw fire coming from the center of the earth, rocks falling from the sky. Thunder and lightning got on his way. He could not escape. He was cold and warm, and his head pounded. He was scared as he had never been in his life. He wanted to scream but his voice never came out. Then, he woke up.

He opened his eyes. From what he remembered, he was back in the bedroom with the bed as hard as a rock. He felt something on his forehead. It was cold and wet but after a moment, it burned. He moved his head and raised his hand to take it off. Someone was already next to him grabbing his arm.

"Tranquilo, todo está bien." Be quiet, everything is all right.

Illya stared at her with curiosity. The woman was young, with brown eyes, a kind smile. She did not look scared, although she kept the frying pan next to her. Illya felt compelled to give her an explanation.

"Sorry I scared you..." He frowned while remembering the proper words. "Am... Lamento haber-"

"Don't move. I see that you're sick, but I still can hurt you."

A twelve year-old boy came in running to join the woman. He stared at Illya warily.

"Don't need to get violent, I'll leave now," Illya sat up. He was light headed and his hands trembled. He leaned his back against the wall to allow the dizziness to pass. "In a couple of minutes."

"¿Está hablando inglés?" Is he speaking English? Asked the boy.

"Sí, pero con acento," Yes, but with an accent, the woman said.

"También hablo español, con acento," I also speak Spanish, with an accent, Illya smiled. "Your English is good."

"Yours too." The woman smiled, putting the pan on her lap. "I teach English in town."

"Usted no estaba hablando inglés hace un rato," You weren't speaking English a while ago. The boy narrowed his eyes.

"You were talking weird in your dreams. My brother thinks you're a Russian spy," she mocked. "Are you?"

Illya sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Not quite. I'm Russian, yes but-" His ears began to ring painfully and he lost his line of thought.

"Are you sick?" The woman said before sending her brother for water.

Illya covered his ears against the noise that only he could hear. He had to concentrate to keep himself awake. "It's just some blinding pain that comes and goes..." He breathed heavily and his lungs hurt too. He did not let it show. "It's gone now."

The boy was back with a glass of water. At his sister's sign, he gave it to Illya. Only then, did Illya noticed he was thirsty. However, he was not able to have more than one sip. The taste of the water made him nauseous. He put the glass on the night table and sat on the edge of the bed. "I'm sorry, the taste is too strong."

"It's pure water," the woman frowned.

"No parece ladrón," the boy said.

"A thief? No, I'm not."

"But you opened the door the way thieves do," she said.

"I didn't want to break a window. I thought the house was abandoned... I needed a place to sleep-"

"¿Se perdió?" The boy asked.

"Lost? Yes..." Illya made an effort to smile amid his discomfort "I lost my way... in the mountain... the cold and the ashes-" He shuddered. The noise was getting more uncomfortable and he had to cover his ear. "Would you mind turning off your radio?"

"My what?" The woman frowned. "Oh," she went to the window. "It's on my bicycle. I didn't know it was still on. I can't hear it from here." She opened the curtains and Illya crawled back.

"The light!" He covered his eyes with his arms.

"Ay, perdón!" She closed the curtains immediately. "What's wrong with you? Are you sick? Do you need a doctor?"

"No!" Illya caught his breath and leaned against the wall. "Listen, Miss-"

"Mayela," she finally smiled. "And this is Marcos."

"Mayela and Marcos," he repeated. "Nice to meet you. I'm Illya and I'm not sick. I'm just very tired... I-it was a very long walk." A sudden chill made him rattle his teeth. "S-sorry. It's getting cold in here, isn't it?"

"Temperatures have been dropping quite often lately," she said. "Anyway, those wet clothes of yours don't help, I'm afraid." She went to the armoire. "I thought we had left some clothes here when we moved."

"You moved? I thought you said this was your house."

"It is, but we don't live here since the volcano exploded two years ago. I just come every two or three days to clean up and make sure no one has broken in... Well-" she smiled.

"I said I'm sorry," Illya smiled too. His energy began to fade away. He covered his ears with his hands and gasped. "Mayela? Your radio is too loud."

"Vaya apague el radio," Go and turn off the radio, she ordered her brother.

As the dizziness subsided, Illya got up very slowly. The radio had stopped but the sounds in the surroundings went on. He could hear voices and music, motorcars and animals from different directions. The smell of sulfur and wet grass turned his stomach; and the wet clothes burned his sensitive skin. His awareness of every single thing in motion was overwhelming. His mind took him back to Louis... "I'm not going crazy," he said to himself. "I won't go crazy."

"Excuse me?" Mayela turned to him.

"Sorry, I was talking to myself. Don't mind me," he smiled.

"I'm going to the kitchen, do you want to come?"

Illya took some steps and nodded. He followed the woman downstairs. Illya squinted while his eyes got used to the light. There was no sun, but the cloudy sky shone just the same. "What time is it?"

"Almost four," she said.

Marcos was already in the kitchen pouring water in a pitcher through a fabric bag. Illya looked at him working and had to satisfy his curiosity. "¿Qué haces?" What are you doing?

"Café... Coffee," he said.

"We don't have electricity. This is the way to make coffee around here." Mayela explained. "Do you find it funny?"

"Colorful." Illya staggered and had to sit down. "So, no electricity? I suppose it would be pretentious of my part to ask if you have a telephone."

"No telephone, I'm sorry." Mayela poured the coffee in three mugs. She sat in front of Illya. "But there is one in town."

"One telephone for the entire town?" Illya smelled the coffee and winced in disgust. He pushed the mug away from him. "Sorry, that smell is too strong."

Marcos laughed and Mayela elbowed him.

"It's okay, American coffee tastes like hot water to me," she shrugged. She looked at Illya with concerned. "Are you all right?"

"Marvelous." Illya wiped sweat off his forehead. "Listen, about the telephone..."

"Oh, yes. There is one at the comisariato, the- grocery store. You go and tell the manager the number you need, they dial it for you. Are you sure you're okay? You look so pale."

"Allergies." Illya glanced at his watch. "Three forty-five? In the afternoon."

"Yes," Mayela looked at him cautiously. "Are you sure you don't want some coffee? Sweet bread, or cookies with butter?"

"Oh, please. No more talking about food." Illya did not dare to breathe deeply. If he did not get in contact with the agency soon, he would be declared MIA. All his privileges would be revoked, no more retirement plan or insurance whatsoever; not to mention that the still-in progress mission would be classified as Incomplete. "Mayela, I need to communicate with my- er, uncle. He must be very worried about me."

"I could go to town and see if the taxi is available and come back for you-"

"The taxi? I gather you have only one in town?" Illya rubbed the back of his neck. "Never mind, I don't think I could make it that far, anyway." He closed his eyes for a moment to clear his mind. "Do you have pen and paper, here, now?"

"Of course." She fetched her bag and came back with a small agenda and a pen.

Illya wrote down a number. "Pay attention, Mayela. This is really important. You have to call this number for me."

"To the United States? That's an international call, those are very expensive."

Illya smiled. "It's collect. You call and wait for it to ring once, then hang up. They will return your call five minutes later. Let it ring twice before answering it." He wiped more of the sweat beading on his forehead. "To whatever they ask, you will say Illya found the macguffin. They will tell you the hour they'll come, and then, they will hang up."

"Macguffin?"

"Macguffin. Don't forget that name, or mine." He panted. "Do you think you can do this?"

Mayela stared at the piece of paper for a moment. "Are you a spy, Illya?"

"Do I look like a spy to you?" His eyelids began to weigh with exhaustion.

"I don't know. You just look sick." She helped Illya to get up. "Come, I'll put you to bed. I'd bring you a doctor but there is-"

"Don't tell me, there is just one in town?"

"No, he only comes every two weeks."

"Of course, what was I thinking?"

By the time they got to the room Illya was leaning heavily on her and on the walls. "You should change those clothes before you catch a cold." Mayela helped him to sit on the bed. "Marcos, busque entre la ropa de Toño a ver qué le sirva." Marcos, look in Toño`s clothes for something that fit him. She turned to Illya. "Toño, Antonio, is my other brother, the oldest. I'm sure he left some pants and shirts, he was too lazy to pack."

Illya lied down, staring at the ceiling. Although he knew it was an irrational thought, he was afraid of closing his eyes. He must have dozed for a second when a slight tremor woke him up. Soon, it was strong enough to rattle the wooden walls. Illya tried to sit up but his weakness made him very slow. The cracking sound felt like a loose train coming inside the house.

"Mayela!" Marcos yelled, running back into the room with a load of clothes.

"It's all right," she said helping Illya to sit up. "Ya pasó. It's over."

Illya closed his eyes and covered his ears. He shook his head and gasped. "No, it's still on!"

After one minute, he could feel everything going back to its normal quietness. Mayela rubbed his back, while talking in a reassuring voice. "It was just an earthquake." She smiled when he opened his eyes. "Are you afraid of earthquakes? It was too small."

"Just one earthquake? It could be the volcano." Illya could hear the earth rumbling beneath his feet.

"Or just an earthquake. We have a lot every year." Mayela began to untie Illya's boots. She heard him laughing. "Now what?"

"One phone, one taxi, one doctor every two weeks, but you have a lot of earthquakes."

She laughed too. "We can't live without them." She pointed at the clothes. "Do you want me to help you to change?"

"I think I can manage. Thank you."

She opened a bag. "Here's a flashlight. I don't know if I should leave you alone for the night."

"I'll be all right. All I need is peace and quiet. Believe me." He tried the flashlight and nodded. "And by the way, I'm not afraid of earthquakes."

"I never thought you were. Here's fresh water on the table. I'll be back tomorrow. Do you want me to bring you anything?"

"Just the news that you passed the message." Illya's voice was weakening. "Do you remember the message?"

"Illya found the macguffin."

"Correct," Illya nodded. His expression hardened for a moment. "One other thing, mejor que nadie más sepa que estoy aquí. Ésto es entre nosotros, ¿está bien?" It's better if no one else knows that I'm here. This is between us, all right? He waited until both youngsters nodded. "Buenas noches."

"Buenas noches," Mayela got up quietly and took her brother by the hand.

"Le dije que era un espía," I told you he was a spy... Illya heard the boy telling his sister as they went out. Clever boy, he thought. He listened to their bikes rolling down the hill. Twenty minutes later, he could still hear them. That was probably the distance to downtown. "That town is too close." Illya shook his head and tried to put his mind on something else.

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon came down to the bar on the first floor of his hotel. He could see that after an earthquake, people like to gather around and talk about it. The bartender had just tuned in the news in the only TV station on the country. Spanish was still evasive to Napoleon but if he concentrated hard enough, he could catch every other word. The reports were about a small earthquake, no physical or material damage... They still didn't have the origin or magnitude.

"What would it be, sir?" The bartender cleaned the section of the bar in front of Napoleon. "Anything for the aftershock?" He grinned.

"Surprise me," Napoleon smiled. "Do you have many of those around here?"

"Several throughout the year." The bartender prepared the drink and served it with a napkin. "But this one is nothing, just to wake you up."

"How about the volcano? Has it brought much trouble?"

"More or less. The action is in the mountains, tourists like to risk their lives to get a picture of an active volcano. However, here in the city, it's not that much fun, too much ash. Everything is dusty, the damn thing gets everywhere, in the engines, appliances, your underwear..."

"How long has it been? Two years?"

"Next March will be two years. It was so weird. We had Kennedy's visit in the morning and in the afternoon, the volcano exploded." The bartender shook his head. "We were fascinated with the black rain. People collected ashes in bags as a souvenir. Who would've known that two years later, we would be still sweeping this stuff off the streets and roofs. Scientists come to see the phenomenon, but so far, they have no explanation or answers."

"What do they say?" Napoleon asked.

"It'll go away when it goes way."

"Good policy," Napoleon nodded. He was about to leave when the TV channel began to blink and jump. The bartender shook his head and dodged graciously his costumers' protests.

"¡Comprate un tele que sirva!" Get a television that really works!

"¡Tirá ese gajo!" Throw away that piece of junk!

The bartender wiped the bar as if he had not heard them. He looked at the wall clock and snorted. "Never fails."

"Beg you pardon?" Napoleon sat down again.

"The TV, it gets scrambled every time the volcano trembles."

"Really?"

"The TV station antennas are on the top of the volcano. There is better reception up there. I suppose the eruptions interfere with the signal." The bartender served another costumer and turned back to Napoleon. "It has been rather quiet this week. Maybe the worst is over."

Napoleon nodded and frowned. "Maybe," he mumbled to himself.

(o)(O)(o)

Mayela rode her bike to the Comisariato Hermanos Lopez. It was almost 6 pm and Rafael, the clerk, was about to close. She asked for the phone and payed the fee in advance. She dialed the number Illya had written in the notebook and waited. Following the instructions, she hung up and waited. Rafael Lopez was intrigued.

"¿Diay qué? ¿Se equivocó de número?" What? Wrong number? He laughed.

"No contestan," No one answer she shrugged. "Ahorita me llaman." They'll call me back right away.

The phone rang and she waited. Two rings and she answered.

"Del Floria's Tailor Shop," a woman's voice said.

"Este... Illya found the macguffin."

"Illya? Is he all right?"

"Sí, sí, I mean, yes." Mayela frowned.

"Stay on the line, please." The voice went away for a moment. "Miss? Are you still there?"

"Yes."

"Tomorrow, three in the afternoon, local time."

"But where?"

"Right where you are."

(o)(O)(o)

"The macguffin?" Napoleon could not remember that code name.

"Yes, it's a term that Alfred Hitchcock uses to refer to the subject of a quest in his movies; nothing specific, just any object. Mr. Kuryakin began to refer to this mission as the macguffin, for we did not have a clear idea of what we were looking for," Mr. Waverly explained. "Just a little of that Russian wit of his, I suppose."

