The Hogan Zone: Elogium's Warning
Welcome! This is a tale that I was going to post last year but never did. It uses a character from one of my earlier stories - specifically, Hochstetter's Stalag: Butterfly Effect. Major Hochstetter also makes a cameo appearance (Hochstetter's Stalag)) but this story can stand alone on its own.
Thanks for reading!
A low, almost guttural groan of pain escaped Albert Burkhalter's lips as he struggled to wake up.
That damned Argentinean wine, he groused sourly. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Especially when you mix it with Scotch! I should have remembered...
He winced as another shot of pain rippled through his skull. Tomato juice, he decided firmly. I'll get that first of all. Then I'll have Maria make me some breakfast. A decent one, not that toast and coffee Argentina calls breakfast.
He slowly opened his eyes then blinked to clear the fogginess away. I should-
Burkhalter's thoughts broke off as he stared dumbly at the simple room that lay before his eyes. He closed his eyes then opened them again. The surroundings were unchanged.
What is this?
He tried to stand up. As he did so his unsteady legs gave way causing him to fall back into the padded chair with a loud huff. Angrily, Albert tried again. This time he successfully managed to prop himself up against the wooden desk before his semialert eyes scanned the room around him.
Some kind of office? he mused. What am I doing here? For some reason the green paint and worn furniture were oddly familiar though he couldn't quite place the memory. A chill of panic washed over him as he suddenly realized that he probably under arrest. After a long moment the rational part of his brain finally kicked in.
Why would I be under arrest? For being German? A loud desultory snort echoed throughout the room. No, if I was under arrest there would be others here. The Argentines may make a lousy breakfast but they certainly know how to conduct interrogations. We taught them well.
One thing he was sure of, however: This isn't MY office! Or my desk!
Perhaps it is a hallucination. There's only one way to find out.
"Maria!" he yelled out. An instant later he grimaced as he reflexively raised a hand to his aching temples. Resolutely, he gritted his teeth and tried again.
"Maria!" he called again. Instead of his housekeeper there was only silence.
Damn her! She's never around when you need her! He slowly shook his befuddled head.
I must be hallucinating, he judged. A vision that I'm getting too old to drink. Still, the idea that the large-faced housekeeper wouldn't answer bothered him. He pushed the thought away.
If it wasn't for my wife I would have replaced her long ago. She has a soft spot for the woman. Why, I don't know. We really need a decent German maid. Or even a German-Argentine. Someone reliable who could fill a maid's uniform the right way. He unconsciously licked his lips at the delightful thought before he pushed away from the desk to stand under his own power. After a moment he slowly stumbled over to the plain looking window. A shaft of sunlight blinded him, causing him to narrow his eyes in response before he shielded them with his left hand. After a moment his large right hand found the catch to the window. Triumphantly, he pushed the glass frames outward.
Oh, how I'm going to-
Burkhalter's thoughts faded away as his shocked eyes took in the scene before him. The courtyard of his villa – with its prize circle of flowers maintained by Andros, his gardener – was nowhere in sight. Instead, a set of dreary wooden structures sat forlornly in the middle of a dirty compound. Behind the drab buildings were guard towers interspersed with fence and barbed wire. He recognized the tableau instantly.
This is a prison camp! A shock of fear coursed through his overweight body as the earlier fear returned. Why am I under arrest? When would I have...wait-
Albert focused his suddenly sober eyes on the distant guard towers. There's no one in them! Likewise the camp – if it truly was a real one - was deserted. He furrowed his brow in quick thought. A slight breeze, chilly but not overly so, touched his cheeks as he pondered the situation.
Obviously I'm not under arrest. So what does that leave? He peered around the vacant grounds.
Someone must be playing a joke on me, he finally decided. Obviously I passed out. They then brought me to this place...wherever we are. He looked out the window again and took a deep breath. Even the air is...different. Colder.
A mystery, then.
Perhaps this is some sort of movie set, he thought, trying to sort the puzzle out in his mind. Someone knew I was in charge of Luftwaffe prison camps - it's not like that was a secret - and decided to have some fun at my expense. But who would have done it? The last thing I remember was being at a party, and then...
Burkhalter frowned as he tried to recall the elusive memory. I remember something about a woman...she was laughing and...
The former Wehrmacht General slammed a meaty hand against the nearby window frame even as a bitter hiss of frustration escaped his large lips. Annoyed, he turned away and immediately caught sight of the phone on the desk. A slow, almost evil, grin appeared on his lips as he walked over and lifted the handset.
Someone will pay for this!
Moments later a grimace of anger crossed his fat jowls before he quickly jiggled the connection with his left hand. The phone was dead. For a brief moment he considered smashing the bakelite piece against the desk before he finally, if reluctantly, laid it back in its metal cradle with a noisy thunk.
Right now it doesn't matter, he decided, trying to keep his temper under control. This must be some kind of movie set. Obviously, someone is playing a joke on me. And when I catch them...
A smile of revenge appeared on Albert's face moments before he turned and walked out of the office. As he passed through the door his eyes caught sight of a stack of forms on the desk in the outer room. Curious, he paused and carefully picked off one of the papers from atop the neat pile before scanning the contents. It turned out to be a requisition form for various supplies.
