(2006) No infringement upon the rightful owners of "Combat!" and the characters thereof, is intended.  This piece of fan fiction is for enjoyment only, and in no way will the author gain monetary profit from its existence.

 

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"The Reckoning"

 Part One

by Thompson Girl

 

  

Artillery to the north of town had been firing for half an hour.  Flashes of light stabbed the overcast sky, brief mushrooms of brilliance that reflected off the clouds and silhouetted buildings that no longer stood straight and square-edged. 

Marie's Café stood beneath the remnants of the town's two-storied hotel.  The little restaurant had managed to escape unscathed so far, for which the proprietor, Monsieur Germont, gave daily thanks.  Because when the Germans had retreated and the Americans had taken over the town, their business had arrived squarely on his doorstep.  Every soldier with a little time off and a few francs came to his café for a drink or a real bite to eat, and tonight was no exception.

Germont looked over the jostling crowd of G.I.s with a practiced eye. 

The café's interior was no larger than thirty by twenty feet.  Heavy black curtains were tacked over the broken windows facing the street and, hung in a drooping arc over the dark material, a series of hand-painted blue paper letters spelled out "Vive Les Americans."  Four kerosene lanterns, one in each corner, cast an amber glow over the smoky room.  Leon, an old, bearded friend of Germont's, played a loud happy tune on his ancient accordion.

The music, laughter, conversation, and clink of glasses drowned out the booming of the distant artillery, but it could not prevent the slight shaking of the ground each time one of the big guns went off.  It trembled the floorboards and sent subtle vibrations up legs.  It rattled the tiny tables and the glasses, shook dust loose from the ceiling.  The soldiers seemed not to notice, but Germont had been watching them for days, and he knew better.  Americans thought they were good at hiding their feelings.  In his café, they joked and laughed and insulted each other with friendly abandon.  He knew only enough English to run his business, but he didn't need to understand their language to understand them.  Their words were just that:  words.  But loneliness, fear, and worry... these were universal expressions, as plain on an unguarded American face as they were on the faces of his two young sons or his wife.

Sometimes, he thought the true measure of a night at his café was in the counting of those fleeting moments of vulnerability.  But, more practically, it was in the quantity of empty bottles he carried down to the cellar at closing time.

He lifted a bottle of cognac and wended through the crowd to the table of the American who had signaled him.  Now, here was one who would never be able to hide his thoughts, Germont thought as he poured out another drink for the man.  The lieutenant sat alone in the corner, a stranger on purpose in that packed room.  He looked amiable enough, but his eyes gave the lie to his exterior calm:  the lieutenant's gaze traversed the café with a frightened nervousness that the alcohol seemed only to have intensified.

Germont collected the lieutenant's money and, for a moment, their eyes met.  Germont found himself wanting to speak a short prayer -- he did that often, for the scared G.I.s -- but then the man murmured, "Merci," and not with the clumsy intonation Germont usually heard from Americans.  Suddenly afraid the man spoke French and would be offended, he smiled instead and responded, "Je vous en prie," before turning to return to the bar.  He had to get ready to close the café anyway.  As always, it would be too soon for the Americans, but those were the rules.  That's the way it went.

Lt. Jack Ashton watched the proprietor go, wondering vaguely what he had been about to say.  Not that it mattered.  None of it mattered.  Another round of artillery fire rumbled the cafe, and he scowled, then knocked back half the glass in one gulp.  It was his fourth cognac, but fear was a stubborn thing, and the only thing he was really drowning was good sense.  He'd be reporting in tomorrow morning with a hangover, but he didn't care.  If it had been anyone but Eddie Hansen waiting for him, he might have exercised restraint.  But Eddie knew the truth; Eddie had been there with him.  And it was because of Eddie's request that Ashton was back in France to begin with.  He'd forgive him a few drinks.  Hell, Eddie owed him a few drinks.

He rapidly downed the last of the alcohol, then set the glass down a little too hard on the table before looking around for the owner again or one of the waitresses.  He should have just kept the man nearby.  There was time for one more drink before Marie's closed up.

The closest waitress was attending two G.I.s sharing a table nearby.  They were an oddly matched pair, Ashton thought.  One was a tall giant of a man, while the other was small and lean.  The smaller one was trying, ineffectively, to hit on the woman, while his big friend rolled his eyes and looked long-suffering.  Only two waitresses staffed Marie's, and the private had singled out the younger brunette one.  He had good taste, Ashton conceded, eyeing her himself, though with only two women among the café's staff, it wasn't as if there was a lot of choice.

