Darkness II: Richter's Women
The final chapter.
"We were getting worried about you, Guv'nor," Peter Newkirk said by way of greeting. Relief, mixed with concern, was evident in his calm eyes as the other men expressed their own opinions. "LeBeau and I were about to go out and find you. We thought...well..." He let his voice trail off, but Hogan knew what he meant.
And you're right. The Colonel merely nodded as he reassumed command.
"The contact didn't show up," he explained, keeping his voice neutral. "It took me a while to get back. The Krauts were crawling all over the place."
And that's the truth, isn't it? he thought, suppressing a shiver. There were Krauts - Germans - around.
Somehow, Hogan wasn't sure what the truth was anymore. There is a hell. I saw it with my own eyes. Conversely, there must be a heaven. And if I died tomorrow...which one would I go to?
It was a sobering thought.
"Blackbird radioed us," Kinch explained, referring to one of their underground contacts. "The guy you were supposed to meet is dead." A macabre grin then tugged at the black radioman's lips. "Believe it or not, but he was apparently having an affair with someone else's wife. The husband found out about it, and well…" He let the final words trail off. "By the time Blackbird radioed us you were already gone."
Colonel Hogan struggled to keep himself calm while he processed the somber information. "How long was I gone before he called?"
The radio operator shrugged. "Five…maybe ten minutes," his low voice rumbled. "I started to come and get you, but..." He broke off in surprise at the wild look in his CO's eyes.
A demented, almost crazed laughter burst forth from Colonel Hogan's mouth before reverberating against the moist dirt walls of the tunnel.
Five minutes! he thought. Five lousy minutes! If it hadn't been for that…
An image of the girl, followed by the vision of hell, flashed through his tortured thoughts once more. At that moment he almost felt as if the stakes holding his mind in place were being swept away…
"You okay, Colonel?" Newkirk's voice asked hesitantly. Their eyes locked together for a long moment—
…and Hogan suddenly remembered the other part of the RAF Corporal's nightmare. The one he didn't want to remember.
"No...stay away..." Peter softly murmured, his calm tones laced in terror. "You're dead. All of you. You're dead..."
The Colonel grimaced slightly as he looked down at the sleeping Englishman.
Nightmares. His concerned eyes lingered on Newkirk's form for a long moment as images of the woman's coffin escaped the darkest recesses of his mind. Suddenly the RAF Corporal sat up in the bed, his unseeing eyes peering into the dark.
"The angels are moving!" he groaned. "The angels..."
At that moment a cold breeze washed its way past Hogan's body before disappearing into the night. The Colonel, startled, jumped slightly before he quickly looked around the sleeping barracks.
What the hell was that?
The Senior POW shivered involuntarily as he glanced around the quiet barracks once more. He laid his eyes on the now-still Englishman. To his surprise a faint smile graced the man's handsome face.
He's okay, Hogan thought, relieved. Maybe I'm just jumpy.
The Colonel let out a long breath before he walked back to his quarters. He was about to shut the door to the room when something – a reflex action, perhaps – forced him to look back into the larger room. Just as he did so a searchlight washed over the front of the building, forcing its way through the numerous cracks and seams-
-and for an instant in time he froze.
A shadowy figure stood at the end of Newkirk's rough wooden bunk. To Hogan's horror, he immediately recognized a distinct female form standing there; the officer had the strangest feeling she was looking at him-
- and then the barracks plunged into dim darkness as the searchlight disappeared. A nameless terror gripped Hogan's heart even as his muscles failed to respond to the primal commands from his brain. Just then another harsh light from the probing beams invaded the barracks-
There was nothing there.
But there was, wasn't there? the Colonel reflected somberly. He looked at Newkirk.
"You saw her too, didn't you?" he asked, already knowing the answer. "She was in the graveyard."
A flicker of terror appeared in the Englishman's eyes before it quickly disappeared. For Hogan, it was enough.
"What woman?" LeBeau asked. The rest of the team members exchanged puzzled looks before the Colonel raised his hand.
"Never mind," he mumured. "I'm okay." He took off his uniform cap and rubbed his weary eyes. In the process he missed the startled looks the other men threw at each other. "It's just been a bad night," he finally said. "If you don't mind, I'll get some sleep." The Colonel flashed a lopsided, if not tired, smile at his men.