"Yeah, so much like Illya," Napoleon said. "So, he found it already."

"That is what the message says. Now, we only need to find him. The coordinates indicate that he must be in a small town, about two hours east from the capital, the name is San Juan de Aquinas. That's the last stop en route to the volcano, by the way."

"San Juan de Aquinas." Napoleon looked into a tourist booklet. "I got it. I'll be on my way tomorrow morning."

"Proceed with caution, although the caller seemed to know where to reach us and what to say, we still don't know what awaits us up there, exactly."

Napoleon turned off his communicator. He would spend time tracing a route for his trip.

(o)(O)(o)

Dr. Douglas Spencer entered the computer room at the compound. Although it was cold outside, the underground installations were stuffy and smelled like sulfur; just the delights of working under a volcano. He hated his workplace, it always put him on a bad mood; especially when he had to meet with his staff.

Four men, wearing white gowns and surgical gloves, received him with sour faces. Spencer smirked and prepared for battle.

"All right, gentlemen, what can I do for you now?"

"Doctor Spencer," the oldest said stepping forward. "My colleagues and I have been talking about this new plan, Vesuvius. It's a little too drastic, don't you think?"

"Yes," another of the men spoke. "We were so close with the original plan, why change it right now?"

Spencer sighed. "Gentlemen, do I have to remind you why you're four now instead of five? Your colleague, Dr. Theodore Manfred turned out to be a spy in disguise. He escaped with the VIRGIN, and gentlemen, you know that without the VIRGIN, we can't activate our volcanic device."

"But, operation Vesuvius?" The first man asked. "Isn't it too much? I mean, we're talking about the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands of innocent people."

"Well, don't blame it on me, blame it on that Uncle agent." Spencer went to his desk and pretended to be busy. "All I ask of you, gentlemen, is to finish with the self-destructive mechanism in order to blow up this damn mountain once and for all."

"Isn't there the slightest possibility to get the VIRGIN back?" Another of the scientists asked. "We still have time to rectify the original plan, right?"

"You're scientists, the deadline is in two days. Start working," Spencer shrugged. "But, from what I've been told, this Uncle agent is really sneaky." He sat down and grinned. "Although, he must be feeling somewhat out of sorts at the moment."

Laslo Dorian entered the laboratory, carrying a piece of paper. "The night shift report, Dr. Spencer."

"Off to work, my friends. Chop, chop, chop," Spencer said to the group of scientists. Just one look at it made Spencer smile. "So, he made it after all. One thing is sure about Mr. Kuryakin, he doesn't know when to quit." He wiped some sweat off his upper lip. "Have we been able to find his position yet?"

"Almost. Intelligence believes he's still in this area. Mr. Solo is coming this way too."

"Napoleon Solo? What an honor," Spencer said. "It's a pity that we can't invite him to the party. Are you ready for him too?"

"Absolutely. We'll be waiting for him. Er, Doctor Spencer," he cleared his throat.

"Yes, Laslo?"

He looked around at the scientists gone back to their work. He kept his voice down. "Well, I was wondering, how far do you want us to go with them?"

Spencer exhaled impatiently. "Have you found the reagent yet? No? Do you know where to look for it?" He crossed his arms over his chest. "Why is that?"

"Because Kuryakin stole it."

"Exactly. You must bring that little nuisance back in here, alive, or at least, don't kill him until he tells you where the VIRGIN is."

"Understood. How about Mr. Solo?"

Spencer shrugged. "I don't have any concern regarding Mr. Solo. Dispose of him at will." He turned to his workstation. "Leave now."

(o)(O)(o)

Mayela came back early. She left several bags in the kitchen and went upstairs. She found Illya sleeping restlessly and still in his wet clothes. She had not called his name yet when he opened his eyes.

"Sorry, I just came in. Good morning." She went to open the curtains.

"The light, Mayela! No, please!" Illya anticipated the pain and pulled the blankets over his face.

"Cierto! I'm sorry," she turned. "Did you sleep well? It was very cold last night."

"I noticed," Illya winced.

"Are you in pain?" Mayela frowned. "Do you have a fever? It seems that you caught a cold."

"I don't have a c-" Illya sat up and sneezed. Pain crawled behind his eyes, nose and ears. He had to lean his head on the pillow.

"Salud!," Bless you she said. "You're such a, what's the expression? Such a mess?"

"I suppose." Illya sniffed and rubbed his eyes. "Did you send the message?"

"Oh, yes. Del Floria Tailor Shop? I almost hung up because I thought I'd got the wrong number." She smiled. "They said that someone will come to town at three this afternoon. How do they know where you are?"

"They know. What time is it? I'd better get ready." Illya got up and almost fainted. He sat on the edge of the bed and held his head with both hands. "In five more minutes."

"I don't think you will make it to the main door within half an hour." Mayela shook her head. She reached in her purse for something and poured water in a glass. "Here," she gave Illya two pills, "It's aspirin."

"You're an angel." Illya swallow without giving it much of a thought. Immediately, he wrinkled his nose in disgust. "They're sour and the water is-"

"It's pure water. There's nothing wrong with it," Mayela protested. "I think it's you, Illya."

"Yes, me too," Illya forced himself to smile. "My taste is going crazy."

"You're getting very sick. You should have changed those clothes already."

Illya took a deep breath. "All right, you may help me with the shirt."

She unzipped his jacket and stared at the jump suit. "Are you with the scientists?"

"Scientists?"

"Yeah, the ones working in the volcano." She pulled his undershirt off his head and reached for her brother's plaid flannel shirt.

Illya buttoned it and stood up. He took the clean jeans and looked at her. "Turn around and close your eyes." He smiled at her covering her eyes with both hands. "What do you know about those scientists?"

"Well, they started to come after the first eruption. They have their camp up there."

"How do you know that?" Illya sat down again to tie up his boots. "Have you seen them?"

"All the time," she shrugged. "Well, on weekends. They come to town for provisions. My brothers deliver the milk for the camp, every morning. Sometimes I go with them. How come I didn't see you there before?"

"I was held undergr-" A violent cough interrupted him. For a moment, he could not talk or breathe.

Mayela stared at him, warily. "Are you sure that you can go all the way to town? It's a good thirty minute walk."

"Is it the taxi's day off?" He panted.

"Actually, yes," she laughed. "It's Sunday."

Illya nodded. "Sunday?" Time was going too fast. He had lost at least two whole days already. You have to put yourself together, he thought. "I should get going." He took one step and felt dizzy.

Mayela looked at him and gasped. "Illya? Your nose is bleeding." She ran to her purse for some tissue.

Illya sat on the bed and wiped off the blood. "It's the sulfur, my nostrils are sore. I must have broken a blood vessel. It'll pass soon."

"I don't think you should go anywhere like this." Mayela sat in a chair in front of him. "Do you want me to call your uncle again and tell him-"

"There's no time. They must come today." Illya got up again. He felt weak and clumsy. He paced around until his balance came back little by little. "Listen, it's important for me to be there-" A wave of pain sent him down on his knees. He clenched his teeth in a effort to suppress a scream.

Despite the disarray, Illya managed to sign Mayela to stay away. He crawled to sit on the bed and waited until the episode subsided. Mayela did not take her eyes off him, biting her nails quietly. "I don't think you can make it, Illya."

He rubbed his face as though wiping the pain away. He shuddered but smiled at her all the same. "I have no choice, I need to talk to them." Illya struggled to stay alert. "I have to go."

"But you can't even walk," she said. "There must be another way."

"Lower down your voice, please." Illya gasped. "Another way," he muttered. Suddenly, he found a solution. "You could bring them here."

"Sure... but they don't know me and I don't know them."

He looked at the chain that Mayela was wearing around her neck. "May I have that?" He took off his ring and put it on the chain. "You'll wear my ring around your neck." He gave the chain back to her.

"And do what? I sit there just waiting?"

"Pretty much, yes." Illya crawled back in the bed to put his back against the board. He could see suspicion on Mayela's eyes. He grinned. "It's nothing hard to do. You can manage."

"All right," she said. "But if the person turns out to be a maniac, I'll be very angry at you."

Illya smiled thoughtfully. "If it is who I think it is, you'll be relatively safe."

(o)(O)(o)

Napoleon jumped on his seat and his head hit the roof. He tried to laugh. The girl in the rent-a-car agency had warned him about the bumpy road. It was a good thing that he had settled for the jeep instead the convertible. This kind of adventures were not particularly his cup of tea, but it was not so bad. He was too busy assessing the extreme conditions of this part of the country. Two years of sulfur and ashes were taking their toll all over. Vegetation was yellow and the few cows he had seen looked ill for lack of good nourishment.

He looked ahead. The mountain of thunder seemed to watch him from a distance. Clouds stuck on the slopes of the volcano, giving the impression that the mountain was floating. The landscape was breathtaking. As though in schedule for the accidental tourist, a column of smoke went up at the top, and a small shower of rocks rolled down the side. The volcano roared and sounded like a plane taking off. Volcanoes were not a bad thing. Natural phenomena happened unexpectedly, but if on top of it, they added Thrush to the equation, someone would have to put a halt to it.

Another bump on the road and he spotted a sign. "San Juan de Aquinas, 1 kilómetro," he read. Until this moment, he had not allowed himself to think of Illya. His partner was resourceful and an overall survivor, but he had this tendency to get into very interesting problems. Napoleon could hardly wait to see what Illya was up to now.

Mayela bought a bag of potato chips at the comisariato. A man in camouflage jacket and khaki pants came to the counter with a picture. He spoke English with the clerk but there was not much communication between them.

"Maye!" Rafael called her. "Necesito traducción, please." I need translation here, please.

She remembered immediately what Illya had said about talking to strangers. She got concerned. The man looked nice but serious. He showed her the picture. It was an ID card. She did not have time to read the name, but there was no doubt it was Illya in the picture. She hesitated for a moment. Maybe, this was the man they were waiting for. Maybe not. She sighed and shook her head.

"He hasn't come this way."Mayela did not feel that was a lie. Technically, Illya had not come downtown. She waited until the man left the place. Then, she went to sit on a bench at the plaza, the grassy square that served as the football soccer court. As every Sunday, boys and young adults gathered to play la mejenga, soccer jam. Next to the National Soccer Championship, this was the most popular activity in town.

Two of the young men waved at her. She smiled, but her eyes were on the main road, watching for any new car coming to town. Traffic was usually slow. There were visitors making one last stop before climbing up the road to the volcano. But even those were fewer now. The authorities had declared the zone as dangerous after a couple of accidents.

She looked at her watch. Three o'clock and no one that looked like a spy, or whatever Illya's people were had arrived. She saw one car, Elenio, the taxi driver; her father's ox cart was also rolling down the main street. As every day, he would look for Mayela's older brother and a friend to make the milk deliveries for the evening. Mayela giggled. What would her father say if he knew she was there waiting for a stranger... in a car? A black car passed by and went to park in front of the Comisariato. More tourists, she thought.

Suddenly, a jeep crossed the road, blowing its horn to the ox cart. Somehow, Mayela knew this had to be him.

Napoleon parked at the verge of what looked like the curb of the sidewalk. He got out and felt like every pair of eyes was on him. After some seconds, they turned back to the game and other things. Napoleon adjusted the collar of his jacket as he felt a light drizzle. There was also a strong smell of sulfur in the air and ashes, now a familiar trait, covered most of the street.

He looked around, hoping to spot his contact. His usual move would be walking toward the crowd; maybe Illya would be there. But of course, these missions were never that easy. He was about to complete his first turn to the match court when something caught his eyes. Illya's ring.

The brunette wearing the ring looked at him intently. She was in a light lavender dress, white shoes, no heels and a matching purse. She did not look threatening in any way, although, based on experience, that would not fool Napoleon. Even so, he allowed himself to smile. At least, she was pretty. As he walked closer, two little old ladies came to sit next to the girl. Napoleon slowed down.

"Y ¿cómo está su mamá? How's your mother?"

"Por ahí vimos a su papá, We've just seen your father around."

"Bien, gracias, Fine, thank you," Mayela put on her best smile. Her aunts were nice and friendly, but it was really hard getting rid of them. She saw this tall man, dressed in fatigue clothes, crossing the street toward her and panicked. He could be a killer or something worse. He might have a gun under that jacket and knives in his boots. Easy, Mayelita, too many spy movies, she thought.

Napoleon stood next to her, took out his sunglasses and bowed to the ladies. He pretended to watch the game. His Spanish was rustic but he had mastered several sentences from other trips to Latin America. "¿Cómo van?" How are they doing? He asked.

"Cero a cero," Mayela answered with a wary frown.

Napoleon looked at her and smiled. "I hope you speak English, this is as far as I go with my Spanish."

Mayela felt relieved. At least, he seemed as friendly as Illya. "American?"

Napoleon nodded. The ladies next to Mayela were more interested in him than in the game or anything else in town. One smile from him and they giggled.

"¿Es amigo suyo? Friend of yours?" One of the ladies asked Mayela.

"Sí, sí, amigo de ella, Yes, her friend," Napoleon ventured to say. He turned to Mayela and pointed at the chain on her neck. "I think we need to talk."

Mayela excused herself to her aunts and walked away with Napoleon. He leaned on the fence of the church garden and looked around. "Everybody is staring at us. You must be very popular."

Mayela smiled. "It's a very small town. If there's nothing on TV, we come here and stare at each other."

Napoleon laughed. He did not lose his friendly expression when he turned to her. "Where is Illya?"

"Are you his uncle?" She frowned.

"No, but you're wearing his ring. You called us yesterday. Is he all right?"

"I don't know," she sighed. "He's in my house, up the hill, that way," she pointed with her chin. "He wanted to come but he's too weak."