The private tried to take the waitress's hand as she took their order.  He was persistent, Ashton had to give him that.  But the girl seemed unmoved by determination alone.  She deftly shrugged off the private's hand and headed back toward the bar. 

Ashton shook his head and muttered, "Amateur."  No wonder the man's companion was rolling his eyes.  Dames didn't like to be pawed; they liked to be flattered.  The private clearly needed a lesson.  And there were other ways besides drinking to forget his fears for a few hours.  He smiled to himself and lifted his glass to his lips before he remembered that he had already finished it.  With a grimace, he set it down again and stood up, tucking his helmet beneath his arm.  He took a few unsteady steps toward the table the two soldiers shared, until he stood close enough to hear their conversation amid the babble in the café.

The big guy was saying, "Would you just give it up already?"

The smaller man muttered, "Where's Caje when you need him?"

Ashton took the last step up behind them and said, "Don't speak French, huh?"

Pvt. William G. Kirby jerked around at the voice behind him.  He was aggravated enough at his lack of progress with the barmaid that the last thing he wanted was some other soldier offering unsolicited advice.  But the rude comeback he had on his lips died as he saw it was a lieutenant addressing them.  Army reflexes took over and he started to rise to salute, Littlejohn doing the same. 

The man waved them down.  He was is his mid-thirties, average height, dark-haired, brown-eyed, with a mischievous secretive grin that Kirby immediately distrusted.  The lieutenant was far too good-looking for Kirby's way of thinking.  No four-day old stubble, not a hair out of place, his uniform still crisp and pressed.  Just arrived, Kirby thought sourly, not like us.  And he'd obviously been driven in, hadn't tramped in on his own two sore feet.  And when the lieutenant looked speculatively after the waitress, Kirby recognized competition when he saw it.  He couldn't decide if the fact that the lieutenant was also clearly drunk made him more of a threat or less of one.

But the man went on, "Looks like you could use a little language help, Private...?"

"Kirby," he replied, then hooked a thumb at his tall companion.  "This is Littlejohn."

"Lieutenant Ashton," Ashton said.  He kept his tone friendly, forthright, his expression guileless as he asked, "So, could you use a translator?"

Kirby blinked.  "What?"  Suspicion and disbelief alternated in Kirby, but overriding them was the thought that he was getting nowhere fast with the girl himself.  With the lieutenant's help, maybe the night might not be such a loss after all.  He said, cautiously, "You'd do that for me?  Sir?"

Sucker, Ashton thought, unable to keep the grin off his face.  Kirby was making this too easy.  Hook, line....  Ashton said, "Sure, why not?  She sure is pretty, isn't she?"

Kirby's gaze drifted toward the bar where the brunette was barely visible behind the press of soldiers.  He murmured dreamily, "Yeah..."

Ashton said, "Just let me doing the talking.  I'll show you how it's done."

When the girl returned, carrying two small brandies on a tray, Kirby started to say, "Could you tell her...."

But Ashton held up a hand and cut him off.  "Don't worry, I know what to say." 

He did know what to say; the words came without so much as a second thought.  French was eminently more suited to compliments than English, he thought.  It made even the most mundane words seem a little more elegant.  Maybe not to the French girl who knew no other language, but it did to him, and that's all that mattered right then.  The flattery rolled off his tongue, and he knew it was working when she blushed and smiled at him.  It was a very nice smile, he thought.

Kirby watched Ashton intercede, talking smoothly in what sounded irritatingly to Kirby like perfect, if slurred, French.  Ashton pointed to Kirby and smiled, then pointed to himself.  Kirby watched closely, suspicious again, but whatever Ashton was saying seemed to cause the girl to look at Kirby in a different light, and she turned and smiled almost apologetically at him.  Kirby was so startled at her suddenly friendly look that he barely managed to keep the surprise off his face.

Ashton leaned in toward Kirby and said conspiratorially, "I told her she had your intentions figured all wrong."

Kirby wondered what that meant but, whatever it was, it seemed to be working on the waitress, so he kept his mouth shut and didn't ask any questions.  He glanced at Littlejohn, but there was no help there.  Littlejohn was simply sipping his brandy and letting events unfold before him.

Ashton, too, couldn't help letting his gaze slide to the big man sitting so quietly nearby, to see if he had cottoned on to Ashton's duplicity.  Ashton didn't want to mess with him if he could avoid it, particularly while drunk.  But Littlejohn was sipping his brandy and watching the exchange with obvious amusement.  Ashton couldn't discern any hostility in that big open face.  Not yet anyway.  It was time, he thought, to grab the prize and beat a hasty exit.  He turned back to the girl.