Despite his mounting anger the ex-General couldn't help but be impressed. His earlier supposition about a movie set seemed to be correct. The Argentines were efficient in their own way but he seriously doubted they would go to this extent to fool anyone.
Whoever designed this camp has an eye for detail. Do they do that in movies? For the...what do they call it?...atmosphere? To make things more believable? They must, he finally decided. He looked around the dingy outer office. I will have to congratulate whoever designed this set! If I didn't know better I would swear I was in one of our old prisoner of war camps! He tried the phone. To his less than great surprise the handset was as silent as a tomb. Unlike before, he shrugged it off.
This is a joke. All a joke, he reassured himself. An incredibly detailed prank. The designer will have to be complimented.
That is, of course, after I give him a piece of my mind!
Or more preferably shot!
With that pleasant thought Burkhalter strode firmly out of the building and into the bright sunshine. He winced in pain as the white light attacked his still bleary eyes in full force. With a muttered curse he slowly brought the outside world into focus before he stumbled down the steps of the gray porch.
The camp itself looked like many of the prison camps he had visited during the course of his Army career: dull, dirty and dreary. The signs that hung in an orderly row on the nearest rough wooden barrack certainly seemed authentic enough to the last German detail. He swung his large body around towards the office. Another white sign with red lettering - KOMMANDANTUR - hung on the front of the building. His now-alert orbs scanned the area once more. Oddly, no one was in sight.
If this is a movie set then where is everyone? Surely someone would be around for the punchline! Suddenly, another thought occurred to him:
Perhaps this is one of those odd television shows! he cheerfully mused. An Argentine version of Candid Camera! He looked around the deserted compound once more.
If it is, there's only one way to find out!
Despite his bulk, he quickly walked over to the nearby barracks and flung the thin door open before stepping inside. To his dismay, however, the building was empty. Rows of empty bunks lined the inside walls of the simple building. An empty wooden table, its pockmarked surface burned by cigarette butts, sat forlornly in the middle of the dreary floor. A door leading to another room - Albert, for some reason, couldn't help but think of that space as belonging to Hogan, damn him wherever he was - tempted his eyes. Scrowling, he quickly waddled over to the nearby quarters and peered inside. Like its larger counterpart it was deserted.
With a growl, he tore out of the barracks and back into the sunlit compound. As he did so his senses finally registered another belated detail.
The camp was quiet.
More than that, there was seemingly no life at all. No chirping birds or creaking insects could be heard anywhere. Disturbed, Albert walked over to the camp gates. Try as he might he could neither hear or see any life beyond the wire. Even the very air itself was eerily still. Strangely, the setup reminded him of a ship in a bottle. A detailed model cut off from the reality of life.
Nonsense! His eyes then glanced upward at the blue sky. The puffy white clouds - and they're moving! - were somewhat comforting to his tormented brain.
This has to be a joke, he resolutely told himself once more. Has to be...
The German grabbed one of the large front gates and pulled it towards him. To his surprise the wire and wood frame failed to budge. He stared at the panel, puzzled at the obvious lack of anything holding it together.
Where's the lock? Chain? Nothing was in sight.
Puzzled, he pulled on the second panel with the same result. In frustration, he rattled the gates back and forth.
Perhaps the hinges are frozen somehow? Even that made no sense. The gates went back and forth slightly before stopping. There was just nothing preventing them from opening.
At least, he corrected, nothing visible he could see. Gritting his teeth, he gave the errant panels a hard kick. A irritated growl escaped his throat when he eyed a gouge in the tip of his expensive leather footwear.
Someone is going to pay for that!
In desperation, he strode over to the small wire door situated to the right of the main gate and tried to open it to no avail. Albert's frustrated eyes could see no bolts or other hardware locking the gate in place. It was as if the entrance was held in place by its own will. At that moment his short temper boiled over.
"What is this?!" he screamed, narrowing his eyes at the distant tree line before twisting his obese body around to face the camp. "Who is doing this? Show yourself!" he bellowed, his fat jowls flushed red with anger. Dust, kicked up by his feet, hung in the cold air for a brief moment even as their creator strode forward. "Who is doing this?!"
"That, I believe, would be me," a new voice interjected. Burkhalter whirled around to see a tall man standing by the unmovable gates. He blinked his eyes, stunned.
Where did he come from?
"Who are you?" he curtly demanded.
The stranger merely smiled. "You may call me Jack," he replied in a cultured English voice. "As to where we are...well..." The man's eyes glanced at the nearby buildings. "One of my creations, actually," he replied. "Do you like it?"
"I would if I hadn't been kidnapped!" the ex-General flared even as his eyes studied the visitor. To his surprise he quickly noted that the Englishman - and he has to be English!; anyone with that accent was, to his ear, supremely arrogant - wore an elegantly tailored suit that would find few equals in Argentina. Or, he reflected further, in Europe itself. With that cultured observation he lowered his irritated tone several notches. "Why have you brought me here?" he accused, keeping his buried growl from leaping outward in attack.
"No one kidnapped you, General Burkhalter," Jack replied, his calm tone needling its way underneath the German's skin. "In a sense, this is a way station. A transit point if you will." He waved a hand at the camp. "Modeled after a German prisoner of war camp. Stalag Thirteen, to be precise."
An image of Colonel - no, General, he bitterly corrected - Hogan flashed through his annoyed mind as he also recalled the humiliating details of the Allied operation. To think that we were standing on it the whole time! He pushed the sour memory away and concentrated on the here and now. At that moment another observation occurred to him.