"Is he wounded?"

"No, but he looks sick. He says it's his allergies but-"

Napoleon grabbed her by the hand. "Come, you've got to take me with him now."

She stopped when they got to the car. "I don't know if I should get in there with you."

"You came this far with that ring. I guess Illya is expecting you to return it." Napoleon spoke softly, giving her his trademark smile. "Maybe it'd help if we introduced ourselves. I'm Napoleon Solo."

Mayela hesitated before shaking his hand. "Mayela Gonzalez."

"Nice to meet you, Mayela." Napoleon started the engine, with Illya on his mind. What did she mean he looked sick?

Mayela kept an eye on the people staring at her. She was leaving in a car with a stranger... a man. If her father had not seen her yet, her aunts would fill him in later. She was in trouble. They both were too much into their own thoughts to notice that the black car was rolling out of town right behind them.

"Mayela, how far is your house?"

"In this car? Twenty minutes, maybe."

Napoleon shifted gears resolutely. "We'll make it in fifteen."

The car behind them sped up too.

TBC

Jul. 2nd, 2011

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel, chapter 11

XI. The Rambling Kid

Carter drove into town hoping to find a hospital, or a doctor's office, or anything in between. All his hopes vanished at every corner. Besides being a small village, it was empty. Dalibor had said that this was a ghost town. He was not mistaken. The street lights were dim but they were the only trace of human civilization left. Not a soul was on the streets.

Carter turned to look at Newkirk. His eyes were closed but he was not asleep. Once in a while, he blinked and twisted. He was uncomfortable and maybe in pain. Carter took a deep breath. This was not the time to panic, not yet...

Carter's eyes began to close involuntarily and he almost lost control of the vehicle. He pulled over to one side of what looked to be the main street. Newkirk straightened up and looked through the window.

"Are we there yet?"

"I suppose. I think this is Schienbein Stadt already." Carter kept his voice low. In the back seat, Sabina was asleep. Her black hair hanging in two long braids and the toy cradled in her arms were reminders of the innocence of a little girl that had had to grow up too fast. Next to her, was Dalibor. Carter had found it very easy to hate that man. He felt sorry because, until he met Dalibor, he had thought better of himself. His father had warned him that war changed men... Carter used to believe that he would not allow that to happen. He was not sure about it anymore; not now that he had learned he was capable of hating.

"There's not much to see, is there?" Newkirk shook his head to clear his mind. "What are we looking for, anyway? A good hotel with a bathtub and clean towels?"

"Any place where you can lie down. You look awful." Carter's grin flashed when he turned to Newkirk. "How do you feel? The truth."

"All right, all right." He rubbed his eyes. "I don't want to scare you but I think it's gonna get worse before it gets better."

"Thank you for the warning. I'll try not to panic." He smiled. "Can I ask you something before it gets worse?"

"What about?"

"What shall I do now?"

Newkirk tried not to chuckle. He held his right side with his left hand, breathing unevenly. "You said it, look for shelter. We need a warm place... water and food would be a plus... Electric power is good if the windows are covered." He gasped for air. "At least two rooms, we need to keep Dalibor locked up somewhere... Don't lose time looking for medicine, all right? I'll get by with what we have."

Which is nothing, Carter thought. He turned to the back seat and slapped Dalibor's knee. "Hey, man, we're going for a walk." He turned back to Newkirk. "I'll take him with me so you can rest." He saw the girl waking up. "Hi," he smiled. "Would you come here and keep an eye on Newkirk?"

"Do you have your gun with you?" the Englishman asked.

Carter grimaced. "I'm not good with it anyway."

"Carter," Newkirk stared him down until he made sure Carter had the pistol in his belt. "Sorry, Andrew," he mumbled.

"Why?"

"It shouldn't be like this. I was supposed to watch your back..."

Carter patted him on the shoulder. He had no answer to that. He did not feel better than his friend. Things had gone wrong and he was not in the mood to cheer up anyone. "Don't move and try to rest. I'll be back soon."

Sabina slid on the driver's seat. She began to play with the cup-and-ball without paying much attention to Newkirk. He sighed. He knew a cold shoulder when he saw one. She would not talk to him just because he had kidnapped her at gun point and used her as a shield so her father would not shoot at him. Women could be really stubborn sometimes, he thought.

"Are you still mad? I didn't mean to scare you like that, really."

"Dadro is going to kill you both," Sabina said.

"If that makes you happy," Newkirk gave her a sad smile.

"It doesn't make me happy," she grimaced. "But he must be very, very angry. You shouldn't have done that, Newkirk."

"I've got no choice... Carter was about to shoot your daddy." He switched on his seat, trying to find a less painful position.

"Dadro would've shot first. He's very fast."

"Then, he would've hurt Carter. You wouldn't have liked that either, would you?"

"That's how you saved his life then?"

"Or your father's," he shrugged. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"No, you didn't... I'm all right." Sabina said. "You scared me, though... I'm still mad at you."

"It's all right..." he closed his eyes. "You don't have to understand everything, all right? Be mad a little longer if you need to... Just don't be scared of me, please." His breathing became shallow. "Could we be friends again any time soon?"

"We're friends, Newkirk," she smiled.

Oo-HH-oO

Carter entered one two-story building on the corner. It must have been the police station. It was a small place with two desks, boxes of files everywhere and one cage with a cot. Carter's eyes shone with relief. He and Dalibor lifted the cot out of the cage and put it in the corner next to one of the desks. Carter could not have asked for anything better under the circumstances. There was an exit on the back but was blocked with boxes and old furniture. He would check the second floor later, when they all were settled in.

He tried the lock of the cell. It still worked. The keys were on a hook on the wall next to two pairs of handcuffs.

Dalibor guessed Carter's intentions and stepped backwards. "You're not putting me in there."

"Don't give me trouble. Just get in there so I can lock the door." Carter crossed his arms.

"I haven't done anything to you. I'm not your prisoner."

"Technically, you are. Besides, with all those people after you, I think it'll be safer for all of us to know where to find you at all times."

"I won't run away."

"It's for you own good, okay?"

"Those crazy people put their thoughts in your head. Maybe I should've left on my own."

"Don't get me started with you and those people!" Carter yelled at him as he had never yelled at anyone. "We'll get you on the plane to London at three ten tomorrow. Until then, I don't want to hear another word from you!"

Oo-HH-oO

"They must be here somewhere!" Anton squinted through the window. The rain was not heavy anymore but it was very dark. "They must be driving with the lights off."

"What do we do when we get them, Anton?" Virgil asked. "They won't relinquish Dalibor without putting up a fight."

"Then, we'll give them a fight." Anton shrugged. "It's fine with me. We have better aim than they."

"We can't get involved in another confrontation, Anton. It's too risky. We killed three soldiers already without counting those at the HQ. The police-"

"The hell with the police! We'll get that pig and that's all that matters!"

"How about Sabina? We're coming for her more than for Dalibor, aren't we?"

Anton bit his lower lip. Of course, he wanted his daughter back more than anything. Dalibor had taken everything from him. Now, he was forgetting his most valuable possession. He felt bad.

"The British man is dead. First, I'll get my daughter back and then, he'll die."

Oo-HH-oO

Newkirk showed Sabina one coin before making it disappear in the air. He reached behind her ear to find the same coin. She laughed and then, she repeated the same trick on him.

"Hey, how did you do that?" He smiled.

"One of my uncles was a magician."

"Small world." He took a deep breath and leaned back.

Sabina was concerned. "Are you tired?"

Newkirk shook his head. His mind was blurred to nothing else but pain. He touched his right side and felt it wet. Sabina saw the blood and gasped.

"Newkirk-"

"See that red brick building over there?" He pointed at the corner. "Carter is in there... go get him..."

Newkirk closed his eyes and dropped his head to one side. Sabina did not dare to touch him. She jumped out of the car and ran down the street.

TBC

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel, chapter 10

X Support Your Local Sergeant

Rain and lighting. One hour on that road and all they had seen was rain and lighting. Newkirk kept the car on its lane as much as he could but the darkness ahead made him sleepy. The first miles were an easy straight line, and his eyelids closed involuntarily. Then, his mind drifted away. He shook his head and blinked in a desperate effort to keep alert.

"Hey, luv," he turned to Sabina. "You're not mad at me, are you?"

Sabina barely looked at him. She crossed her arms over the cup-and-ball and stared at the road.

"Come on, lass, talk to me," Newkirk blinked. He was sweating, and dizzy; his breathing was shallow and the tips of his fingers were numbed. He realized his brain was shutting down. "Tell me... Did you have any pets back home...?" He exhaled. "When I was about your age I had a cat... her name was Miranda... I found her... in an alley... near my... near me house..."

Sabina was actually paying attention to the story when she realized that some trees were getting too close.

Carter was asleep with his head against the window. He was dreaming of home. He could feel the early morning drizzle in his face and the sun in his eyes. The green in the mountains served as the canvas for the new flowers. It was always springtime in his dreams. He heard the birds singing and his mother calling him for breakfast...

"Carter!"

Sabina's desperate shout woke him as the car shuddered and shrieked. Within seconds, Carter saw Newkirk falling to one side while the car kept rolling uncontrollably down the road and towards the open field. The sergeant jumped half body over the driver's seat. He reached for the wheel with both hands. He managed to put the vehicle back on the road but he could not slow down.

"Brakes!" He yelled. "Hit the brakes!"

Sabina understood that he was talking to her. She got down on the floor and pressed the pedal with both hands. That gave Carter the chance to pull over to the shoulder of the road and stop completely. He took his time to breathe and loose his shaky hands off the wheel. He sat back for a moment.

"Everybody okay?" He turned to Dalibor. The man was pale but he nodded.

"That was too close, wasn't it?" The man shook his head. "He could've killed us all."

"Shut up," Carter said. "Sabina, you come here." He got out and went to the driver's seat. He pushed Newkirk to the passenger seat.

"I'm fine, I'm fine..." he mumbled. "Need time..."

"Just move." Carter shook his head. "Why do you have to be so difficult?" he whispered. "How do you feel? And don't say you're okay!"

Newkirk managed to straighten up on his seat before his head dropped back. "Fever is coming up again... Sorry."

Carter bit his lower lip. "It's not your fault. We'll take care of you when we get back to-"

"Home... when we get back home." Newkirk interrupted him before he mentioned the Stalag. Carter nodded and smiled. "And it's all right, Andrew... Everything is going just fine..." He slipped slowly to his left side until his head rested on Carter's shoulder.

Carter kept driving, staring frantically at both sides of the road, looking for an exit. "How much longer?" he wondered aloud.

"About half an hour for the exit to Schienbein Stadt," Dalibor answered him. "Are you sure you and your friend are up to finishing this mission? Maybe I should take my chances and run for the border."

"Oh, you wish. They are waiting for you in London and you'd better have something important to say. It'll take you all that you've got to get you off the hook," Carter said.

"Are you forgetting this girl's father? You'll be as good as dead the moment he gets to you."

"Be quiet! I won't talk to you anymore!" Carter tried to put his mind on something else. The road. Newkirk. Sabina. "Don't you worry, Sabina, we'll fix everything before we leave. You'll see your father very soon and everything will be all right."

Sabina smiled. "Thank you, Carter. Is Newkirk all right?"

"He'll be. He needs to rest, that's all." He kept driving with one hand while his right hand went around Newkirk's shoulder. "Hang on, buddy. We're almost there."

"I'd suggest you continue all the way to Freihalleberg. You can take your friend to the hospital there," Dalibor said. "He won't last much longer in Schienbein Stadt."

"Why don't you take a nap or something?" Carter tried to concentrate on the driving. "We don't need you to tell us what to do."

"Listen, I'm only telling you what is obvious. This young man' condition is deteriorating too fast. He's dying-"

"Don't listen to him, Andrew..." Newkirk made an effort to sit up. "He's just trying to find a way out... Bloody bastard... " He rubbed his temple with the talon of his hand. "You're lucky we have our orders... Any other day, I'd give you what you deserve."

"Oh, yes? And what is that? You believe what these filthy gypsies told you? They lie through their teeth..They're just deceivers. They are trying to blame me for something that they brought upon themselves. I wasn't even there."

"Are you denying your participation in the Einsatzgruppen?" Newkirk held his breath when the pain pierced his side. "It's in your files."

"I was with the Ustachi, local police. We provided order and support to Hitler's armed forces. They did all the job." Dalibor began to feel uncomfortable with the conversation. "I left them before things got out of control."

"Whatever you say, mate. You were there and did nothing, bloody same thing that if you'd pulled the trigger against those people yerself." He closed his eyes.

"Newkirk, you're exhausting yourself." Carter's concern grew. Dalibor was a bad person but he was not mistaken about Newkirk's condition. "Try to sleep, we still have some road ahead."

"I was just following orders," Dalibor insisted.

"Keep talking, and you'll see how much of a follower I am meself!" Newkirk snapped, whirling around. The sudden movement made his head spin. "Bloody hell."

Carter leaned one hand on Newkirk's shoulder. He could not do much to alleviate his friend's suffering. He knew that they both were scared, that the entire situation was getting way out of hand. But all would be over in a matter of hours. At least, that should bring some kind of relief.

Oo-HH-oO

Kinch came out to the tunnel and saw Corporal Harris keeping watch by the window. Kinch stood behind him and glanced outside.

"How's it going?" He asked.

"He's just completed his third round and he's still going," Harris said.

Kinch spotted Schultz walking backwards, with a candle in his hands and mumbling something. Considering all the mud, the constant rain and occasional thunder, Kinch could not help feeling a little guilty. Sergeant Schultz was a real trooper.