Kirby listened to Ashton spout more French.  A light blush spread across her cheeks, but she said something in return, then pointed to a clock that was nearing ten p.m., and clearly went to get her things.  Kirby watched her go in amazement.  "Well, I'll be...."

Ashton said, "All set.  And she's just getting off work."

A wide smile spread across Kirby's face, and he said, "Boy, you make that look easy, Lieutenant.  Thanks."

"Don't thank me," Ashton muttered, glancing away, then, as guilt stirred uneasily in his gut.  Or maybe it was just too much cognac.

The waitress came back from behind the bar, a blue shawl now wrapped around her shoulders.  She smiled at all three men, and Kirby quickly stood, tugging his jacket a little straighter.

Ashton cleared his throat and said, "French isn't that difficult.  You should try learning it, Private.  It works for me."  He held out his arm, and the brunette looped her arm through his.  He grinned smugly and added, "Oh, and don't get discouraged.  After all, there is the other waitress... maybe you'll have better luck with her."

Kirby's mouth fell open as Ashton turned and whisked the girl out the door.

 

***

 

Lt. Hanley was having a hell of a night.  He hadn't had a moment's respite since arriving in Alsorne.  He hadn't even had enough free time to grab a shower and a shave, let alone a few hours of sleep.  Supply problems, replacement problems, and now this:  Captain Jampel had just ordered him to lend first squad to another captain, Edward Hanson, for a special escort mission, superceding Hanley's own orders to secure a supply route tomorrow, something he didn't want to do without Saunders.  Orders, orders, orders.  He wondered who the hell this Hanson was that Jampel would make free with Hanley's platoon.  And, more importantly, what was the mission that was so damned important instead.

He was looking for Saunders when he entered the side door of Marie's.  The little café had become the unofficial hangout of every off-duty soldier stationed in Alsorne.  It was a good bet at least some of first squad were there.

Sure enough, he spotted Kirby and Littlejohn immediately.  Kirby was standing, hands on his hips, staring after a lieutenant and a woman -- probably one of the waitresses -- who were just exiting the café's main door.  Hanley didn't even have to see the amusement written all over Littlejohn's face to know that Kirby had just failed in another conquest.  Probably rather spectacularly, Hanley thought, given the outrage in Kirby's voice as he said to Littlejohn, "Did you see that?  Of all the nerve...."

Patiently, Littlejohn said, "Kirby, you're outclassed and outranked.  Now, come on.  Just sit down and drink your drink."

Hanley stepped up behind Kirby as the B.A.R. man said, "Yeah, well who does that guy think he is?  Waltzing in here and stealing my girl."  He was shaking his head angrily.  "Lousy lieutenants." 

Hanley partially raised one eyebrow and tried to keep a straight face.  Littlejohn had already seen him, was looking straight at him over Kirby's shoulder and, for a moment, the two shared private amusement.  Then Hanley watched Kirby freeze before dropping his arms and slowly half-turning, his eyes rising to meet Hanley's.  Kirby forced a quick innocent smile and said rapidly, "Oh, hiya, Lieutenant."

Hanley struggled not to smile as he asked, "Have you seen Saunders?"

Gesturing vaguely out the front door, Kirby said, "Oh, he sacked out early, over at the second billet area."

Hanley grunted, then added, "Okay.  Just got word.  You'll be pulling out tomorrow, so you just might want to get some sleep yourself."  He gave Kirby a pointed look.

Kirby said, "Uh, yes, sir." 

Hanley glanced at Littlejohn again, noted that Littlejohn had quietly swapped his empty glass for Kirby's untouched one and was sipping from it, his face a deadpanned mask of innocence.  Hanley turned away quickly and pulled open the door before he lost his composure and started laughing.  Behind him, he could hear Kirby muttering, "I'm gonna kill Caje.  This is all his fault.  If he'd been here that lousy lieutenant wouldn't have breezed in...."

The door closed firmly behind him, and Hanley shook his head.

 

***

 

Morning came too fast, revealing a bright but overcast day, the temperature warm and slightly humid.  The artillery had stopped in the night, but the village was anything but quiet and peaceful.  Jeeps and trucks spewed exhaust in the narrow streets, their revving, growling engines echoing off the building fronts.  Sergeants hollered as their columns marched in the wake of the vehicles, and MPs shouted and directed traffic where it converged in the village square.

It made for a noisy, crowded mess, and Ashton swore under his breath as he pushed his way around the infantry.  Everyone seemed to have somewhere they had to be, and that included him.

"Watch it, bub," somebody muttered at him when he brushed them roughly aside.