A chorus of answering replies followed the Colonel as he climbed up the hidden ladder to the barracks. For once, the tunnel was quiet; the men traded stunned glances before Carter broke the silence.
"Where did the white hair come from?" he wondered aloud. The streaks of gray among the dark hair had shocked them all. "He didn't have it when he left."
No one had a ready answer to that.
"We're all old," Newkirk eventually said. Oddly, his voice had a dull flatness to it. "This whole bloody war is turning us old. The Guv'nor's got the worst of the lot."
"He shouldn't have gone alone," LeBeau muttered, his voice low. "One of us should have gone with him."
Kinch shook his head. "It could have been any one of us," he rumbled. "You, Newkirk, Carter..." He let out a long breath. "I'm just glad he came back," he confessed.
"Yeah," Carter breathed. A faint tinge of pink graced his cheeks before he spoke again. "There is something else, though," he said uncomfortably. "It kind of scared me when the Colonel laughed the way he did. I guess..." The Sergeant's voice trailed off before starting again. This time, his normally happy tones were muted. "He just didn't seem the same, you know?," he began. "It makes me wonder if he's gone a little crazy-"
Without warning, LeBeau spun around and grabbed the front of Carter's jacket before he rammed the airman into the dirt wall. "There is nothing wrong with him," the smaller man hissed, the anger in his eyes almost venomous as he glared at the now-terrified airman. "Don't say that!" He opened his mouth to say more, then faltered as a look of shame passed over his now-horrified features. Before Kinchloe and Newkirk could pull him away he let go and stepped back.
"Easy, Louie," Newkirk said reassuringly before he laid a hand on the smaller man's shoulder. "I'm sure Carter didn't mean anything by it." He glanced over at the American airman. "Isn't that right?"
Carter, still a bit shaken, merely nodded. "Sorry, LeBeau," he lamely offered. "I didn't mean anything..." The Frenchman waved his hand.
"I am the one who should apologize, Carter," LeBeau said morosely even as his body sagged down onto a nearby bench. "I just..." His voice trailed off, then reappeared. "Colonel Hogan is a good man," he explained. "A strong man." He looked at his friends. "What could scare him that much?"
Silence reigned for a moment before Newkirk's voice broke the stillness. "I think," his somber Cockney voice began, "that he saw something that no mortal eyes should ever see." With that, he left the tunnel and the puzzled looks of the other enlisted men.
"What does that mean?" LeBeau asked. Kinch shrugged, then changed the subject.
"It's been a long night. For everybody," he said reasonably before a different tone crept into his voice. "If we were back home I'd jump the wire and head into town." A Cheshire Cat grin suddenly appeared on his dark face as he tried to lighten the mood. "You know, find a nice dame, take her into town for some fun..."
"Gee, that'd be fun right now!" Carter said cheerfully, the past quickly forgotten. "There's nothing better than sharing a milkshake with a nice girl."
LeBeau rolled his eyes in mock disgust. "You Americans," he groaned, making a small 'pppft' sound with his lips. "You take her out to dinner. Then, a little dancing..."
"...along with some nice music," Kinchloe finished. "Not to mention..." He frowned, then held up his hand.
It was then that the other men heard it. The sounds of soft band music drifted from the other end of the large room. The radio, its tubes and dials glowing, was on. Kinch stared at it in confusion.
But I turned it off, he thought. How...?
Just then the station changed to a Glenn Miller tune. String of Pearls. The men warily approached the malfunctioning instrument.
"Why didn't we hear the radio before?" LeBeau asked, his eyes fixed on the radio.
"Here's a better question," Kinch said, his voice low. "How is it running if the power's off?" All of the men glanced at a nearby post. Sure enough, the main power switch for the radio was in the off position.
"You don't think..." LeBeau started to say, then gulped. "You don't think someone's trying to send us a message, do you?"
At once, the music disappeared. Before the men's stunned eyes they saw the black bakelite dial twist to a different station. This time the musical chorus of the Andrews Sisters filled the tunnel:
"You've got to Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive, E-lim-in-ate the negative..."
"This...this is a joke, right?" Carter asked, his voice now slightly sick.