"Our contact at the grocery store says that he spotted Schultz on a scavenger's hunt for black candles and garlic and now he's walking around the Stalag thirteen times. How did you convince him to do all this?" Olsen said.

"We have to be grateful for Schultz. He believes everything that makes a little sense-"

"Here he comes!" Harris said.

Kinch signed for Private Dorian to get a bag from Hogan's office. He scattered its content over the bunks. Then, he opened the door.

"Sergeant, how's everything going?"

Schultz came in breathing heavily. He leaned his rifle on the nearest bunk and sat at the table. Harris offered him a towel.

"It's pouring outside. My candle went out." He finally spoke. "Is it working yet?"

"I think so. No more white guys have disappeared. Olsen and Tucker are still here, see?" The boys nodded from their bunks. Kinch went to LeBeau's bunk and got the red scarf and the beret. "And this just appeared here a few minutes ago."

Schultz got up and took the things in his hands. "Are you sure? These are LeBeau's, aren't they? How did that happened?"

"Harris found them, right?"

Harris glared at Kinch. He barely spoke to the German sergeant and now he had to lie to him. "Oh, yes, well... I just came by and there they were," he shrugged.

"Oh, my..." Schultz smiled. "I forgot the rhyme again... The cat mewed twice?"

(1)"Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd" Kinch quoted. " And you know the rest?"

(1)"Thrice and one, the head pig whin'd,"

"Hedge, Schultz, the hedge-pig," he nodded. "You still know what to do?"

"Ten more rounds walking backwards around the camp..." Schultz sighed. He got up very slowly and put his helmet on. "I wish there were an easier way."

Dorian came with a match and lit the candle. The sergeant took it in one hand and grabbed his rifle with the other one.

"That's what the captain of the Demeter said, remember?" (2) Kinch saw Schultz to the door.

"Oh, ja, that horrible story you told me... Those poor sailors..." he frowned. "I still don't know how I didn't read about that on the papers."

"Top secret, those things never go public." He virtually pushed the sergeant out. "Remember, not a word to Kommandant Klink. We don't want for him to disappear too, do we?"

"God forbid!" Schultz shook his head. "If he goes, who knows who else they would send in his place."

"You're so right," Kinch closed the door and turned. "That was close." He looked at Dorian. "Make sure to put a piece of clothing on the bunks every half an hour."

Harris shook his head with a grin and went back to his post.

Kinch went to the ladder to continue his watch by the radio.

"Any news from the outside unit?" Olsen asked.

"Nothing after the colonel's order to put the mission on hold. They won't communicate until they get to the rendezvous point and assess the situation. If everything goes according to plan, I'll send a signal to Tinkerbell and Papa Bear will take the operation from there." He shook his head. "Keep an eye on Schultz, we don't need any more distractions."

TBC

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel, chapter 9

IX The Searchers

Hogan and LeBeau had been driving along the rural road for over an hour. The hunch that had led them till there was slowly fading away. The rain was heavy and the night was too dark to see anything at all.

"Let's go ahead another five minutes and then, we'll turn around."

Although LeBeau nodded, he was not happy. For Carter and Newkirk, he would go on to the Swiss border and beyond. Five minutes were no enough. They could be six minutes away from their friends. They could be missing them for seconds for all that matter...

Lightning illuminated the road ahead and Hogan blinked. "Stop the car." He pulled up the collar of his jacket and got out. LeBeau followed him trying to see what had caught the colonel's attention. In front of them, there was nothing but darkness and mud.

"Qu'est-ce que c'est, Colonel? What is it?"

"I thought I saw a light over that hill." Hogan took out his pistol. "Let's go. Slowly. Remember we're dressed like Gestapo." He got back in the car.

LeBeau sighed. Wearing these uniforms made him not just uncomfortable but an easy target as well. Although they were in German territory, there was no way to predict how people would received them. Some just loved the Nazis, but others would not hesitate to blow off their heads. The Frenchman adjusted his helmet and got his pistol ready.

They drove up the road until they got to a farm house. Voices inside disturbed the stillness of the night. Hogan assumed that the inhabitants of the house were having some sort of celebration. LeBeau grabbed Hogan's arm before he got out of the car.

"Romany," he whispered.

"Gypsies?" Hogan frowned. "Do you speak the dialect?"

"One word here and there," LeBeau shook his head. "There are as many dialects as tribes. From all those bad words, I'd say they're very, very angry."

Hogan thanked him for the warning. He got out slowly, leaning heavily on an elegant cane Newkirk had stolen for him after the explosion accident. He had had no plans to go on any mission until his ankle was completely healed. But the Englishman insisted that it would bring dignity to his pathetic walking. Who would have known that he would be using it so soon?

They had just started to walk when the sound of someone cocking a rifle put them in guard. They raised their hands up and waited. The light of torches began to illuminate the path from the house towards Hogan and LeBeau.

One young man came with his rifle aimed on Hogan. He yelled to the people inside the house. Soon, Hogan and LeBeau were surrounded by ten men. Someone took the pistols from them while a group of women glared from the door. One big man stepped forward.

"Was möchten Sie hier?" Anton's face barely showed behind a thick scarf that covered him up to his nose.

Hogan had to make a quick decision about keeping the German language or dropping the disguises right away. Gypsies were persecuted in Germany. The Gestapo uniforms would cause distrust and hostility. It did not make sense to antagonize them.

"Ich bin Amerikaner. Spricht hier jemand Englisch?"

Anton growled "More Americans? They're falling from the sky!" Although he laughed, it was evident that he was not happy. His men laughed with him. "And all dressed like Germans," he said, coming closer. "I'd just want to know why in hell these Americans keep on coming into my house! And those disguises..." His festive laugh ended abruptly. "Are you celebrating the All Hallows Eve?"

"Des autres Americans? Où sont-ils?" LeBeau jumped.

"LeBeau." Hogan stopped him. He tried his most polite approach. "I understand that this must be very unusual but I assure you we have a good explanation. Could we talk out of the rain, Mister...?"

"Anton Havel and not bother, I talked enough with the other Gadje. Is that your car over there? I'm taking it right now." He called four men and sent them into the car.

"Hey, attendez! Qu'est-ce que vous faites? Colonel!" LeBeau ignored the pain in his shoulder and made a rush at the men. Virgil put his rifle on his chest and the Frenchman stopped right there.

"LeBeau!" Hogan yelled and stepped forward, leaning on his cane "You already took our guns. Do you need to shoot us too?"

"I won't waste my time discussing my motives, Colonel," Anton shouted without turning to see him. "My quarrel is not with you."

"Wait a moment, our bag. You don't need that." Hogan signed for LeBeau to take the portable radio out the car.

"You're free to go now!" Anton got in the car. He yelled something else in his dialect and left.

"He asked them to follow him as soon as the trucks are fixed," LeBeau translated.

"What's wrong with your trucks?" Hogan asked at random hoping to find someone else who spoke English.

"The Gadje broke them" Milena said. She stared at Hogan with curiosity. "Are you Gov'nor?"

Hogan frowned, warily. "Where did you hear that name?"

"From one of the Gadje. He was delirious with fever and called for Gov'nor several times."

"He has fever?" LeBeau jumped. "Mon Dieu! Newkirk, what happened to him?"

"Later, LeBeau," Hogan said. He was also alarmed but there was no time for much talking. "See what you can do for the trucks, we need to get our friends as soon as possible." He turned to the woman. "You'll talk to us while we work."

Hogan resented LeBeau's frustration. The French corporal was not pleased about Anton's taking their car; he would have wanted to see more action. But Hogan knew that the situation was too volatile at the moment. They needed to know all the facts before jumping into anything.

Oo-HH-oO

Gestapo Headquarters, Berlin

The lieutenant read the report and smirked. Two men dressed as Gestapo officers had entered the Gestapo local bureau at Lorenz. They had planted explosives and kidnapped one of the prisoners. They killed four staff members on the site. During the chase that followed, three other officers had been killed. There were strong suspicions that the men were working in connection with a clandestine organization hiding in a farm near the road to Schienbein Stadt.

The orders were to send one patrol of four men that would join forces with Lorenz local authorities. They would search the area thoroughly for clues leading to the perpetrators, their accomplices and the prisoner they had helped to escape. The men were described as dangerous, desperate and extremely violent. They were wanted dead or alive.

Oo-HH-oO

"Can it be fixed?" Hogan asked LeBeau, as he held the flashlight over the engine.

"This is the fifth time you ask the same question," the Frenchman shook his head. "It's Carter's work, no doubt about it. An easy fix. Some of the wires are missing."

Hogan thought about it for a moment. He looked around at the house and the garden. The rain had not slowed down a bit. He sat next to LeBeau and turned the flashlight to the ground.

"If you were Carter, where would you put those things? Would you take them with you? Would you just throw them away?"

"I'd throw them away, but Carter, he would probably keep them in his pocket or something..."

"Think like Carter, LeBeau. You need time to escape. You fix the trucks so no one can follow you... But," Hogan stressed the word. "But, you know these people need the trucks to go home... He would not like to sabotage them to the point of leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere, would he?"

"You're right, mon Colonel. He would hide them around, peut-être?"

"You look that way and I'll look this way."

"Look for wires? At night? In the rain?"

"Can't get any more fun than this, eh Louie?" Hogan grinned.

They walked dragging their feet and keeping their eyes wide open. But it was too dark for their flashlights to cover so much ground. Just when LeBeau was about to say how impossible this task was, five men came out of the house with their own torches.

Milena sat on the steps of the porch cradling the baby. She looked sad to see such a hopeless search. Hogan signed LeBeau to go on while he went to sit with the woman.

"I'm sorry about all of this. I suppose we're delaying your leaving," Hogan groaned as his foot protested when he sat down.

"Your men just did what they thought had to be done," Milena caressed little Emil's hair.

Hogan held out his index finger so the toddler could grasp it. That made him smile. "They were following my orders, so, I feel responsible for this."

Milena stared at the men frantically searching for the wires. Johan and Pavel came to join them and despite the urgency, they seemed to be having fun. She longed for those days when their problems were only about how many coats they would have to knit for the next winter.

"We're just tired. It's been almost three years... Emil has never slept in the same bed for more than two weeks in a row... the children need to go home, go to school..."

"I'm ignorant about this but, aren't the Romany a nomadic tribe?"

The baby slid from Milena's lap to climb on Hogan's. The colonel did not seem to mind when the child began to play with the buttons of his uniform.

Milena smiled. "There are many myths about the Romany. Some are bad, others are just annoying." She looked at the other children. "Before the bad things happened, we lived in a nice neighborhood, with stores and playgrounds. There was a school and a church to go every Sunday." She laughed at Hogan's curious stare. "I've never traveled on wagons and danced around the bonfire at night... and I only use deck of cards to build castles with the children."

"Sorry," Hogan smiled. The baby fell asleep in his arms. He gently handed him to the woman. "I heard about those bad things, Milena. Words can't describe how disgusted I am by what you've been through."

"There is no one here who hasn't lost a member of their family." She sighed but her face kept serene. "I miss my husband every day... my brother Virgil and his sons are the only thing that keeps me going. Anton's daughter is all his world. We live day by day, hoping for the day we don't have to run after another beng.*"

Hogan listened but his brain could not come up with any words to respond. He had been working undercover long enough to understand the suffering of these people. He had heard about it and seen the horrors of the war first hand. He also had seen how the Allies refused to talk about it and looked the other way. Whether that was a good strategy on their road to victory, he was not sure. Only time would tell. But in the meantime, people kept dying under the most horrible circumstances. It was almost impossible not to take sides.

"Anton has been hunting those devils for three years. I held hopes in my heart of ending our journey with Dalibor... For a moment, I thought so..."

"Until Newkirk and Carter showed up and altered all your plans," Hogan nodded.

"I'm not superstitious, but I suppose this was written," Milena smiled. She stood up. "I need to put Emil to bed." Hogan followed her inside. The children had gone to bed on mattresses spread on the living room floor. She laid down the toddler and went to the kitchen. She put the kettle on the stove and lit a match. "Some tea, Gov'nor?"

Hogan smiled. "Only Newkirk calls me that. Please, I'm Rob. And yes, tea would be nice."

They sat at a small table. The adjacent room was full of big bags of clothes. "We always leave something behind because we have to travel light. Most it's children's clothes. They grow up so fast." Milena explained. Hogan's eyes spotted a white shirt all stained with blood. "Those are your men's. Their uniforms were... all like that. They had to change."

"Is he badly hurt? Newkirk?"

"I'm afraid yes. Without proper care, any wound can be serious." She sipped her tea. "I helped him as much as I could. I'm so sorry, there's no excuse for how it happened. He was unarmed."

Hogan put aside every thought about Newkirk's being shot. He did not want to get angry at these people. He hated what the war made of everybody... what the war made of him. "I'm very sorry it has to be this way."

"I understand that you, the Allies want to profit from Dalibor's knowledge. Your men are putting their lives at risk for him." She shrugged. "Revenge won't satisfy me. My husband and my children are gone. I'll cry for them till the end of my days. I only hope no one else has to suffer because of this."

"I can't offer you revenge, but the information that man can provide might save many lives." Hogan took his cane and stood up. He was about to resume the search for the motor parts when one of the children came in.

"Johan, why aren't you in bed?" Milena spoke to him in English as a courtesy to Hogan.

"The American gave me something this afternoon," the child said rubbing his eyes with one first. "He told me to count to one million in German before giving it to you. I went to sleep and I forgot I still had it."

"What is it? What did he give you?"

Hogan heard the question and almost laughed. It was so much like Carter to think of something like that. They had just found the wires.

TBC

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel, chapter 8

VIII. The Outlaw Andrew Carter

The rain was heavy and cold. Schultz had to beg Kinch to letting him in the barrack. He counted heads but Newkirk, Hogan, LeBeau and Carter were nowhere around. As much as he feared to ask, he had no choice.