How did he know who I was?
"A prisoner of war camp, you say?" Burkhalter said, keeping his voice innocently level. "I wouldn't know such things." He straightened his shoulders. "I am Hans Gruner," he continued, looking the Englishman in the eye. "I don't know who this 'General Burkhalter' is, but I am not him."
"General Albert Francis Burkhalter," Jack intoned in a bored voice. "Born June 17th, 1892. A distinguished career in the Wehrmacht. Among your other duties you were responsible for prisoner of war camp administration. Which, of course, brings us to our main topic."
"Nonsense!" Burkhalter's voice boomed. "I am Hans Gruner," he repeated. "Whoever this 'General Burkhalter' is, it is not me! You are mistaken."
"Come now, General," the other man's voice replied. "Let us be candid. You are General Burkhalter complete to your dueling scar. Or should I say your supposed dueling scar," A knowing, if not annoying, smile appeared on Jack's face. "Of course, during your boastful retellings I'm sure you never mentioned that it was the ring of a wronged woman that left that mark on your cheek."
Burkhalter blinked, yet kept his face impassive at the truth. "So you say," he sneered. "I received it during the first war. A souvenir."
"Truthful, if only in statement," Jack observed. "And do you apply the same ideal to other circumstances? Your relationship with Erika Scholl, for instance."
"What are you talking about?" Burkhalter yelled, though he already knew the answer. "I already told you: my name is Hans Gruner! I reside in Buenos Aires province!" He wagged a meaty finger in the direction of the stranger. "I don't know what your game is but I want a car here to take me home! At once!"
The Englishman was unimpressed by the demand.
"Her last thought," he continued wonderingly, "was as to why. Why? A singular, if not definitive, question." Jack cocked his head as if thinking. "She loved you without reservation. And yet, you murdered her. All to serve a country rather than honor the woman you claimed to cherish." He paused. "Was it worth it?"
"I don't know who or what you're talking about!" the German repeated, a light sheen of sweat suddenly appearing on his brow. He ruthlessly suppressed the emotions that bubbled beneath his chest as long-buried memories swam to the surface. "I'm Hans-"
"Enough of that!" the visitor sharply interrupted. Burkhalter almost took a step back as the man's tone almost chilled the surrounding air. "She came to you," Jack went on, his voice resuming its smooth delivery. "Told you that she was with child. Your child, as a matter of fact. And then you disposed of her."
A dry chuckle escaped the tall stranger's throat. "It always changes, doesn't it?" he asked rhetorically. "First it was to kill. Then to murder. Now they call it disposal. A different terminology but in the end all the same." He shook his head in disgust before returning his attention to the overweight man before him.
"Her death, as you well remember, was termed a tragic accident," he continued, looking into the General's eyes. "Everyone believed that, didn't they? She drowned before her life's purpose was realized." He paused for a moment. "Even to the end she still loved you," the man murmured quietly, his words as clear as ice to Burkhalter's ears. The last statement was enough to bring the latter's anger back to full force.
"I've had enough of this!" he screamed. "I'm not listening to any more of this nonsense! I'm leaving!" Burkhalter walked forward, purposefully bumping the other man's shoulder with his own-
-and felt an intense wave of coldness embrace his soul as terrifying images shook his mind. For a long instant he felt himself literally choking for breath as a steel vise gripped his throat. A brief glimpse of a young man's face flashed within his limited view moments before the world blurred around his eyes. Water, cold and terrifying, washed into his struggling lungs-
-and then, the vision - or whatever it was - was gone. Albert reflexively gasped for air before his now-trembling legs gave way beneath his corpulent body. He lay against the ground for a moment before his shaking limbs responded to the command to rise.
"Take my hand," the stranger's quiet voice offered. Without thinking, Burkhalter reached up and grasped the offered appendage. Belatedly he realized the grip pulling him upward was dry and bony; he looked up-
-and recoiled in horror. Instead of an elegant Englishman, a figure in a heavy black robe greeted his eyes. The curved blade of a scythe, its post held by a skeletal hand, hovered over his shaking body even as the dark orbs of a white skull stared balefully into his own-
-and then the terrifying specter was gone. The stranger, his face impassive, looked on as the former general unsteadily rose to his feet. Burkhalter, his eyes now shrouded in fear, warily eyed the figure before him.
"You're...you're Death," the words tumbled out before he could stop them. The figure merely shrugged.
"But of course," his bored voice replied before a dry smile tugged at his thin lips. "However, you may call me by my given name...Jack."
"You can't be..." Burkhalter said, shaking his head even as he backed away, all traces of his former bluster gone. "You can't be...Death. That's impossible!"
"Once upon a time, I did have a life," the figure said thoughtfully if not a bit sadly. "And then I became Death in a long line of Death. To be honest I prefer my birth name. Introducing oneself as Death at dinner parties does tend to dry up the conversation." He smiled at his own joke.
"But..." Albert began, frowning in confusion. Jack held up his hand to cut him off before he looked at the camp once more.
"As I said, this is one of my creations," he continued, waving grandly as if nothing had happened. "I found the original camp to be most interesting."
Burkhalter snorted, but said nothing. Jack raised an eyebrow.