Ashton cut down a side alley, cursing the engineers and townspeople who had done such a nice job of clearing the streets of rubble and debris -- he had nothing to blame his weaving, staggering walk on but himself.  It didn't help that he had his eyes half-closed against the daylight or that his head was throbbing fiercely.  And as if that wasn't bad enough, he had overslept, woken up sick from alcohol or nerves -- it no longer mattered which.  As far as making errors in judgment, he was racking up a personal record in these last couple of days.

Eddie's temporary headquarters was on the second story of a building near the east end of town.  It was set back from the street, the building rising behind what had once been a graceful courtyard. 

Ashton paused in the street just before the iron gates of the courtyard and leaned back against the nearest building.  He drew in a deep ragged breath and tried one last time to find a way out, but it was a pointless exercise -- he had done nothing but that since the orders had been handed to him two days ago in London.  Was it only two days ago?

Nothing for it but to get it over with.

He straightened up his uniform and ran a hand through his hair before he settled that damned heavy helmet back on his head.  His fingertips brushed the day-old stubble on his cheeks, and he shrugged it off.  Nothing for it now.  He re-slung his Thompson over his shoulder, then pushed himself off the comfort of the wall.

He turned the corner and entered the courtyard.  Rubble from the ruined home on the left spilled across the back half of the open space, nearly blocking access to the outdoor stairway that climbed up to the upstairs HQ.   Ashton found the courtyard wasn't empty.  Four G.I.s lounged around waiting.   One of them, leaning back against the right-hand inner wall, looked vaguely familiar, but Ashton couldn't place him.

Kirby, on the other hand, stiffened immediately as Ashton came forward, and he asked, sarcastically, "Did you have a pleasant evening?"

Ashton turned toward him, hiding the wince the sudden movement provoked.

"Lieutenant.  Sir," Kirby added, saluting.  The salute was as insolent as his tone.

Ashton stared at him blankly, and Kirby realized in disbelief that the lieutenant didn't even remember their encounter last night.  The thought incensed him.  Here he had spent a sleepless night in recriminations and Ashton had forgotten all about it?  Why that miserable--  His hands tightened around the muzzle of his B.A.R.

Then it came to Ashton where he had seen the man before.  The café.  The waitress.  A quick glance around the courtyard showed the other private who had been there -- the big guy -- sitting cross-legged, back against the wall nearby, eyes closed.  Chalk up yet another error in judgment, Ashton thought, bitterly.  You didn't think you'd run into one lousy private again out of a couple hundred, did you?  He searched his memory, but the soldier's name eluded him.

As for the waitress... he had seen her safely to the door of her flat, been introduced to waiting, worrying mama, given her a professional salute and his best smile, and gone on his way.  But there was no reason the private had to learn any of that.  So, he grinned at the soldier and lied, "Just swell, thanks, Private.  Did you know she has a beautiful little apartment overlooking the river?"  The last part was true, at least.

Kirby straightened, his jaw clenching.  So, Ashton had remembered at last.

There was a nasty edge to the look he shot Ashton, the kind that wanted to invite Ashton down a dark alley.  You have no idea how tempting that is, Ashton thought.  Eddie can't send me on a mission if I'm in the hospital.

But the big private, not even bothering to open his eyes, interrupted softly, warningly, "Kirby."

That was his name, Ashton thought, as he watched the lean B.A.R man react to the big man's voice.  The dangerous look had already faded, replaced by sullen resentment.  Was he just all talk, then? Ashton wondered, almost disappointed.  He caught himself, suddenly angry and ashamed of himself, wondering when exactly getting himself beaten up had become an acceptable plan of action.

When Eddie forced me to come back to this godforsaken country, that's when.

And he was wasting time again, delaying the inevitable.  He returned Kirby's salute, matching the insolence the private had used, then headed for the stairs of the building.

Kirby glared after him, then turned as Caje and Doc's curiosity got the better of them and they both approached.  Caje asked, "What was that all about?"

Kirby snapped, "Aw, shut up, Caje.  It's your fault anyway."

Caje stiffened, frowning, and said, "My fault!  Hey, now listen--"

On the landing, Ashton shook his head uncomfortably and tried to push the B.A.R man's anger out of his head.  He opened the door and let the voices of the squabbling G.I.s fall away as he stepped into a small antechamber.  To the left, a lieutenant and a sergeant sat waiting on wooden chairs.  A heavy-set corporal sat behind a field desk to the right surrounded by a couple radios and a mess of paperwork.  The corporal saluted, and Ashton said, "Lieutenant Ashton, here to see Captain Hansen."