Suddenly, the song changed once more. A flurry of voices and static from bypassed stations flew past them before the black disc went still once more. This time, it was Louis Armstrong's rich tones:
"No one to talk with/All by myself/No one to walk with/But I'm happy on the shelf...
"What the hell is this?" Kinchloe openly wondered, his eyes locked on the impossible sight. Even as he said the words the dial turned again. This time, however, only the faint sounds of hissing static greeted their ears.
"Maybe it was just the radio," Carter offered weakly, though he sounded like he didn't believe it. "It could have just broken by itself. Right?"
"Or maybe," a woman's voice replied, her sultry tones pulsing through the speakers, "it was just me."
At that very moment the radio clicked off. The glowing light of the dial had barely faded when the startled eyes of the men looked at each other.
"Explain that, Kinch!" LeBeau's now frightened voice snapped.
"Um..." Try as he might, the black radioman couldn't think. Consequently, he blurted the first thing that popped into his head. "...sunspots?"
A light feminine laughter drifted to the men from one of the nearby tunnels. Suddenly, one of the oil lamps in a side tunnel went out. Like dominoes, two more lamps extinguished themselves before a stream of cold air blasted into the main tunnel.
The men, their hearts pounding, immediately ran towards the ladder. LeBeau's body almost flew up the ladder; Kinch was only moments behind him. Carter, last to go, put his hands on the wooden slats...
...and stopped. Instead, he turned around to the deathly silent room..
"That was a good joke, ma'am," he said cheerfully to the unseen visitor. "Have a good night." With that he calmly pulled himself up the ladder. As he did, he missed the whisper that floated on the still air.
In the darkness, Colonel Hogan dreamed.
He was running through the graveyard and past shadowy shapes that loomed out of the moonlit night. At that moment a bluish specter appeared in his path and glared daggers at his frightened body.
I'm dead, she hissed, pointing an accusatory finger. Because of you...
Suddenly, the ground opened up beneath his feet. Orange light, bright and terrifying, filled his vision as he tumbled over the lip of the chasm and towards the lake of fire...
"Are you that tired, darling?"
Startled, Hogan opened his eyes.
A beautiful woman, her body swaying to soft dance music, filled his field of view. The dance floor behind her was filled with couples lost to their own personal beat. He blinked, then wondered what he had been thinking about. In the end he gave up and shrugged.
"No," he replied "I guess I was just lost in thought." The Colonel smiled warmly at his date. Oddly, for some reason he couldn't remember her name. A nagging memory, just out of reach, tugged at his mind.
"I hope you were thinking about me?" she teased. The Colonel chuckled.
"I'd be a poor date if I didn't," he countered, savoring the scent of her sweet perfume.
"So true," she replied. "That was a really nice thing you did tonight."
A small frown crossed the officer's face at the woman's words. He had no idea what she was talking about. For that matter - and this frightened him even more - he couldn't recall how he had arrived at the dance hall. Or anything about that night, including his date.
"It was wonderful," she continued to the Colonel's puzzlement. Oddly, the lights in the dance hall seemed to darken a bit; he put it off to his imagination. "You helped them to move on." A sad, almost wistful look entered her eyes as they touched his. "But for you, it will never be over."
Hogan, still bewildered, raised a curious eyebrow. "What does that mean?" he asked. Even as he spoke the lights dimmed further and shrouded the area around them in darkness. The American, still concentrating on his date's earlier words, barely noticed.
"Sssh," she said, pulling his body into hers. "It will be all right," she comforted. "I'm sorry..."
"...so sorry," the blue-tinged specter finished. "So very sorry."
Erika Baum lightly traced her ghostly finger down Colonel Hogan's sleeping face. The expression, once filled with terror at the earlier nightmare, was now filled with peace.
As it should be.
A tremorous, if unheard, sigh echoed against the walls of the Colonel's quarters as she considered the injustice of life. Evil had no conscience to speak of; it did what it did without regret. Conversely, the good souls that fought the darkness were damned to suffer nightmares.
For the Colonel - at least, in his dreams - it would never be over. She would do what she could to alleviate his pain. And then...
"We'll meet again, Colonel," she promised, more to herself than anything else. "One day..."
With that, the ghost vanished. Darkness reclaimed the small room as Colonel Hogan turned in his sleep...