"It is the truth, and only so," he confirmed. "In the course of my work I have traveled to places that may have seemed far more engaging. Palaces, grand hotels, the literal corridors of power...and yet, oddly enough, this facility was the most fascinating of them all."
"It was a prison camp," the General interjected, abandoning all pretense even as he tried to regain control. "If it hadn't been for Hogan and his gang of criminals..." he said, amost spitting out the last word, "...it would have been nothing more than a run of the mill camp."
And damn Hogan, Burkhalter inwardly seethed. I should have known Klink's no escape record was too good to be true!
He was playing us all along!
"Be it as it may, what was, was," Death countered. "Stalag 13 was a nexus of many points...and one man's criminal is another man's hero. It may interest you to know, General, that Mr. Hogan and his men went on to lead productive lives."
"That doesn't excuse what they did!" Burkhalter replied, unrepentant despite the bizarre surroundings. "They should have been shot!"
"For doing their duty?" Jack asked. "After all you were the one who put Mr. Hogan in the camp? Some of the blame should rest on your shoulders as well."
The accused opened his mouth to speak before reconsidering the statement.
Yes, that's true, he reluctantly allowed if only to himself. Still, he ruined my life. If I knew what Hogan was going to do I would have had him shot. Or shot 'while trying to escape.' He returned to his life while I fled mine, becoming a General while I became...what?
A man on the run?
A man without a country?
Hiding from those who would like nothing better than to see us dead? The Jews have their own country now. It won't be long before they track down some of my more unsavory...colleagues...down to put them on trial. He shuddered involuntarily.
At least I had nothing to do with that! he thought, images of the death camps flitting through his mind.
Still, if I was honest with myself the final outcome would have been the same. Hogan, for all of his talent, didn't win the war by himself. The Allies did that. And I should have known better to put him under Klink, he thought ruefully for the thousandth time. I should have known...
"Why am I here?" he finally asked. The rational part of his mind refused to accept that Death was standing in front of him. There had to be a simple - and logical - explanation.
I had a seizure. That's all. A hallucination. Under stress, your brain can trick you. It's a documented scientific fact.
Even so...I've never had a dream as real as this, Albert candidly admitted. Let's assume this is real. If so, then how did he know about Erika? How did I get here?
No one knew about her. Ergo, this is a nightmare. A highly detailed one but still a nightmare.
Jack glanced at the silent camp for a long moment before he leveled an impassive gaze on his charge. Something in the cold brown eyes sent a chill crawling across Albert's skin.
"Because you have been judged and found wanting," the other man calmly informed him. "To answer for your sins, much as your brother-at-arms faced his fate."
Burkhalter stared at Jack for a moment...then began to laugh. First it was a chuckle, then he laughed so hard his sides hurt. "You are good," he said, wagging his finger at the man claiming to be Death. "Who put you up to this? Gerhard? Muller?" he choked out between guffaws. "This is a very good joke."
The laughter suddenly died away as Jack stepped forward. Burkhalter flinched backward as the hand extended in his direction once more.
"Really, General," he sighed. "It's only a hand." Despite his better judgement, Burkhalter took the appendage...
...and his jaw fell open in stunned astonishment as the open compound reformed into a large room filled with finely dressed people. Most were standing and talking amongst themselves although a few were standing impassively without any noticeable function. With a small tug Jack led Burkhalter through the crowd. Suddenly he gasped, stunned, as his guide walked through, rather than around, the people in their path. A woman suddenly stepped into his way. Before he could react, his shocked form passed through hers as if she were a ghost-
-and for an briefest instant of time he was her. Briefly, s/he could literally feel her annoyance of being with the husband she detested instead of in the arms of the man she loved-
-before he was out and shaking his head, befuddled at the strange experience. Despite his bulk he gingerly stepped around the remaining obstacles in his path before Jack stopped.
"The end of what was," he said, pointing. Burkhalter, for his part, failed to see the hand. Instead his eyes were fixed on the wooden coffin laying on a bier at the front of the room. A peaceful face, just barely visible, lay within the luxuriously padded interior. As he slowly drew closer to the container he recognized the body for who it was.
"Embalming, as an art form, can be quite impressive in its own right when done properly," Jack's dry voice intruded. "Once upon a time the dead were buried with all due haste. Then the process to preserve the dead came into vogue. I've been told that a team of professionals as such kept Abraham Lincoln, the assassinated American President, presentable during his train journey through the United States." He peered closely at the body. "The makeup seems particularly lifelike, doesn't it?" he kindly offered. "A splendid job, if I may say so."
"No..." Albert's voice finally choked out. "I can't...I can't be dead." He thumped his flabby chest. "This can't be real. I'm alive!" He slapped his hands together several times. Although the sharp sound echoed around the room no one noticed.
"Your pulse says otherwise," his companion retorted.
Burkhalter grabbed his left wrist. To his horror, his expectant fingers found no sign of a pulse. Moreover, he couldn't even feel the beating of his heart. He tore open his shirt and put a hand on his cold skin. Except for his breathing it was still.
"No!" he screamed, unwilling to believe the evidence. "I'm alive!" At that moment he recognized one of the nearby mourners. With a start, he leaped from his spot and raced over to his wife. "Monica!" he yelled. "It's me! Albert-"
His voice trailed off in horror as his wife's body sailed through his before continuing onward toward the coffin. For a brief moment he could feel her thoughts. Sadness, mixed with satisfaction, occupied her mind. With a start he realized the truth: she was happy he was dead.