"Yes, sir," the corporal said quickly, and Ashton didn't miss the clear reproach in the man's tone when he went on:  "He's waiting for you."  The corporal pushed himself out of his chair and crossed to the closed door nearby.

Ashton glanced at the two other men, found both of them watching him.  The lieutenant was a tall, dark handsome man, his mouth set in mild irritation; the sergeant's face and blue eyes were expressionless.  My tardiness has kept them waiting too, Ashton realized, chagrined.  Score another point in favor of court-martial.

"Sir?"

Ashton faced forward again as the corporal's call caught his attention.

"Go on in, sir," the corporal said.

Ashton nodded politely to the two waiting men and headed for the door.  He hesitated just a second on the threshold then, after another deep breath, stepped inside.  The corporal closed the door behind him with a loud thunk, and Ashton winced.

The large room he entered was really nothing but empty floorboards and cobwebbed corners, dust and echoes.  The wall opposite had another closed door that probably exited onto a back alley, Ashton guessed.  The left wall had a large window, the glass panes long since broken out and gone, and the noise of the troops passing on the street outside was clearly audible.  The only furniture was to the right:  a table and three scrounged wooden chairs -- two in front, one behind.  Eddie sat in the one behind, bent forward over a large map spread over the tabletop. 

"What's the matter, Jack?" Hansen said, without looking up.  "You forget how to tell time in London?  You're twenty minutes late."

"I realize that, sir," Ashton said, unapologetically.

Hansen looked up then, raising an eyebrow.  "Sir?"  He tossed his pencil down and leaned back in the chair, studying Ashton.  Ashton eyed him in return, comparing present to past, but Edward Hansen hadn't changed any, physically, in the last six months.  He was broad-shouldered, almost the same height and weight as Ashton.  Clean-cut, dark-haired, good-looking... he was the type of guy that made a rumpled dirty uniform look good.  The type that should have been on the recruiting posters.  The type who always commanded the respect of his men and wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty right along with them.  The type who had deserved promotion to captain after St. Vannes.

"You look like hell, Jack," Hansen observed.

Ashton said nothing, but he knew silence was pointless.  Hansen knew him better than anyone else alive.  They had grown up together, gone through high school and college together, hauled each other out of countless bars and brawls, joined the Army together.  Best friends, that was what they were, once upon a time when life had been simpler.  Before the war had turned real.  Hansen got up suddenly, crossed and opened the door, ordered the corporal outside, "Mallory, bring me a pot of coffee."

Hansen closed the door and turned to look at Ashton again.  Ashton met his gaze steadily, somewhat surprised to see no reproach on Hansen's face.  Instead he saw only a combination of brotherly affection, worry, and something else... Ashton couldn't quite place it.  Guilt?  Hansen reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his cigarettes.  He crossed to Ashton and held out the packet.  Ashton took one gratefully, accepted a light, then blew out smoke.  He removed his helmet, set it one of the knobby points of the closest chair back.

Hansen sighed and said, "I'm sorry, Jack, I really am.  But you were the only one I could get for this job."

"What job?"  Ashton didn't even want to ask, but the question tumbled out.

"Pass some vital information to the Resistance.  Specifically, to Sebastien and Jerome."

"Jim Wharton--" Ashton began.

Hansen cut him off with a shake of his head.  "Dead.  Look, you know Sebastien and Jerome; they know you.  With what's been going on out here lately, they're not going to trust anyone else I send right now.  Not for the information I'm sending you with.  It's got to be someone they know.  That's you."

Ashton began pacing.

Soothingly, Hansen continued, "In and out, Jack.  That's all.  Not even twenty-four hours behind enemy lines."

On a sudden hunch, Ashton turned and said, "Those men outside in the courtyard...."

"That should be Sergeant Saunders' squad.  They're your escort behind enemy lines.  The sergeant and his lieutenant are outside waiting to be briefed."

Ashton swore under his breath and chalked another hash mark on his mental log of errors.  Needle one of the men who's going to be protecting you.  Yeah, that was particularly brilliant.  He looked up to see Hansen watching him, a frown on his face.

"Something wrong?" Hansen asked.

"Everything's wrong, and you know it."

Hansen said, "Jack, we've known each other a long time.  Just complete this mission, and I'll have you back in London--"

Ashton interrupted, "Just give it to me straight, Eddie.  From the top.  Tell me what I need to know and let's get this masquerade over with."

 

***

 

Hanley checked his watch for what felt like the hundredth time.  He caught a glimpse of Saunders smiling in undisguised amusement at him and quickly dropped his arm back into his lap.  "Hurry up and wait," Hanley muttered.  "I'll never get used to it."