"Sergeant Kinchloe, where is Colonel Hogan and Corporal LeBeau... and Corporal Carter and Corporal..."

"Funny thing that you ask about them," Kinch pointed at Hogan's office. "They're in quarantine. In fact, everyone here is."

Schultz looked around at the moaning, coughing men in their bunks. Only Kinch was on his feet. "How come you're not in bed like the others?"

"All right, enough with the interrogatory! You caught me." He sighed. "I'm immune."

"Immune? How?" Schultz shrugged.

"My grandmother is from New Orleans."

"So? Is there some kind of flu that doesn't affect people with relatives from New Orleans?"

"No, but she protected me with magic."

"Oh, come on, Sergeant. I'm not stupid. Want kind of magic works against the flu?"

"This is not the flu, Schultz." Kinch's eyes narrowed. "This is a gypsy curse..." He lowered his voice. "Do you remember this afternoon with the thunder and lightning? Only the powerful magic of the Bayou protects me..."

Schultz stared at him. "But what kind of magic is that?"

"Voodoo. My grandmother is a Witch Queen." Kinch shrugged. "Unfortunately, it only works for me."

"A-and what exactly does this curse do?" There was a tremor in Schultz's voice. "Is it really like the flu?"

"At first, yes but then..." Kinch took a deep breath before going on. "The person disappears." He turned to Hogan's office. "First, it was Newkirk, then Carter... Colonel Hogan and LeBeau... He went rather fast because of..."

"...his size, of course." Schultz nodded.

"I suspect it started with a watch that Newkirk stole from the old man that brought the newspapers last week."

"Fritzie? He's not a gypsy."

"No, but he probably knows one in town."

"Mein Gott!" Schultz jumped. "There are a lot of them around indeed, but they looked like good people. I never thought about them cursing anybody... Is it contagious?"

"I hope not, and I don't want to speculate but everybody who has been near that rented car has disappeared."

Both Kinch and Schultz stared through the window at the two piles covered in green canvas in the workshop area.

"But Carter and Newkirk did not-"

"Oh, yes, they did. They sneaked to see the Mercedes while you were not looking."

"Mein Gott! I drove it all the way here!" Schultz paled. "I'm next! I don't want to disappear.!"

"Maybe there's a way to neutralize the effects..." Kinch's eyes glared with excitement.

"What should I do?"

"It's going to be a little hard but, I think we can do this together..." he grinned at Schultz's rapt expression. The German sergeant sat at the table, all attention to what Kinch was about to say.

Oo-HH-oO

Carter would have preferred to leave Newkirk downstairs while he got Dalibor. But someone had to open the room where he was locked in. Each step was excruciating on the Englishman's side. By the time they got to the second floor, he was all sweaty and dizzy.

"Don't ask," Newkirk stopped his friend. "I'm still here... Just let's do this and get out."

Newkirk crouched in front of the lock and worked it with his lock picks. He dropped them once and cursed. Carter was getting nervous. This was the first time he had seen Newkirk to clumsy and distracted. He expected him to pass out at any time. When he was finally done, he needed Carter's help to get up.

"Moj Bog! My God!" Dalibor said. "You look like hell!"

"Who better than the devil in person to know, right?" Newkirk smirked. He pushed the man to walk in front of him.

Downstairs, Anton's men gathered waiting for them. Anton came forward. He only raised an eyebrow before talking. "You didn't think you were leaving just like that, did you?"

"Y-you can't keep us here against our will, we're not your prisoners." Carter felt short of breath as he stood in front of the man.

"Of course not, you may leave whenever you want to," he said. "It's him who has to stay. Dalibor is our prisoner now."

"With all due respect, I'm afraid we can't allow that, sir." Newkirk smiled. "See? Our orders come from very high commanders."

Anton stared at him for the first time. He came closer. "You knocked me down, Gadjo. That was your lucky strike of the day."

"I don't intent to make an encore, Gov'nor. All we want is to get out, with our prisoner, no biggies." Newkirk was not scared of the big man but the fever made him shudder all the same.

Anton laughed out loud. "You two got guts, Gadje. But that won't help you. What could you possibly do to go away with this animal? All I see is one wounded man that can't stop shaking and another one who will not dare to fire the pistol he's carrying."

"Hey! I can fire this," Carter protested. "We'll do what we'll have to do to carry on with our orders!"

"Sure," Anton laughed again. "You may try but the result will be the same. You're not going anywhere with him."

"We're prepared for the worst, Mr. Havel." Carter said. "Right, Newkirk?"

Newkirk was fighting to remain aware of what was going on. The situation was bad and getting worse for them. He knew that they needed something to even the odds and maybe, turn them on their favor.

Anton stepped forward with the gun in his hand. His eyes were cold as he smiled. "I'll count till three, Gadje, you don't need to die like this. That man is not worth it."

Carter's heart began to beat fast. He had never shot anyone or anything at such a close range. He aimed all the same, Anton would surely die. He looked around at the rest of the men ready to jump on him the minute he opened fire. But his biggest concern was for the children. They could get hurt too. Sabina, for instance, seemed to have made a habit of following Newkirk around. She was too close now.

"One!" Anton's voice was intimidating.

Carter raised the gun, but he was still uncertain. How far should he go to protect one man that was already doomed for his crimes? Would Colonel Hogan approve of any decision he made? Or just of the one according to his own code of conduct? Carter shook his head. Was he a soldier first and then a human being? Should not it be the other way around? Was that what war was all about?

"Two!"

Newkirk made his calculations. Gamblers always took advantage of the circumstances surrounding them. They balanced odds and stakes and then, they decided on the best course of action. He felt the three in the count coming fast. There was no time to consider the logical thing to do. Before Anton's lips parted to end the count, Newkirk reached for Sabina's arm and pulled her against his chest. He took out the pistol he had concealed under his jacket and put it near her head with the barrel aiming at the ceiling.

"Nobody moves!" His voice was tense but controlled. "Gentlemen, lower down your weapons. Please."

Carter was the most surprised of all. He would not have seen that coming in a million years. Not from the Newkirk he knew. His first impulse was to put down his gun along with the rest of the Romany men.

"Mostly unexpected, wasn't it?" Dalibor laughed when the men stepping back. He walked to the door and waited for Carter and Newkirk to make the next move. "Can't say that it's been a pleasure-"

"Shut up! Or I'll shoot you meself!" Newkirk aimed at him. "Watch our prisoner, Carter!" he yelled. "Everybody else, move away. We're leaving now."

"B-But Newkirk!" Carter did not move.

"Go to the car, Andrew!" He kept the girl very close. He did not feel her offer any resistance for which he was grateful. One little kick or push would have been enough to disarm him and throw him on the floor.

"D-Dadro?" She pleaded Anton to do something.

Anton would throw himself on Newkirk and crushed him against the floor. But all he could see was the gun and a desperate man capable of anything. "You're dead, British bastard! I'll find you! You won't get away with this!" Anton shouted with all his might. "I'll find you and kill you and that stupid Yank friend of yours!"

He ran outside to see the strangers getting the girl in the car. He dumped his frustration by throwing his beret to the ground. At this point, Anton could not care less about Dalibor. He would have even let them take him with them as long as they would have set Sabina free.

"The back seat, Carter!" Newkirk threw the girl on the front seat and he took the wheel. He made a couple of quick connections to start the engine.

Carter struggled to keep his gun steady in his shaky hands. Dalibor did not say anything but he was rather enjoying the ride. All the while, the distance from the house was getting wider. No one was after them. At least, Carter thought, he had done a good job with the trucks.

"Newkirk! This is one of the stupidest things you've ever done!"

"Do you want to know something funnier?" Dalibor grinned. "The girl called Anton dadro. The Engländer took Anton's daughter."

Carter felt the color leaving his face and for a moment, he thought he could not breath. Instead, the rage surfaced. He punched the back of the driver's seat with so much strength that Newkirk bounced forward. "I correct. This is the stupidest thing you've ever done! You crossed the line, Peter! What were you thinking?"

"I brought us a way of escape. How should've I known that gorilla had a daughter?" He turned to the girl, who was curled in a corner. "No offense meant, luv." He tried to smile.

"Shut up! Don't you see she's terrified of you?... Of us!" Carter had to stop talking to prevent hyperventilating. "You and your last-minute solutions! What are we going to do now?"

"For starters, we'll stop shouting at each other. I can hear you perfectly well from here." Newkirk kept his eyes on the desolate road. His side ached with every breath that he took. The adrenaline in his system was slowing down and he began to feel lousy again. "We'll get to Schienbein Stadt and we'll rest there until it's rendezvous time."

Carter sank in his seat and stared through the window. The night had fallen, the thunderstorm had set in and everything looked gloomy and depressing; just as he was feeling inside. How did they come to this? Running away like outlaws in one of those western movies he used to watch on Sunday matinees back in his hometown. We've got the Indians at our back... he thought. What's next? Would the cavalry get here in time to save the day?...

TBC

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel chapter 7

VII Lonely are the Brave

The storm was nearer now. The thunder sounded like war. The rain leaked through the tiles of the old roof. Carter barely noticed people coming and going, carrying loads of clothes and other things. His attention was on Newkirk's elaborate breathing.

The fever had given him almost an hour of restless dreams. He covered his ears to the thunder and yelled at the shadows. Carter kept washing his forehead with fresh water. Sometimes, Newkirk seemed to respond and stare at him, but then, his eyes drifted back into the nightmares. Carter was losing what he had left of his positive temper. He talked to his friend but his words did not seem to reach him.

"Please, Newkirk, don't you die on me..." Carter whispered. "Don't you dare to die on me now."

"Go back... go back..." Newkirk rolled his head violently. "Take cover... " Thunder resounded on the walls and he screamed. "Carter!"

Carter grabbed him by the wrists looking some awareness on him. "I'm here. I'm all right... Newkirk?" He kept his voice down.

Sabina came with more water and clean bandages. She sat down with him while Carter cleaned and dressed his friend's wound. He refreshed Newkirk's brow and chest but the fever did not seem to come down.

"He's brave, he'll make it." She smiled as thought that were her only way of telling him that things would be all right. "I have to watch the baby, but I'll be back later."

Carter was too sad to respond. For the first time since he had been captured, he wanted to leave. But it was not like when he had received that Dear John letter * and he had almost begged to be sent back home. Now, he just wanted to disappear. Go away, as far as possible; away from the war, from its injustice, from the upside down world he was living in... He curled up in his chair, hugging his knees and staring at one distant wall.

His mind was just setting into a more peaceful picture when one hand reached him out.

"Andrew..." Newkirk's voice came in a whisper. His blue eyes were half opened but completely aware of his friend sitting next to his bed.

Carter could have cried but he restrained himself. He squeezed Newkirk's hand and tried to smile. "Boy, you got me worried for a moment. Are you back for good?"

Newkirk took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "I think so... yes..."

Carter wiped Newkirk's forehead before replacing a wet cloth. He was grateful but deep inside there was still a feeling of despair. He needed to talk about the things that were happening. He wanted Newkirk to come up with the answers; to tell him what to do. But he did not know where to start, his friend was in no condition to solve the simplest problems of the world. The Englishman turned to look at him again. He frowned. Carter grimaced. His face was too readable.

"What's wrong?" Newkirk asked.

"Nothing," he lied. "Go to sleep."

"Carter..."

"Do you want something? Water? I'll bring you some, okay? Sleep." He rushed out.

What an act of cowardice, he thought. Running away from his best friend when he needed him the most. But there was no much more he could do. If he stayed, he would probably tell Newkirk about everything that was happening. That would not help anyone. Newkirk was fighting for his life, he did not need more situations to deal with. That was Carter's job now.

He found Sabina in the hallway. She was dragging an old bag bigger than her. She stopped to brush her bangs off her forehead and smiled. "Newkirk is fine?"

"Yeah, better." He lifted the bag on his shoulder. "Where are you taking this?"

The girl led the way outside where two small trucks were parked. Women and men were loading their belongings while the children played. Carter stared at them. Milena came out with some boxes and nodded at him.

"Is the fever coming down?"

"A little. Are you going anywhere?" Carter asked.

"It's time to leave," she said. "You may stay in the house. It was abandoned when we arrived, I don't think anyone will come soon. There's no electrical power, but there's plenty of water in the well."

"But where are you going?"

"We'll try to cross the Swiss border in a couple of days. We're leaving at midnight. Since we found the man we were looking for, there's nothing else to hold us here."

Carter turned to the house. "Dalibor? You're taking him with you?"

"That's why we came all this way, my friend." Anton came from behind and Carter jumped. The man laughed. "You're a funny young man. Take care. I suppose I have to thank you for getting him for us, or maybe apologize for taking him from you." He laughed some more.

Carter did not say anything. That man scared him too much. He looked at his watch, there was not much time left. Perhaps Newkirk should know about this, or maybe not. He sighed. This was one of those moments that did not come in the manual. Why was he a sergeant? He was supposed to make decisions on his own? He was not a leader. He worked better as a follower...

He went back into the house. Newkirk must be back to sleep... He chuckled, sure, right. Tell the man to do something and he will do the opposite. He entered the laundry room and found an empty bed. He looked around.

"Newkirk!" Carter squinted in the shadows. "What the hell are you doing? Come back to bed, now!"

"If I go back to bed, I won't be able to get up again." Newkirk walked towards him with a clean shirt he had fetched from the laundry room. He shook at every step and his breathing was shallow. "You never came back... Something's going on, isn't it?"

"Newkirk, this is not good. You have no idea of how sick you are."

"I'm fine. This is not me first gunshot, you know?" He stumbled and had to lean on a small table.