The small smile that occupied her face as she looked down on her former husband only served to confirm the truth. Burkhalter watched helplessly as she finally broke away before walking towards another group of mourners.
"It's not fair..." he mumbled, stunned at it all. "Not fair." Jack nodded.
"Were it any consolation, the cerebral aneurysm that claimed your soul was relatively instantaneous. More so than most, perhaps."
Even as he spoke Albert reflexively raised his hand to his head and remembered his earlier headache. Jack noticed his discomfiture and smiled.
"I do believe we're done here," he noted. With that, he raised his hand ...
...and the German blinked as bright sunlight filled his vision. The coffin was now suspended over a grave. He watched the service conclude before the container was lowered into the ground...
...and then they were back in the prison compound. Albert shook his numbed head, stunned at what he had just witnessed.
"The truth is never pleasant," Jack said quietly. "Yes, life is not fair. But then neither is death." The compound was quiet for a moment before the former General's voice broke the silence.
"So where do I go from here?" he asked quietly. "Now that I'm...dead?" He struggled to say the last word. Death merely gave him a impassive glance.
"Judgement awaits," he said. "As it did for your fellow countryman. Would you like to see?"
The target of his question merely stared at him woodenly for a long moment, confused, before he slowly nodded in reply. Jack led the way over to the nearby barracks and opened the door...
...and into another world.
The dismal interior was gone. In its place was a neat - if sparsely furnished - office that looked no different from the government ones he had once known. A group of men in U.S. Army uniforms were clustered around a large radio that sat on a nearby table. A high-pitched, almost maniacal, German voice oozed sinister words through the cloth speaker. Curious, Burkhalter stepped closer...
...and was almost overcome by a wave of pure hate that seemed to tear a cold pathway through his consciousness. Dumbfounded, Albert watched another man, this one in dark civilian dress, pace restlessly around the room. The stranger took no notice of their arrival. Instead he continued his relentless march while casting murderous looks at the Army personnel.
"Major Hochstetter," he suddenly blurted, remembering a world long since gone. "He was killed. Some kind of accident, I think." He then frowned. "What is he doing here?"
"A Judgement," Jack's voice softly said. "And my mistake." Burkhalter looked at him questioningly.
"Immortality is a double-edged sword," he said mysteriously. "I had forgotten how humans deal with time; how they deal with things..." He sighed as a dour, almost regretful, look settled over his placid features. "In my arrogance I thought I was creating justice. Instead, the deaths he will cause weigh heavily on my conscience. A mistake I will never make again."
Albert gave him a incredulous look. "You can't kill someone if you're dead!"
"There are ways," the tall man replied. "With enough power - with enough time - a mind without a body can do anything." He waved absently at the still-pacing figure. "Although he is unable to vocalize his hate to others he is certainly able to think of it. In time he will learn to move beyond his limitations. And when he learns, others will die."
"I don't understand," his guest candidly admitted, confused by the contradiction. Jack shook his head.
"Not for you to reason," he said dismissively, his voice growing firmer as he met the other man's eyes. "As I said, a mistake that will not be repeated."
Meanwhile, the sound of the radio built up to a tornadic shriek of unintelligible evil that seemed to coat the room in a heavy palpable air. With a final narrowed glare towards the Army men Hochstetter walked through the nearby wall and vanished. At that moment the bakelite box plunged into a quiet staticky silence that echoed against the green walls. After a long moment one of the men, his fingers imperceptibly trembling, turned off the radio. The sharp snapping sound of the power switch being thrown was the only noise to be heard as the men gave either other bewildered looks.
To their horror, the radio suddenly returned to life. The dial, turning on its own past multiple stations, was enough to break the remaining shreds of resolve in the audience moments before the hateful voice began its nonsensical rant once more. The looks of fear that foreshadowed their less-than-orderly exit caused Death no end of dark amusement.
"I suppose," Jack began, his voice suddenly bright, "the radio programme was less than entertaining." He shifted eyes to Burkhalter, who suddenly seemed to wilt underneath the man's intense gaze. "However, we must return to the main topic."
"And that is...?" the General asked.
"...one that should be obvious." Jack nebulously finished. He raised his hand...
...and suddenly, they were standing in the spartan Kommandant's office. Burkhalter looked around, startled at the change of venue. A slight grin tugged at the lips of the placid Englishman's handsome features.
"Forgive me," he sighed. "A mere parlor trick. No one seems to find it amusing."
"Why are we here?" Burkhalter demanded.
"Your Judgement, of course," Jack replied. "To atone for your crimes."
The German stared at him with disbelieving eyes. "Who are you to judge me?" he testily replied, letting his anger flow. "Who gave you the right?"
Death shrugged his shoulders. "In a way, you did," he answered. Albert glared at him incredulously.
"No one judges me," he finally blurted. "Least of all you. Only God does that."
To his surprise the other man nodded. "To a degree, that is true," he admitted. "You might be interested to know that the myth of an all-powerful Death to be just that...a myth. Instead, I merely correct the inevitable mistakes. Nothing, not even the afterlife, is immune from error." He raised a hand before Albert could interject.