"Not when you're on the receiving end."

Hanley looked over sharply, but Saunders was looking the other way, watching the corporal re-enter the antechamber bearing a small tray with a steaming coffee pot and two mugs on it.  The corporal knocked once, and, through the door, Hansen's voice called back, "In a minute."

The corporal shrugged, turned around, contemplated his crowded desktop, then set the tray down on top of a stack of papers.

Hanley couldn't help wondering about that lieutenant who had entered ahead of them.  Hanley had seen a lot of scared men, but this one had seemed jumpier than most.  Maybe that was only because he had seemed desperate to hide his fear and was failing miserably. 

"That lieutenant looked like he was heading for his own court-martial," Hanley said aloud, curious, and deciding a little fishing never hurt.  The corporal had seemed affronted enough by the lieutenant's late arrival to want to talk about it.

Sure enough, he spoke up right away.  "Uh, no sir," the corporal said.  "Lieutenant Ashton and Captain Hansen are old friends, I've been told.  Though he's not here for what you'd call a social occasion."  His voice held the same disapproving tone he had used on Lt. Ashton.  The corporal was a pinch-lipped, squinty-eyed burly man.  Hanley knew the type:  perpetually frowning, perpetually finding fault.  A man who lived so by-the-book himself that any deviation by others the corporal took personally.

But the corporal's words also meant that Lt. Ashton was most likely the man Saunders would be escorting behind enemy lines.  Hanley chewed that over and exhaled sharply.  He didn't like the thought at all.

The door opened just then, and Hansen called Hanley and Saunders inside.

About time, Hanley thought impatiently as he got to his feet and followed the corporal and Saunders into the room. 

"Your coffee, sir," the corporal was saying to Hansen.

Hansen swept a spot free on the desk, let the corporal set the tray down, then dismissed him. 

Hanley and Saunders saluted, and Hansen returned the salute and performed swift introductions, before pouring out a cup of coffee.

Hanley looked around the nearly vacant room.  Lt. Ashton leaned against the window frame to the left, staring outside and smoking.  In a still photograph, his pose would have looked nonchalant, but then a still photograph wouldn't have shown the way he jerked the cigarette to his mouth for another drag, the way his eyes were really focusing on nothing. 

Ashton was hardly aware of the scrutiny.  He couldn't get his mind around anything other that than his best friend was sending him behind enemy lines -- what good would a squad do?  And the truth was he didn't want to see the two soldiers waiting to be briefed.  To acknowledge them not only meant the mission was real, but that he was suddenly responsible for the five men assigned as his escort.

"Here, drink this."  Hansen appeared suddenly in front of him, startling him out of his reverie, and Ashton couldn't prevent the irritated frown that crossed his face.

"Take it," Hansen snapped, as he thrust the coffee cup into Ashton's hand.

Watching them uncomfortably, Hanley thought that Ashton seemed nothing more than a brittle shell.  What was inside... that was what worried Hanley.  He glanced at Saunders, wondering what the sergeant was making of the situation and this man he would have to work with.  But Saunders was giving nothing away, and Hanley grimaced to himself.  If he had just half the poker face Saunders had....

Hansen walked back behind his desk and looked at Hanley.  His face was calm and collected again as he said, "Glad Captain Jampel agreed to lend me your men, Hanley."

"What's their mission, sir?" Hanley asked.

Hansen gestured to the man at the window and said, "Escort Lieutenant Ashton behind enemy lines to a meeting with two partisan leaders.  Lieutenant Ashton will relay his information, and then your squad will escort him home again.  That's it."  He pulled a smaller map out and spread it on top of the larger one on the desk.  He traced a line until he found what he was looking for, then he tapped the spot with a forefinger.  "The meet is set for here... two miles south of Versennet, at a farmhouse about eight miles behind enemy lines."  He looked directly at Saunders and went on, "The town is occupied, and you should expect heavy patrols through these woods here.  Do not engage the enemy if you can avoid it."

Hanley and Saunders exchanged a look.

Hanley said, "Sounds straightforward enough."  He couldn't help glancing at the other lieutenant again.  Ashton hadn't shifted from his spot at the window, the coffee cup in one hand, the cigarette in the other, and his gaze locked on something only he could see.

"Speed is of the essence," Hansen said, his tone sharpening suddenly.  "The information Lieutenant Ashton carries is time-critical.  We won't get a second chance at this.  So get him in, Sergeant, and get him back out.  The meet is scheduled for 2100 tonight.  Any questions?"

Saunders shook his head.  "No, sir."