"Newkirk, go back to bed, please." Carter found a softer and calmer mood this time.

"Something's going on." Newkirk duplicated the polite tone while trying the shirt on. "What is it? It's the gypsies? Dalibor's still alive?"

"Go back to bed, please."

"Carter." Newkirk tried to raise his voice but he could only gasp. "Tell me what's going on."

"Nothing, everything's okay. Now, go back to bed. Please!"

"I see people moving around. You know what's happening. Why don't you tell me?" The effort he spent on the last question seemed to drain him. He did not fall because Carter had anticipated it. He caught him with one hand on his shoulder.

"Newkirk, please. Why do you do this to yourself? You need to rest. Your wound is serious."

"Sod the wound! Carter," Newkirk grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and shoved him against the wall. "If you don't tell me what the bloody hell is going on, I'll put you in critical condition!"

The sergeant had to step back a little. Newkirk's eyes glowed with the fever. He shook his head. "They're leaving tonight... and they're taking Dalibor with them." Suddenly, he was angry too. He glared and pointed at Newkirk with his finger. "And you never use that tone with me again!"

Newkirk let him go. He was embarrassed for the outburst. "I'm sorry... I- I don't know what came over me..." He straightened up and took a deep breath. He stared at Carter and snorted. "Where did you get those clothes?"

"A present, they don't like German uniforms very much," Carter said.

"Why was it so hard for you to tell me about their leaving?"

Carter went to sit on a chair. He kept his eyes on the floor and shrugged. "That man Dalibor is a monster, Newkirk. He- hurt these people very much and-"

"You thought it would be easier letting them have their revenge than taking him with us."

"You're not surprised? You knew?"

Newkirk leaned against the wall. "No, but it's easy to guess. This sodden war is full of monsters, Carter. And not all of them will be punished. If you look for justice, this might the wrong war for you."

"So? What can we do, then? We're only two against ten men." Carter shook his head. "And the women, I think they know how to shoot too."

"The gov'nor put you in charge because he trusts your good judgement. I'll do whatever you want me to," Newkirk grinned. "But you'll have to give all the explanations, then."

"For every action, there is a reaction." Cater shook his head. "I don't know, Newkirk. I was hoping for you to give me some answers."

"Ask yourself the question: What would Colonel Hogan do?"

"Oh, that's easy... I think." Carter blinked as though the ideas were hurting his brain. "He would take the man... No, he would let them take the man... Right?"

Newkirk rubbed the back of his neck. He was tired and in too much pain to engage long conversations. "Carter, we have to take that man to the airstrip." He sighed. "As much as I'd love to see that ruddy bastard getting what he deserves, we've got to put him in that plane tomorrow. That's what we came all this way for. There are no options."

Carter felt rather relieved because there was a course of action to follow. That was not exactly the answer he was hoping, though. They were on the losing side. "Okay, let's say we do that... How?"

"What time is it?"

"Almost eight. They leave at midnight."

"We need to get out of here as soon as possible." Newkirk ignored the pain and the chills to concentrate on a plan. "What did you see outside?"

"Two trucks. Not too big, loaded with stuff." Carter said. "And the small car they used to bring us here, remember?"

"I was on me way to a concert at the Albert Hall at that time, Andrew. I can't bloody remember a thing." Newkirk almost smiled. "We need to neutralize those trucks. Can you do that?"

"I-I guess-"

"Blimey, Carter. You guess or you can?"

"Yes, yes I can neutralize the trucks... When?"

"Now is a jolly good time."

Carter stood up. "And what are you going to do in the meantime?

"I'll look for our man and I'll meet you outside. Do you know where he is?" Newkirk tried to steady himself with just one hand against the wall. He was suddenly dizzy and almost fell down.

Carter held him on his feet and led him back to the bed. "I'll fix the trucks, and then, we'll both go for the man, okay?" Carter stared at him. "You wait here. Don't move from the bed. Do you hear me?"

Newkirk saluted him with a grin. "Be waiting right here, Serge... Hurry."

Oo-HH-oO

Lorenz was not a tourist town. It was rather industrial. In war times, most of the fabrics and warehouses had been put at the service of the Regimen. This had caused the city to be a regular target for the RAF. The local government asked the Gestapo to set their local headquarters in Lorenz to discourage chaos and protect the factories and other buildings from sabotage. Curfew had also become routine by now.

LeBeau sat in the driver's seat of Klink's rented car absently staring at the darkened streets. The Gestapo had secured the explosion site and made everything look like an accident. LeBeau did not care how or why they had covered it up, his only concern was that Carter and Newkirk would be okay.

Hogan opened the door. "All the casualties in the building have been properly identified. No outsiders whatsoever."

"That's a relief." LeBeau started the engine. "Where to now, Colonel?"

"How's your shoulder?"

"Stiff, but I can drive. And your ankle?"

"Swollen, don't make me run the extra mile," Hogan grinned. "We'll take the road to Freihalleberg. We'll follow our friends' steps and let's hope they didn't get involved in any accident on the road."

"You don't think Newkirk and Carter are involved, do you?"

"I'll leave the odds to Newkirk, he's the gambler. But so far so good," Hogan said. "If it's just a simple car crash without any connection with our friends, we may assume that the mission is still on and we just go back to the Stalag."

"If it is not a simple accident?"

"That's why we carry our music box (1)with us. Just in case something else comes up." Hogan smiled. "I'm confident, LeBeau. I trust my men to overcome any obstacle."

The site of the crash was illuminated but most of the debris had been removed. Hogan and LeBeau got out the car to examine even small particles on the ground. Hogan would have liked to get there sooner when all evidence was still fresh. At night, it was hard just to find where the car had actually crashed. LeBeau walked around with his eyes on the grass and a prayer not to finding anything. Hogan directed his flashlight towards a pile of junk nearby, and he sighed.

"LeBeau, do you recognize that door?"

The car was upside down, windows shattered and bullet holes in several places. The door in question was right in front of them. It had letters scratched over it and covered with cheap paint that the constant rain had began to wash away. The letters formed the words Lafayette!

"La vache! I keyed that door myself last week." LeBeau shook his head. "It's Klink's car."

"What's left of it, at least." Hogan could not be more disappointed. "I knew it was going to be no picnic."

LeBeau looked around for some more evidence of their friend's presence. "There are blood stains everywhere." He could not hide his concern.

"Let's not anticipate anything. There were three casualties here and all were also identified. But I'll call Kinch to put everything on hold until we locate our men."

"Okay, there are tracks of some other vehicle going that way." LeBeau pointed at the open field. "Shall we follow them, sir?"

Hogan nodded. They got in the car and resumed their way.

Oo-HH-oO

Newkirk drank from a bowl of soup under Sabina's watchful eye. The girl had come to see him right after Carter went out. He was ready to leave, but she did not seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere else. He took a sip only to please her.

"You must eat," she said with a resolute grin.

"Not quite hungry, luv." He smiled.

Sabina checked Newkirk's temperature on his cheek and shook her head. "You still have fever, you must eat."

"Later, all right?" Newkirk stood up and groaned. He shuddered in pain and cold.

Sabina ran to the other room and brought back a jacket. "Are you cold, Newkirk?"

"Thanks, lassie. You're so sweet." He put it on and walked to the door.

The girl came after him and pulled his sleeve. "You must go to bed! You're sick."

Newkirk turned to her and gently claimed his arm. "Listen, luv. I need to walk, why don't you go on packing? Seems you've got a lot to take with you."

Sabina held the cup-and-ball toy against her chest. "I hate packing, we're always packing... Can I stay with you?"

Newkirk was too busy keeping himself from passing out to pay attention to the girl following him. He went to the main door to see how Carter was doing. He shook his head to clear his mind. The fever had slowed down but he still had the chills. Suddenly, he spotted some weapons in the kitchen. He turned on his heels and almost tumbled on Sabina.

"Sabina, you must have better things to do." He had to make an effort to stay steady on his feet. He had an idea. "Eh... I need water." Newkirk smiled. "Would you get me one glass, please?"

The girl ran into the kitchen and he followed her. He managed to sneak behind her to examine the arsenal closely. Several weapons of different kinds were spread on the table waiting to be organized and distributed. With all the moving flow they remained unsupervised. Newkirk grabbed two pistols and hid them in his belt under the jacket.

"Newkirk!" Sabina said. The Englander jumped and turned. Completely ignorant of what he had just done, she gave him the glass of water. One small grin from him and the girl giggled.

Carter kept a watchful eye on the people coming and going. Someone had opened the hoods to check that the old engines would endure several miles. Carter walked slowly among this very busy group. No one seemed to pay much attention to what he was doing when he climbed up to see under the hood of the first truck. He had to remember Kinch's lessons on mechanics. The second truck was not difficult either, although one of the boys came closer to see.

"What you doing, Carter?" Johan asked. He had been watching his little brother Emil. A three year-old toddler playing with a teddy bear on a blanket spread on the ground. After a while, he decided that whatever Carter was doing must be more interesting than all the packing.

"Oh, hi, Johan, where's you other brother... Pavel?" Carter leaned casually on the hood of the second truck.

"He's somewhere in the house." Johan shrugged. "What are those things?" He pointed at Carter's hand.

"Nothing, just something I picked up from a pile of junk." He stammered. "I- I collect junk."

"Really? I collect rocks!" Johan's face glowed. "I had a big collection, but it was too heavy to take it with me. Do you want me to show you what I got?"

"Sure, why don't you go and bring it here." Carter smiled. Then, he felt like the lowest creature in the world. He had just lied to a child. He went back to his task of sabotage and finished just when the boy was coming back. The sergeant took time to admire Johan's rock collection and talk a little about nothing in particular.

After several minutes dodging Sabina, Newkirk could finally go outside to meet Carter. The sergeant's guilty look proclaimed that he had done a great job.

"No one saw you?" Newkirk asked.

"They didn't notice me at all. Well, only that kid..." Carter shook his head. "Gosh, I hate deceiving people."

"You do it all the time when impersonating officers, and planting bombs about."

"That's different, I know these people by their names."

Newkirk tried to understand. He had been a deceiver for too many years to care much about faces and much less their names. He had friends but the job was always a priority. He handed Carter one of the guns. Just to see the expression on his face made Newkirk mad. "Not a word, Carter. You don't have to fire it, it's just for intimidation, all right? Now, let's get Dalibor." He turned to the sergeant again. "And don't drop it, or misplace it or throw it away."

TBC

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel, chapter 6

VI. The Wild Bunch

The afternoon ended as soon as the thunderstorm started. The prisoners lifted up the collars of their coats and ducked every time they saw a flash of lightning. They had hoped for Colonel Klink to cancel the second roll call of the day due to bad weather. Instead, it had been delayed one hour but the rain did not cooperate.

Kinch came one minute late but no one seemed to notice. Hogan and LeBeau had been covering for him as well as for Newkirk and Carter. Schultz did not stop asking questions about the missing men. Deep inside, he did not want to know anything else but when they would come back. He would not go further with the interrogation. He felt he would no like to find out unusual things about the prisoners.

Hogan glanced at Kinch. One nod and he knew there were news about Carter and Newkirk. He turned to Schultz.

"So, I told Newkirk he should stay in bed. With this weather, he could catch pneumonia." He raised his voice over the thunder.

"This week you slipped on one little puddle and LeBeau fell off his bunk in his sleep. Now you expect me to believe that Newkirk is catching a cold? And where's Carter, trapped in the tunnels with his pet mouse?" Schultz stopped. "I didn't say that. I know nothing about the tunnels!"

"Carter is taking care of Newkirk, of course."

"Of course?" Schultz was furious. "Colonel Hogan, this is the fourth time in less than two months that Newkirk is bedridden. Kommandant Klink is not going to like this at all."

"And what do you want me to do? Blame it in on this freezing winter cold of yours. When it's not snowing it's pouring. My men can't get enough heat from the tin cans you call stoves and-"

"If you have a complaint, put it in writing. I won't be the one telling the kommandant that you're not happy with us." Schultz pouted. "Last time, he took your raise on rations of coal out of my own. Make sure that the Engländer is back on his feet by tomorrow's roll call at six hundred hours or all of us will be in so much trouble."

Kinch was just taking his post when Klink came out of the main building. The Kommandant did not move from the door, he just yelled for confirmation of everybody's presence and dismissed the prisoners. He turned and went back to his office. Schultz sighed and shook his head. He had this guilty expression in his eyes.

"Oh, Schultz, don't feel bad. This is not the first time we lie to the kommandant, is it?" Hogan grinned. "My men will be here to be accounted for tomorrow morning. No excuse, I promise."

"I dread your promises, Colonel Hogan. If they're not here by then, you'll see me very, very angry."

Kinch stayed behind waiting for Hogan to pass. "Colonel, we have a problem."

"Kinch, the day is not over yet." Hogan sighed. "If you want this to work between us, you've got to be nicer."

LeBeau grinned.

"Sorry." Kinch cleared his throat to be heard above the storm without yelling. "Hello, Colonel Hogan," he faked a smile. "Nice weather, isn't it? We have a problem."

"All right, all right," Hogan opened the barrack door. "Let's get inside. At least we can dry out while you ruin what remains of the day."

Oo-HH-oO

"The local news informed about an explosion at the Gestapo HQ in Lorenz. The official story is that there was a gas leak in the kitchen."

"Which means that someone planted a bomb under the nose of those bâtards." LeBeau said.

"Underground?" Hogan frowned.

"I couldn't find confirmation on that." Kinch kept on reading. "There were four casualties at the site. Shortly after that, and in a non related incident," Kinch stressed his words to make clear he did not believe that, "three German soldiers were found dead on the road to Freihalleberg just one mile after the exit to Schienbein Stadt. Some kind of car accident provoked by bad weather conditions."