"All those who are judged either absolve or condemn themselves by their own actions," he explained. "Simply put, each person's life is but an open book. Some tomes lack the basic precepts of humanity while others are voluminous with honor. The records are open to all who can see them." His cold eyes touched Burkhalter's for a moment making the other man shiver. "Including yours," he added. He waved his hand...
...and two sets of papers suddenly appeared on the empty desk. Jack watched impassively as the General, his curiosity aroused, walked over to the flat surface before picking up one of the documents for study. Suddenly, as if burned, he dropped the paper back to the desk where it landed with a quiet slap. His sharp gaze flicked over to his host.
"What is this!?" he yelled, rounding on the other man. "If this is all you have then I demand to see your superiors!"
"Unfortunately my task is but a solitary one," Jack replied, his cultured voice tinged with humor. "In a way I am cursed as my own employer in a never ending cycle." His eyes mirthfully glanced at the innocent looking papers on the nearby desk. "They say that the pen is mightier than the sword," he mused. "All things considered, the sword might have been better for you. Damnation by ink is so impersonal, of course."
"I was ordered to sign those!" Burkhalter spat, pointing a fat finger at the offending pages. "If I hadn't done so-"
"-others would obviously have!" Death said, his now-hard voice firmly cutting him off. "And yet, responsibility should have been your watchword from the beginning! You could have refused your distasteful duty but instead chose not to."
"I would have been shot!" the unrepentant General fired back. "The Führer ordered their executions! What was I to do?" He slammed a hand on the desk in frustration. "He was the one responsible for...that!" he spat, pointing to the offending pages. "Where does it say that I should sacrifice my life?" he argued. "Especially when my successor would have signed in my place!"
"Be that as it may, it serves nothing to remove the truth," Jack countered. He walked over to the desk and glanced down at the blotter. "An order condemning 50 Allied airmen to certain death at the hands of the Gestapo," he said quietly before his eyes flicked over to the next sheet. "A directive - specifically, a Kugel Erlass action - where forty-seven of their comrades at arms were worked to their demise at Mauthausen." His gaze flicked upward to meet those of his charge. "There are others but these two are enough."
"This is outrageous!" General Burkhalter yelled, spittle flying from his thick lips. "I've had enough of this!" With that, he walked towards the door and attempted in vain to open it. For his part Jack merely chuckled.
"I'm afraid it's much too late for that, General," he said, shaking his head. "At any rate I do believe your victims would like to have a word with you."
"My victims!" the German roared, turning around. "I..."
At that moment his angry retort trailed off as his eyes caught sight of something through the glass. Slowly, woodenly, he walked toward the window and looked outside...
...and paled visibly at the sight of a courtyard filled with Allied airmen. Eyes, burning with hatred, drilled into Albert's fearful orbs even as he staggered back from the clear panel.
"No..." he muttered, a tremor of terror cracking his voice even as he shook his head in disbelief. "No..."
Jack, for his part, merely gazed at the distant crowd in amusement. "I do believe they want to make your acquaintance," he dryly noted.
At that very moment the sea of men surged forward toward the Kommandantur. The cascade of booted feet slamming into the wooden planks of the porch had barely sounded their noisy peal before the human wave burst into the office. The General, his paralyzed body slow to react, suddenly screamed at the icy hands that grabbed onto his obese body before he was hoisted into the air. An overwhelming stench of rotted flesh filled the office even as the tide of death receded toward the outer door. Albert, his face chalk white, struggled vainly against the grip of his tormentors before he turned to his final hope.
"Help me!" he yelled, twisting his head to look at Jack. "Please!"
Death merely shook his head. "For you, it is too late," he intoned solemnly.
With a desperate lunge Burkhalter was able to grab the doorframe before it passed beyond his reach. Even so, the current of humanity was too strong for him to resist for long. Slowly, his thick fingers began to lose their tenuous hold on the wooden panel.
"Give it up, mate," a venomous English voice darkly hissed. "Your're ours now."
"NO!" the General screamed. "I'll do anything! Anything!" To his surprise the pressure on his body eased as the crowd suddenly paused. The German, still firmly held by his victims, momentarily sagged toward the floor before his fear-filled vision locked on the man known as Death. The specter lowered his upraised hand before letting a river of disgust cascade from his brown eyes.
"Really?" Jack said casually, his tone dark as night. "Anything?" At that moment a cold peal of laughter emanated from his throat. "Strange, is it not?" he spat, a sneer curling his lips. "How those who can send others to their deaths with but a wave of a pen can value their own petty little lives so highly at the end."
"I..." Suddenly, Burkhalter was at a loss for words. To his credit - if any - he quickly recovered his senses. "Oh, God," he wailed to the ceiling. "Help me!"
"And so it begins," Death said lamentably, if not mockingly. "The chorus of the damned singing to a ear that will never hear their pathetic cries. Still..." He pursed his lips momentarily before visibly coming to a decision. "Very well, then," he finally replied. "If you choose not to spend eternity with these fine gentlemen..." he waved his hand at the crowd "...I will send you elsewhere."
"To hell?" the German whispered, his shaking voice barely able to say the words. Jack cocked his head.
"Only if you believe it is," he nebulously replied. Even as the Reaper finished, Burkhalter felt the deathly surge resume in full force. For a brief moment his shaking fingers held fast before they finally slipped from their wooden moorings. The wave, free now, carried Albert from the office and into the courtyard moments before he was unceremoniously dumped onto the compound with a loud thumpf.