Hansen nodded, as if satisfied, and said, "Then get going."  He folded and passed the map to Saunders, who tucked it inside his jacket.

The conclusion of the briefing and the movement of Saunders and Hanley toward the door was enough to rouse Ashton.  Downing the last of the coffee, he crossed the room and set the empty mug down on the tray.  He lifted his helmet off the back of the chair, settled it on his head with an undisguised scowl, then started for the door after the others.

Hansen called, softly, "Jack."  When Ashton looked back, Hansen added, "Good luck, old friend."

Hanley watched the two officers share a look, then Ashton flashed Hansen a broad, confident grin and walked out, followed by Saunders.  Hanley wasn't fooled for a second, and he doubted Capt. Hansen was either.  The look was pure bravado, nothing more.  Hanley hesitated, looking back at the captain.  Hansen slowly sat down, staring after Ashton and turning a pencil over and over in his hand, his face lined with worry.  What is he not saying? Hanley wondered, knowing instinctively that something was wrong, and that not understanding what it was could jeopardize Saunders' mission and the safety of all the men. 

Abruptly, Hansen looked up and noticed Hanley watching him.  The worried look vanished in an instant, and Hansen was all business, his attention returning to his maps.  But after a moment, when Hanley still hadn't moved, Hansen's eyes flicked up and he asked, "Was there something else, Lieutenant?"

To hell with delicacy, Hanley thought, and asked, "Is there anything else I should know about this mission, sir... or its personnel?"

"No," Hansen said, curtly.  "Dismissed."

 

***

 

Outside, the squad waited.  Caje and Doc had joined Littlejohn, and all three sat with their backs to the wall, enjoying the meager sunlight filtering through the clouds.  Littlejohn still had his eyes closed, now with his long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles.  Only Kirby was standing, smoking restlessly. 

He should have been enjoying the quiet, content that their squad wasn't part of the circus passing by in the street outside.  He should have been taking these last few minutes before they headed out to relax.  But, instead, his gaze kept stealing up the stairway toward where Lt. Ashton had gone, and he shifted his stance, one foot to the other, fuming inside instead.

He couldn't stop his mind from replaying the scene in Marie's last night... how drunk the lieutenant had been... how good-looking... how smoothly Ashton had volunteered to help translate... how quickly he had found himself leaping at the man's offer.  Kirby kept berating himself, wondering when he had become so trusting.  It would have been very easy to tell the lieutenant to mind his own business.  But he hadn't done that.  Why not?  What had made him think he could trust another man where a woman was concerned?  Particularly an officer, and a drunk one at that. 

Kirby grimaced to himself.  He had obviously been hanging around Saunders too long.  The Sarge always gave people the benefit of the doubt.  Well, Kirby had given Ashton the benefit of the doubt, all right, and the guy had played him for a sucker.  He wasn't going to make that mistake again.

And he wasn't going drinking with Littlejohn anymore, either.  Littlejohn had done nothing -- nothing! -- just let Ashton walk out the door.  All he'd had to do was stand up, look threatening, something.  But no, Littlejohn had sat there and watched the whole thing, as if the encounter had been staged solely for his entertainment, the big, unsympathetic ape.

Kirby gripped the B.A.R. tighter again and hunched his shoulders forward, his gaze roaming around the courtyard.  He wasn't sure if he was more angry at losing the girl or the fact that he'd let himself get duped so easily.

The door upstairs opened suddenly, and Saunders and Lt. Ashton stepped out onto the upper landing together.  Hanley followed a moment later, and Kirby watched all three come down the stairs, a sinking feeling in his stomach.  What do you want to bet...?

Caje, Doc, and Littlejohn stood quickly and came over to stand beside Kirby as the other three joined them.  Lt. Ashton hung back slightly from the group, not meeting Kirby's gaze.

Saunders said, "This is Lieutenant Ashton.  We'll be escorting him behind enemy lines to a meeting with the Resistance."

I knew it, Kirby thought and muttered aloud, "Ain't that grand."  He stubbed out his cigarette a little too aggressively against the wall.  When he turned back, he saw Saunders watching him, a warning look on his face.  Kirby looked away, not willing to meet those steady blue eyes for more than a second.  What did Saunders know anyway?  The Sarge hadn't been there last night; he couldn't be expected to understand what type of guy Ashton really was.

Hanley said, "Captain Hansen's arranged for a truck to take you as far as it can.  You're on foot from there."

Saunders glanced at each man in the squad, waiting for any questions.  When none were forthcoming, he said, "Okay, then.  Saddle up."

The men scattered around the courtyard to collect their gear. 