"Carter and Newkirk?" Hogan asked. He pretended not to worry.

"I couldn't find conf-"

"Okay, go on, go on! What else!" LeBeau was on the edge of his seat.

"That's it... Well, I did confirm that one prisoner was missing at the Gestapo, and right after the explosion, there was a struggle between a soldier and a cleaning worker right at the headquarters main door."

"And all that happened the very same day we send Newkirk and Carter into town?" LeBeau shook his head. "Something bad happened, Colonel. I feel it in my bones." He rubbed his injured arm.

"Maybe is rheumatism caused by the rain," Kinch grinned. "You're not getting any younger, LeBeau."

Hogan took Klinch's clipboard and began to pace around. Despite the pain in his ankle, he thought better while walking. He wanted to believe that those incidents at the Gestapo and on the highway were isolated and without any connection to his men. But that was just wishful thinking. He did not need to feel it in his bones to know that Newkirk and Carter were in trouble.

"LeBeau, have you ever been to Lorenz?" Hogan said casually.

A clap of thunder shook the barrack.

"I don't think that I've been to that part of the country yet. But with this weather, I wouldn't go farther than Hammelburg's fish market, merci beaucoup."

"I'm not asking for volunteers, I don't have any more men to send. It'll have to be you and me going to Lorenz. I need to see what happened today." He turned to Kinch. "We need wheels."

"We took Klink's staff car for the weekend, to tune it in" Kinch went to the window. "He rented a Mercedes..."

Hogan came to stand next to him and shrugged. "It seems that it'll need tuning in too, don't you think?"

"Two cars in the same week? He might get suspicious," LeBeau said.

"Maybe, but weirder coincidences happen all the time."

His last sentence was crowned by sonorous thunder and a lightning bolt that hit the nearest tree to the sentry tower and set it on fire. Prisoners and guards came out to look at the event. Although the heavy rain extinguished the fire right away, that did not stop Schultz from yelling to his men for water.

Klink came out running and shouting. "What's going on here? Schultz! Repooort!"

"Kommandant! The lighting hit the tower and-"

"I can see that. Why are the prisoners outside and unsupervised?"

"We were just trying to help, Colonel," Hogan leaped up to him. "What a storm. Big mess, isn't it? That the second time this year ..." Suddenly, one idea came to mind. He turned to Kinch who immediately began to elaborate on it.

"Oh, yeah. LeBeau was struck by lighting and became psychic."*

"Gypsy stuff. Very strong magic." Hogan nodded.

"I'm not becoming psychic any more," LeBeau defended himself. He did not care what the plan was, this time, he would refuse to wear an earring.

"I hope none of your men was struck this time. One more accident and we'll have to call for a resident doctor." Klink narrowed his eyes. "What are you up to now, Colonel Hogan?"

"Nothing, sir. It's just that it worries me to see these kind of accidents happening so often in our camp..."

"Often?" Klink tried to look wary and unconvinced. "This is just a thunderstorm. The rest is you and your clumsy men that can't see where they are walking."

"It looks like a curse to me."

"A curse?" Schultz just picked up the word and came closer with frightened eyes. "Someone is cursed? Who is cursed? Newkirk?"

Hogan grimaced when the sergeant brought up that name. Above all, he did not want to attract attention to the fact that two of his men were missing for the evening. "No one, specifically. I'm just saying that-"

"Why did you mention der Engländer?" Klink turned to Schultz. "And where is he? Did I see him today in roll call?"

"He's been feeling poorly again, Herr Kommandant."

"Again? Less than two months ago, it was the measles, twice; two weeks ago, he injured his knee while cleaning my office windows, this week he had a concussion playing pool at the rec hall...How he managed to hit himself in the head with the pole, I still don't know."

"He doesn't have much luck with manual work, poor man." Schultz shook his head.

"The kommandant keeps a good record of events," Hogan tried to smile. "But this one here doesn't have anything to do with him."

"You just said there is a curse, maybe it's him. Der Engländer is cursed. That explains a lot-" Schultz smiled with relief.

"There is no such a thing, Sergeant." Klink protested. "And where is the troublemaker now?" He looked around. "Wait a minute, someone else is missing... The other American... Carter? Is he... cursed too?"

"All right, all right, they're sick." Hogan decided to go on with his plan."Nothing contagious... I hope. Although after this last incident, I'm not quite sure."

"You're not going to make me believe that there is a gypsy curse on the camp, are you?"

"I won't say anything but if I were you, I'll check everything twice before using it. That car over there, for instance, it came from your usual dealer?"

Klink turned to Schultz. "You brought it this morning. It was okay."

"Actually, it made a funny noise, right, Kinch?" Hogan faked interest.

The sergeant put on his serious face and nodded. "Certainly, I remember when I worked at my father's workshop. Cars with funny noises like that never got far."

"It made it all the way from Hammelburg," Klink said.

"Actually," Schultz said. "It was a little slow in the curves and fast going straight..."

"That's the way you usually drive, dummkopf!" Klink pulled up the collar of his coat. The rain had been falling for the length of their argument but he had just realized that he was getting soaked. "Now I want to see the sick prisoners."

Hogan did not even grin. "You may, but I wouldn't recommend it. If they're contagious, and with this weather... Wouldn't it be a shame having that Mercedes for the week and not being able to use it due to a strong case of the flu?" More thunder emphasized his words.

Klink pondered the situation. "Very well, I grant you twenty-four hours. I want to see your men at roll call tomorrow afternoon. Schultz, I'm back to my office. Take the prisoners back to their barracks. Calling sick after standing in the rain is strictly prohibited! I don't want to see any more absences at roll call tomorrow morning!"

"This means you're not having the car checked?" Hogan grinned.

Klink stopped on his way and turned. "Sergeant Klinchloe may take a look at it. Dismissed!"

Hogan waited until the office door closed behind the kommandant. "Okay, boys. Let's go."

Kinch and LeBeau followed him to the workshop. Schultz stepped on their way.

"Where are you going now? You must go back to the barracks!"

"Later, Schultz. We have a car to fix here." Hogan grinned.

"But, Colonel, it's pouring. Can't it wait till tomorrow?"

"The early bird..., Schultz." Hogan said. "Besides, what if the kommandant wants to go out tonight and has an accident because the car was not properly tuned? You don't want that on your conscience, do you?"

The sergeant sighed. Hogan was talking his way into something else. Schultz would not participate in whatever it was. He shook his head. "Please, Colonel. Whatever you have to do, do it fast. And get everything back to normal by tomorrow morning."

Oo-HH-oO

Carter strolled around to clarify his thoughts. In moments like this, he wished to be back on the farm, doing manual work. Busy hands helped to put the troubled mind at ease. He heard children laughing in the front yard and he got curious. The two boys were playing in the puddles. Carter came up with an idea. He looked around and found old newspapers on the floor. He grabbed some sheets and went outside. Without any words, he had the kids' attention and together they folded paper hats and paper boats. They played on the streams caused by the rain near the front porch.

"How old are you, guys?" he asked after a while.

"I'm ten, my name is Johan and this is Pavel, he's eight. He don't talk."

"He doesn't speak English, you mean."

"Oh, he do, but he don't talk anymore."

Virgil came up and sent the kids in to dinner. He picked up one of the boats and smiled. "Thank you," he said. "I haven't had time to play with my children in a long time."

"They're good kids," Carter shrugged. "I-I'm sorry about Pavel... How did that happen?"

"Three years ago, when all of this began." Virgil shook his head. "I was on the fields with Johan. My wife had just given birth to our third, Emil. She stayed at home with the two boys. Later I knew that Pavel had taken my baby and hid in the church basement, while they murdered everybody else upstairs..." He took a deep breath. "All I could do was take my three boys and join Anton. The women have taken good care of them."

Carter had to swallow some tears. "Don't you want to go away, and give them some place where they can play in peace?"

"Someday, when this is over, I will. My boys will grow up in peace where Romany people won't be chased like pariahs anymore."

Carter followed Virgil into the house. Now, he was more confused than before. Inside he felt rage and anguish for these people. Their war was too heavy to handle. But the worst part was that this time, he was in charge.

He had learned that every decision he made would bring a consequence he would have to live with. So far, others had been doing that for him. Colonel Hogan would know what to do, he sighed. If he took Dalibor to London, it would be like betraying these poor people one more time. He did not want to be part of it... On the other hand, going back empty handed to the Stalag, might put him in the worst position with Hogan and his friends. How would London like to send a plane all the way to Germany just for nothing? He could not bounce back from there. He had serious thinking to do... He needed his friends to help him to do the right thing.

He would talk to Newkirk.

Carter sneaked in the room. Newkirk should be sleeping, or resting. If he really knew that Englishman, he would be probably working his way out of the bed, ready for action. Instead, he found Milena struggling to keep him under the blankets.

"The fever began to rise a few minutes ago. We need to keep him still." She got up. "Stay with him. I'm going for fresh water."

Carter panicked. This could not be happening. He might be losing his friend right there. He sat on the bed and took Newkirk's hand. The Englishman did not notice him but did not withdraw his hand. His eyes were closed, his head rolled on the pillow and he gasped for air. His fist clenched on the blanket as thought trying to tear it apart.

"Newkirk?" Carter whispered. He gently pulled up the blanket.

"So hot... can't breathe..." He shifted and moaned.

The thunderstorm was closer now. Newkirk shuddered with each lightning flash.

"Don't move. It's only thunder." Carter began to lose faith. Things could not be worse and he was awfully alone.

TBC

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel,chapter 5

V. Ride Beyond Vengeance

Carter entered the kitchen trying to look friendly. All the faces turned to him. Their eyes were impossible to read, but Carter interpreted every move as hostile against him. The men sat at the table while Milena and another woman prepared and served the food. At the head of the table, there was one man speaking his mind very aloud. He must be in his early fifties, Carter reckoned; and he was powerfully built.

"Oh, there you are!" The man grinned when his baritone voice made Carter jump. Then, his expression hardened. "Why is he still dressed like that? Woman! Get him decent clothes! That uniform insults this house."

Carter followed Milena upstairs to one of the main rooms.

"I'm so sorry, with all that has happened, I didn't notice..." Carter said politely while the woman looked into the armoire.

"It's all right, I sent Virgil for the clothes and then, I completely forgot about it," she smiled shyly. She handed him a pair of pants and a brown shirt. "I'll leave a shirt for your friend downstairs. The bathroom is down the hallway. Last door on your right."

Carter nodded and she left. He walked to the end of the hallway and turned. Now he was not sure if she had meant his right coming or going. He tried one door but it was locked.

"Wer ist da? Who's there?"

Carter recognized that voice. "Hey, Dalibor, is that you?"

"Jah, can you take me out? They locked the door!"

"Sorry, I can't do that right now. But we're thinking of something. Please, be patient."

"Patient? These people are going to kill me. I'm paying your Government with my knowledge, I trust you to take me out of here!"

"We will." Carter resented Dalibor's tone. If he had felt sympathy for the man, it was slowly fading away. "I'll be back later, okay? Keep quiet."

He found the bathroom and changed his clothes. The shirt was wide on the shoulders and the pants big around the waist. He tightened them with his belt. These Romany guys seemed to be really big, he thought.

The welcoming was warmer this time. The loudest man grinned again and offered Carter a chair next to him. He was taller than Carter had reckoned at the Gestapo HQ. Not fat but muscular, with big hands and a big moustache that curled upwards with his smile.

"You're a very little man," he said before Carter sat down. "Virgil says you're Americans?"

"I am, yes. My friend is British." He smiled and took a sip of the soup in front of him. There was not much food at the table and Carter felt bad. They were probably giving him the last they had.

"And what were an American and an Englishman doing dressed like Nazis at the Gestapo Headquarters?"

"I-I'm afraid we can't talk about classified information... See? We work with the Allied Intelligence and..."

"Spies? Are you spies? Or saboteurs? Do you work with the Maquis or German resistance?"

"Er- well, we don't subscribe directly to any group, we are just...the good guys."

"Good guys? Like in John Wayne movies? Cowboys and Indians, eh?" The man laughed. "Good guys always wear white hats, no?"

"Yes," Carter nodded. The man scared him. He could hardly wait to finish his supper and run away from him.

"My name is Anton, Anton Havel." He pronounced his name with pride. "I'm the Bulibasha, the chief of this tribe. If you need anything, you come to me."

"Andrew Carter, nice to meet you."

Anton laughed and all his men laughed with him. Carter jumped again and felt stupid. They must think he was a wimp, some tenderfoot without any skills.

"Your friend has a strong fist," Anton said rubbing his chin. "It's a miracle he's alive, though. My men always shoot to kill. Milena was impressed with his courage when she took out the bullet. Gadje like those are hard to find. I respect them."

"Yeah," Carter sighed. "He is eh... Newkirk." He shrugged.

Oo-HH-oO

Newkirk opened his eyes to a clacking sound next to his bed. He blinked to adjust his eyes to the dim light. The girl that had come with Milena was playing with some wooden toy while waiting for him to wake up. She looked up at him with a smile. Before he could remember her name, she spoke.

"Si tut bocklo?" She said.

"She's asking if you're hungry," Milena said from the laundry room where she was folding clothes.

"Sabina, right?" Newkirk said. He shook his head and smiled. "Only water, nais tuke."

Sabina's eyes opened wide. She smiled and said something else.

"Slow down, I don't understand." Newkirk laughed.

"Do you speak the dialect?" Milena came in with a glass of water. She helped him to sit up.

"I worked in a circus, back in England. I met some Gyp-," he paused and corrected, "Romany there and picked up a few words."

"I've never been to England." Sabina said as she patted the pillows for Newkirk to lean on his back. "Dadro says it's a big island, right?"