The dust had barely risen from the cold ground before a loop of thin wire quickly descended past his stunned eyes. Before he could react another set of unseen hands forced the German to his feet. He shook away his 'helpers' and stood defiantly against his tormentors.
"You brought this on yourself!" he screamed, spearing the silent men with a fierce glare. "You had to escape! If you had just stayed where you were-"
The rest of the sharp comment was cut off as an unseen hand pulled the wire taut to lift General Burkhalter off the ground. In desperation his hands clawed at the vise around his neck while his now-useless feet kicked at the nothingness beneath them. The small shard of rational thought that remained looked beyond his slowly blackening vision to see the airmen holding hammers, picks and knives in their mottled hands. A young airman, his grinning skull bare save for wisps of black hair and strips of putrefying flesh, raised his weapon to strike-
And at that instant the choice became no choice at all.
"I'll...do it!" Burkhalter gurgled, barely able to whisper the words past his tortured throat. "God...I'll-"
Without warning, the air in his lungs disappeared as his large body slammed into the ground. Terrified, he opened his eyes to face his attackers and saw-
He was alone in the office once more. Death, not to mention the airmen themselves, was gone. Slowly, if hesitantly, he raised his ponderous body to an upright position.
Maybe it was a dream, Burkhalter decided. As if on command the phrase 'clutching at straws' entered his rational mind. He shook the errant thought away and damned Americans and their nonsensical sayings before he pulled himself to unsteady feet. Albert, his knees slightly shaking, stared at the nearby window in sudden fear even as he touched the unblemished skin of his neck.
There was no wire, he told himself. Yet he remembered the utter pain as the thin loop sliced into his neck to choke his life into oblivion. Dimly, he recalled the movies shown of the conspirators who tried to assassinate the Fuhrer. Some of them had been strung up the same exact way. It had taken them ages to die...
I can't be dead.
With effort, he pushed his fear down and walked towards the side window. To his great relief the crowd from earlier was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the late afternoon sunlight highlighted several individuals standing next to one of the snow-topped barracks. Although their backs were to him the flying clothes were recognizably familiar.
This time, he noted, the guard tower at the far corner of the wire was manned with figures in blue uniforms. He opened the window just in time to see a glimpse of two blue overcoats disappearing from view around the right side of the Kommandantur. The crunch of boots against frozen snow was clearly audible to his ears. The whole tableau almost looked like...
...a prison camp.
And in an instant the reality of his new reality crashed down upon him.
Is this hell? he wondered. Reflexively he looked for the dancing flames of perdition and was surprised to see only sunlight filling his vision.
Purgatory? Or something else?
Burkhalter left the questions unanswered as he turned away from the window. As he did so his eyes caught sight of a Luftwaffe tunic hanging on a coat rack by the door. The collar tabs identified the wearer as a Luftwaffe Colonel. He fingered the material for a long moment.
A prison camp Kommandant, Albert thought idly. A dark chuckle escaped his throat as he finally realized his punishment. It would make sense, wouldn't it? he asked himself. Damned for damning prisoners, and damned to command them.
I suppose Jack was right: this could be hell if I wanted it to be. Things could be worse. A shudder ran through his body as his mind visibly imagined all the things those airmen could have done to him.
No, this is much better, he finally decided. He released the jacket, turned, and walked toward the desk.
Still, I wonder...
At that moment his right foot caught on something. For the second time in one day he crashed into the floor. Burkhalter almost laughed at his own clumsiness.
It's not as if I can die again!
The last thought caused him to giggle uncontrollably before he was interrupted by a knock at the door. The German looked up, surprised.
"Herr Kommandant," a female voice called in concern "are you all right?" The new Kommandant shook his head before his eyes lit up.
Perhaps hell does have some benefits after all! He cleared his throat.
"I fell," he called out, keeping his voice level. "If you could give me a hand..."
The door quickly opened and a pair of feet in polished high heels quickly walked into the room. For a long moment Albert's eyes slowly drank in the sight of the woman's gorgeous legs before him. The owner of the appendages seemed to pay no notice; instead she quickly moved over to his prostrate body.
"Are you all right, Kommandant?" her worried voice asked. A small lecherous grin, hidden from view, appeared on the former General's face.
You'll make me feel better later, my dear. Oh, you can count on that!
"I'm all right," he said, keeping his voice level even as he raised his right hand. "If you could help me up..."
As he strugged to his feet Burkhalter took advantage of the opportunity to examine his helper. Her lower body, framed by a tasteful dress, continued to inflame his mind even as his eyes slowly traveled upward. For a long moment he let his gaze openly linger on her perfect breasts before he completed the journey upward...
Instead of the feminine beauty he expected the face of Wilhelm Klink - complete with monocle - stared back at him. A sharp pain lanced through the former General's rear end as he staggered back into a corner of the nearby desk. It wasn't enough, however, to keep him from seeing the look of concern on the abomination's face.
"Are you all right, Kommandant?" she/he asked once more in a woman's pleasant voice. There was a deep concern in the thing's eyes that made Albert want to throw up.
"NO!" the German blurted, blinking his eyes rapidly. To his horror the nauseating image failed to go away. "Who are you?" he demanded. "What are you?"