Slowly, Ashton followed Saunders toward the courtyard entrance to wait, wondering if he should say something to Kirby.  He knew instinctively a mere apology wasn't going to smooth things over.  Better to just leave it, he told himself.  Get the mission over and get back to London and forget the whole thing.

Kirby started to bend down to pick up his pack, but paused, his gaze drawn suddenly to Hanley who still stood nearby.  Hanley was frowning, lost in thought, his eyes locked on Ashton, much the way Kirby's had been.  Kirby recognized Hanley's troubled look all too well, and he wondered what had gone on in the briefing upstairs that had so worried the lieutenant.  The way he was focused in on Ashton, Kirby had a feeling it wasn't the mission that had Hanley stewing -- it was the lieutenant himself.

See, Hanley sees it too:  Lt. Ashton is trouble.  It shouldn't have mattered, Kirby thought.  The squad had taken along plenty of losers before.  But the thought that his life might depend upon the reflexes of a loser suffering a bad hangover didn't sit well with him.  Like you haven't gone out with a bad hangover yourself, part of his brain said.  That was different, he told himself, but the unwanted question followed immediately anyway:  How?

He rolled his shoulders uncomfortably.

A loud, flat crack came from across the street, and Ashton whipped around, his Thompson ready.  Across the street, a frowzy middle-aged French woman was leaning out a window.  The remains of some sort of white crockery lay shattered in the street below her.  Slowly, Ashton lowered his weapon and tried to relax.  He quickly glanced around at the members of his escort -- alert, watchful, but none had gone automatically for their weapons as he had done.  And there was Kirby, observing him almost scornfully and not bothering to hide it.  How the hell do I start the last two days over again? Ashton wondered, looking away.  Because nothing short of that was going to set things right.

Kirby grimaced.  Great, the lieutenant was trigger-happy on top of everything else.  Kirby leaned toward Littlejohn, who had turned back to his pack and was just straightening.  "Did you see that?"  He gestured toward Ashton.

Littlejohn's eyes flicked toward the lieutenant, then back to Kirby.  He shrugged and said, "He's jumpy.  So?"

"So, you want to be the guy who kicks a rock by accident near him?"

Littlejohn let out a sigh and looked pointedly at him.  "So, don't kick a rock."

"You know what I mean," Kirby said, angrily.  "A joker like that could get us all killed."

Kirby realized he wasn't speaking as quietly as he meant to when he felt someone step up beside him.  Kirby turned swiftly.  He was expecting Ashton, or maybe the Sarge -- but it was Hanley, all signs of his previous worry replaced by a menacing anger.  For a moment, Kirby wanted to believe that the anger was impersonal, that Hanley was agreeing with him -- Ashton was a liability -- but he realized instantly that he should have known better, and he cursed silently.  Hanley always was Army first.  Even if he did agree with Kirby's sentiments, he would never admit it. 

Littlejohn slung his rifle over his shoulder and quickly walked away from the two of them as Hanley stepped closer, towering over the B.A.R. man.  When he spoke, his voice was soft and for Kirby's ears alone.  "That 'joker' is a lieutenant and your superior officer."

Kirby clenched and unclenched his jaw before looking away.  "Yes, sir."

Hanley asked, "You have any more personal complaints you'd like to make?"

"No, sir," Kirby muttered.

"Then get moving."

Kirby suffered a final glare from Hanley, waited until the lieutenant had turned and walked away, then shouldered his B.A.R. and went to join the others near the courtyard entrance.  Kirby glanced at his squad mates but, except for Littlejohn, if any had noticed the interchange, they weren't showing it.  Littlejohn's look was half-warning, half I-told-you-so.  Irritated, Kirby ignored him and shoved his helmet on his head.

Saunders surveyed the squad, then said, "Let's go."

Hanley waited beside Saunders as they filed out of the courtyard, Littlejohn and Doc in the lead.  They kept to the far left of the street to avoid the two trucks coming loudly toward them.  Noxious exhaust fumes swirled with the dust in their wake.

Hanley wanted to warn Saunders to keep a close eye on Ashton, but saying those words aloud would have been for his own comfort only, to assuage his uneasiness and not Saunders', and he kept them to himself.  Saunders missed nothing, and there wasn't anything Hanley could say that hadn't already crossed Saunders' mind.  So, instead, he simply said, "Good luck."

Saunders trailed out last, with a fleeting smile.

But as the squad headed out of town, Hanley's worry settled deep in his stomach, and he knew it wouldn't dissipate until the mission was over and they were all back safely.

 

continue to Part 2

 

  

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