"Big indeed," Newkirk controlled his breathing the best he could.

Sabina picked up the toy she was playing with. Newkirk recognized it immediately. "A Cup-and-Ball! I haven't seen one in years."

"That's the only thing she could rescue after her house burned down. Her older brother made it for her and their baby sister." Milena's voice was low. "They all died that in the fire."

Newkirk's heart felt heavy. From their tunnels, it was hard to see how bad the war had been on civilians. He rarely saw it with his own eyes and external information always focused on more practical aspects.

The girl tried to put the ball in the cup several times but failed at each try. "I'm not good," she smiled.

"Hold it still," he instructed her. "Bounce your arm up and down." Newkirk laughed when she succeeded at the second try. "You did it!"

"Did it!" She repeated. "Nais tuke... Thank you?" She giggled. "Mmm..." She thought the words before saying them. "What is your name?"

"Newkirk," he said.

"New-kirk?"

"Nice to meet you, Sabina" he kissed the back of her hand. His energies began to abandon him again and he had to close his eyes.

"Let's go, girl," Milena signed for her to get up and leave the room. "Mr. Newkirk has to rest now." She turned to the bed. "Sleep, I'll bring you some soup later on."

Newkirk did not hear when they left.

Oo-HH-oO

"But you must understand, Dalibor has vital information about weapons and advancing strategies. In exchange.-"

"You'll send him to London where he'll live free and happy?" Anton leaned forward. "I understand Gadje laws. They don't apply to us. We must watch over our own. That man over there," he pointed upstairs, "is responsible for the loss of over two hundred Romany. Children, women, elders, men not older than you... You see us here? Take a look around you. Ten men, five women and four children. Nineteen people out of two hundred and fifty." He leaned back on his chair and laid one hand on the table. "Vasile Dalibor was volunteer in the Einsatzgruppen while he worked with the Ustachi. They came to our village one morning when most of us were at work. Some could run away before they arrived, others hid. The soldiers burned buildings, shot people... I came back too late. I was the lucky one, I could find at least one of my children, I lost the other two and their mother... Most of my men here are alone now. Our families are all buried in a common grave right in front of the park where our children used to play..." He paused to drink wine. He could see trouble in Carter's eyes. "Where's justice, Andrew Carter? Where can we go and beg for justice? Wherever we go, they call us thieves, vagabonds" Anton shrugged. "We do our own justice... We've chased and put down ten of those devils. After Dalibor, there will be only four more left."

"But the women, and children? Are they with you while you claim for vengeance?" Carter was not feeling too well. This talking about killing and being killed made him physically ill. "Is it fair to them?"

"We can't leave them behind. If the Nazis find them, they'll be sent to the labor camps. They're safe with us," Anton said. "Romany are not welcome anywhere, my friend, we have to make ourselves at home in hostile territory. Perhaps, we should go where setting houses on fire be against Gadje laws, right?" His tone was rather cynical.

Carter looked around at the activities in the house. Two children of eight or nine played in innocent happiness. The women kept busy working on routine household chores. One of them played with a toddler. In all the faces sadness and fear mixed with occasional laughter. Carter felt for them. He had heard stories, maybe some men from the underground occasionally talked about that, but this was his first personal contact with the evil men did. He had so much to think about. He wished he could talk to Colonel Hogan, he would know what to do. Being in charge of a mission was not as easy as he had thought before...

TBC

The Man Who Shot Anton Havel, chapter 4

IV. A Bullet for the Corporal

The sun was coming down fast as the storm set in. It had not been more than two hours since Carter and Newkirk had left but Hogan had begun to worry already. He paced around his office, dragging his injured foot, and then, after the lightning began, he went to pace in the tunnel.

"I just need you to ease my mind, Kinch. Tell me that everything is going according to plan."

"It looks fine from here." Kinch took his clipboard. "Tinkerbell's ETA is in eleven hours. Newkirk and Carter must arrive to rendezvous point within half an hour. All they'll have to do then is hide and wait."

"I hope Newkirk has taken his deck of cards with him," Hogan chuckled.

"Well, waiting with Carter is everything but boring, they'll find something to keep themselves busy with."

"Of course. I don't know why I worry so much. Must be the weather. I feel like the unexpected is about to happen..." Hogan nodded. "I'll be upstairs... drinking coffee."

Kinch smiled. It was going to be a long night until their friends confirmed their arrival. There was little they could do but covering Newkirk and Carter's absence. As hard as that sounded, sitting and waiting was even harder. He stayed in the tunnel a little longer. At least, if there were news, he would be the first to know.

Oo-HH-oO

The ride felt like an eternity to Carter. He kept his hand over Newkirk's wound but it was still bleeding. By the time the car stopped, Newkirk was in real pain. Two men helped him out but as soon as his feet touched the ground, he called Carter to his side.

The car parked in front of an old two-story house, in the middle of a farm. Carter counted the steps from the gate to the main door. He had to put his mind on something practical like numbers to avoid panicking. Besides the six men that had ambushed them on the road, there were four more in the house. All of them had rifles and pistols; nothing good from Carter's point of view.

"Where's Dalibor?" Newkirk asked him.

"Right behind us," Carter held his friend straight. "Just a few more feet, Newkirk. We're almost there."

"Let's stay together," he whispered.

Two women were waiting inside the house. They were surprised to see these outsiders in Gestapo uniforms. Virgil's brother went ahead to talk to the women. Carter supposed he would tell them what they really were so they would not tear their heads off.

Apparently, Dalibor did not deserve such deference. As soon as the women saw him, they began to yell in their own dialect. Two other women came downstairs, one of them carrying a gun. The men had to stop her before she shot Dalibor right there. He seemed not to care about them; he just grinned in a defiant attitude.

Virgil pushed him into a corner and turned to the woman. They talked some more in the dialect that Carter could not recognize. But from the gesticulation, he guessed that they were not happy at all.

"Carter-" Newkirk whispered before losing balance. Carter held him the best he could but this time, his friend was actually passing out.

Virgil helped to put him in an armchair. The woman came to examine the wound. She glared at Virgil and went on yelling at him.

"It wasn't me! Gustav got nervous!" he yelled back in English. Then, he turned to Carter and pointed at the woman. "My sister, Milena. She's a nurse. She will take care of your friend."

"You are not supposed to be here and dressed like this." She glared at Carter while opening Newkirk's coat. Under it, the blood had covered the scarf and most of his white shirt. "Virgil! Get some clean shirts for them before the children see them."

The Englishman yanked away. "We've g-got to go..." He gasped for air as he tried to get up.

Milena checked his pulse. "He's going into shock." She called two of the men and gave them instructions. Then, she talked to Carter. "We'll put him in a bed down the hall. He needs to lie down."

Newkirk shook his head. "Carter, Dalibor..., don't leave him alone..."

"He won't go anywhere." Carter helped him to get up. "We'll see to you first, okay?"

They passed through the place where they did the laundry into a small room that in former times must have been the pantry. There, the men prepared one cot by the wall with one blanket and one pillow. Newkirk clenched his teeth as he lied down. He was not the kind of man who used to complain but the struggle with the pain had left him exhausted.

"C-Carter, you must go-" His teeth chattered.

"Enough, Newkirk, I won't talk to you about that right now." Carter turned as Milena came back, water and bandages.

"Remove his boots," she told Carter.

"My knife..."

"Got it," he said reaching into Newkirk's right boot. "I'll keep it in a safe place."

"We don't have antibiotics or painkillers. This is going to hurt. Sorry," she said unbuttoning Newkirk's shirt. She grabbed his chin to get his attention. "You must not move. Shall I tie you up?"

If Newkirk was scared he did not show it. Carter almost grinned to see him shake his head in a resolute manner. The Englishman reached for his friend's hand and clenched his teeth. He would not even scream.

Milena called for a light, and a girl came in with a kerosene lamp. She was not older than twelve, with long black hair combed in two braids, and was dressed in old jeans and a wool sweater. She climbed to one side of the bed and observed attentively while the woman worked on the wound. Her eyes, dark and round, turned to Newkirk, who was struggling to stay still.

"It's almost done," she told him with a gentle smile.

Newkirk opened his eyes and grinned. "You speak good English," he whispered.

"Almost all of us do. It's hard to survive with the Romany language alone." Milena said without stopping. "This is Sabina. Her mother was British."

"She speaks better than you, Newkirk," Carter joked.

"Are you British too?" the girl asked.

"L-London..."

"My Dai was from London," the girl said.

"Mine was from Wales." Newkirk gasped as Milena's knife bit more deeply into his flesh.

Despair clutched at Carter's heart. Neither the smell nor the sight of blood bothered him, but his friend's suffering made him sick. Newkirk was in pain and there was nothing he could do to help him. "What's a Dai?" He asked as a way of putting his mind and Newkirk's on something else.

"Mother..." Milena, Newkirk and the girl said at the same time.

The girl laughed and said something in her dialect. Milena nodded and smiled for the first time since they had met her.

"She says that you are a very clever Gadjo." She touched the bullet and Newkirk twitched. "Hold him still," she said to Carter.

He placed himself at the head of the cot and pinned down Newkirk's shoulders. "Grab my arms and don't mind squeezing them as hard as you can." He kept his confident tone. "Sabina? Newkirk here has a very good memory, you know? He can name all Snow White's seven dwarfs with the color of their tunics and all, right, Newkirk?"

"What?" Newkirk frowned.

Carter felt he had his friend's attention and signed for Milena to go on. "C'mon, start with the one that Kinch said was named after you... Grumpy..."

Sabina giggled.

"Bloody funny!-" Newkirk was caught off guard and almost screamed.

"What color was Grumpy's tunic?"

"Red..." Newkirk said between his teeth. "Doc's too..."

"Dopey?"

"Green..., C-Carter," he gasped when Milena touched the tender skin. "Sleepy's green...Bashful, Sneeze and Happy were in brown..." he said in one rushed breath.

Milena pulled the bullet out. She quickly cleaned and bandaged the wound.

Newkirk took a deep breath and loosened his grip on Carter's arms. He opened his eyes and saw his friend almost as pale as he was. He smiled. "LeBeau said that Dopey looks just like you..."

Milena shook her head and wiped her brow with her apron. "Your friend is very tough. For a Gadjo. Anyone else would have passed out with less than this." She got up and picked up her things. "Keep him warm. Don't let him move. We don't have sutures and if the wound begins to bleed again, he might die." She shook her head. "Without medicine for infection, he'll be lucky if he survives anyway."

Carter nodded. His brain was still on neutral speed and he could not think clearly. "Thank you, Ma'am." That was all he could come up with. "Boy, that was really intense. I can't imagine myself doing something like that in a million years... Are you a doctor?"

"A nurse, back in my hometown." Milena smirked. "Now we move too much to keep a steady job anywhere."

"The man... what's his name?... Virgil? He said he has been chasing Dalibor for three years..." Newkirk said.

"We almost lost that devil today when you showed up at the Gestapo headquarters." She went to wash her hands in a sink nearby.

"Newkirk, she's the cleaning lady!" Carter said. He turned to her. "You yelled at the guards, almost got us killed!"

"I was warning Anton. We were there all morning waiting for the right moment to attack." Milena explained patiently. "We didn't expect someone else to come up with the same idea."

"The explosives, and the man cleaning the windows," Carter said. "The underground didn't warn us about it."

"We're not underground. We're Romany people." She turned to Newkirk. "The man you knocked down over there is our leader, Anton Havel. He is not happy with you, Gadjo."

"Me? He threw the first punch." Newkirk made an attempt to sit up. Pain pierced his side. He moaned and fell on his back.

"Lie down. I told you not to move. Sleep and gather strength." Milena headed for the door. "Supper will be ready soon. Anton will talk to you then," she said to Carter before going away with the girl.

"Romany? What's that? And what did she call you?" Carter said.

"Gadjo. That's what they call the outsiders, the ones who are not Romany... They're gypsies, Carter." Newkirk said. "People with their own language, their own culture, their own law. We might be in trouble."

"Gypsies? They don't look like gypsies. They are dressed like-"

"Normal people?" Newkirk shrugged. "They are normal people, but don't mess with their codes. They are quite serious about those."

"Don't get it. If they're fighting the Nazis, we're on the same side, aren't' we?"

"Romany are on their own side. They'll help us as long as they need us," Newkirk smirked. "But, now that they have Dalibor, I don't think we're relevant anymore."

"What do you think they want him for?"

"Who knows? From what the gov'nor read about him in his younger years, the bloke wasn't what we would call an altar boy. They must be holding some grudge against him," Newkirk said. "Whatever it is, I don't think they're are going to let him leave with us."

"What do we do, then? They outnumber us, got all the weapons; if they want Dalibor there is little we can do." He noticed he was shaking almost as much as Newkirk. "This is what you call a stinky winky situation, eh?"

Newkirk chuckled. "Sticky wicket, you mean." Another wave of pain took him by surprise.. He clenched his teeth to suppress a scream. "Blimey!"

Carter touched his shoulder. "Newkirk-"

"I'm all right... it hurts a bit... Don't make me laugh." Newkirk blinked in pain. "We'll think of something, Carter. Go and talk to them. Try not to reveal much of our organization but find out what they are up to." He closed his eyes and exhaled. "Just keep focused, all right?"

"I'll be all eyes and ears. Don't you worry about anything. I'm in charge, remember?"

Newkirk tried to smile, but it caused him terrible discomfort.

"I don't think I should leave you alone, though-"

"I'll be fine. It's just a scratch... Flesh wound... I've just got to rest, all right?" He kept smiling until Carter left the room. Then, he shuddered in pain. He tried to relax but this turn of events was unexpected. If he did not pull through fast, Carter would be alone to face whatever was coming their way.

TBC

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