"I'm Hilda, Kommandant," Klink's worried face said in a sweet feminine tone. "Would you like me to summon the doctor?"
"This can't be happening," the new Kommandant mumured, worried he was losing his mind. He turned away from the freakish figure and ran his hand through his thinning hair. Just then the door opened and a set of footsteps - obviously, a man's - entered the room.
"Kommandant, I want to protest!" a horribly recognizable voice declared. Shocked, Burkhalter turned around...
...and saw another Klink clone standing nearby.
A man with Robert Hogan's body, his arrogant look, his cocky voice...and Wilhelm Klink's face. For several terrifying seconds Burkhalter's heart froze.
Oh, God, no...
"You didn't tell me you won the contest, sir," Hogan/Klink said smoothly before giving him a cheeky - the General would have said insolent - grin. "Congratulations!"
"W-What contest?!" Burkhalter stuttered, his mind still stunned at the turn of events.
"The most eligible bachelor award," the Senior POW replied, his tone cheerful. "Honestly, I don't know how you do it!" He leaned in conspiratorially. "What's your secret, sir?" he stage whispered.
Hogan and his games! Albert finally thought, feeling his temper - and his control - finally flare up against the nightmare before him. I'll put a stop to this! Just then the sound of a door slamming and heavy footfalls announced another visitor. This time Burkhalter didn't have to guess who it was.
"Herr...Herr Kommandant," Schultz/Klink said, his portly body gasping for breath. The Kommandant noted with satisfaction that the monocle on this Klink's face had fallen out of its perch to dangle on the end of a short cord. "Herr Kommandant," Schultz's voice said. "I beg to report..."
"Beg to report what, Klink?" Burkhalter snapped, cutting him off. The Sergeant of the Guard looked at him in confusion.
"But I'm Schultz, Herr Kommandant!" he protested.
The camp Kommandant waved his hand dismissively. "Whatever," he declared as his normal personality slowly reasserted itself. "Now then," he growled, spearing the sergeant with a beady glare, "what did you want to say?"
"I believe he wanted to announce my arrival," a new voice arrogantly declared. A man wearing a Luftwaffe General's uniform strutted into the room past Schultz/Klink and pointedly fixed his narrow eyes onto the new Kommandant. Burkhalter never felt his jaw drop. Instead he just stared at the impossible sight before him.
It can't be...
General Wilhelm Klink gave Burkhalter a condescending look before slapping one end of the riding crop he carried into his free hand. "So, Burkhalter," he snapped, his voice full of disgust, "there were no sentries at the front gates! My driver had to get out and knock on the gates to let that fat Sergeant of yours know we were here! What do you have to say about that?"
Burkhalter dropped his eyes to the golden General tabs on Klink's collar. At that moment his rational mind, tortured by degrees, finally snapped. A high-pitched maniacal giggle escaped his throat as he wildly looked into the many faces of Klink. The sound had barely echoed against the green walls before he quickly turned toward the desk. Large hands quickly opened the wooden drawers and slammed their way through the contents until he found what he was looking for. With a triumphant cry he held the object up before looking at the now-silent crowd.
The sound of Albert's crazed laughter continued to fill the air even as he placed the cold pistol muzzle to his right temple and pulled the trigger.
Albert Burkhalter groaned and struggled to open his eyes.
A nightmare, his muddled mind mumbled to itself in relief. God, it was just a nightmare... He blinked his eyes, struggling to clear his blurred vision...and froze. The outline of a familiar room slowly swam into focus.
The German slowly twisted his achy head to the left. A Luftwaffe Colonel's tunic hung on a coat rack next to the door. He then looked down at the desk and stared in disbelief at the documents laying before his eyes. The same ones as before.
It's not a dream! he realized, horrified bile rising in his throat.Oh, God!
Just then, the shrill ring of the nearby telephone broke the stillness. Burkhalter warily eyed the offending instrument for a long moment before he reached out a trembling hand to silence it. Slowly, he put the receiver to his ear.
"Hello?" he said hesitantly, hoping no one would answer. For a moment there was only a crackling silence before a man's voice - a hauntingly familiar English one - answered his query.
"You really didn't think it would be that easy?" the voice smugly asked, almost oozing false sincerity through the open line. "Did you?"
Burkhalter didn't answer. Instead he flung the heavy receiver to the desktop as if burned. A low, almost mocking sound drifted out of the earpiece and floated around the room. In horror the camp Kommandant realized that Jack was laughing.
At him. For all eternity.
"No..." the German breathed. With a swipe of his meaty hand he knocked the phone off of the desk and onto the floor. Even at that, the mirthful laughter continued to torment his ears until he could take no more.
And then, he screamed.
A/N: There are many facets of Hell. Commanding a camp full of Klinks is but one of them. Besides, Klink deserves to win...if only because so many have probably (fictionally, at least) said 'It'll be a cold day in hell before you make General!" Obviously (and someone will bring it up) the General Klink in this story was not the real Wilhelm Klink. Instead, he was a professional-standard clone provided at no charge by the Ironic Division of Hell, Incorporated. I trust that will clear up any questions.
This is a different version of Burkhalter than the one portrayed in the series. Still, it let me illustrate that we are but the sum of our actions...and all we can do is hope that the good side of our personal ledger outweighs the darker half.
Have a wonderful day!