This story was written for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge round 1, 2019; I was set the genre action/adventure, I had to work in a secret mission, and needed to feature a bank manager.
This One’s for the Village, Lads!
By Lauren McMenemy
Written January 2019
Watson, Smith and Carpenter walked evenly spread along what was once the road to Lyon, though you’d barely realise that now. The war had taken over, the mud had spread, the discarded shells and husks of vehicles littered the fields around them. Here they were safe, but they were fast approaching enemy lines. The Germans were on the retreat but hadn’t got the message to all their men; there were still pockets of resistance and a firm line beyond which you did not venture without reason. Word was one of those pockets captured Major Martin when he parachuted in, and now someone had to fetch him. Three someones.
“Why d’you suppose we have to go on this blasted mission?” whined Carpenter. At 18 and newly shipped-in he was hardly the most battle-scarred, yet he was the most vocal. Smith and Watson, on the other hand, knew the value of silence when out in open fields in the moonlight.
“Because he’s from our town, ain’t he?” hissed Watson, the most highly ranked among them. This was his secret mission – secret because it wasn’t exactly sanctioned by the top brass, just the Colonel. A raid for home-town pride, Smith and Watson hand-picked: school friends, now a shopkeeper and an accountant in peacetime, and from the Major’s village. And someone had to fetch the bastard, right? “Imagine what would happen if you left Major Cyril Martin, esteemed manager of the local branch of Midland Bank, to the mercy of retreating Germans? I wouldn’t be able to look old Maisie in the eye!”
Carpenter tripped over his feet – or maybe it was a body. “I guess,” he mumbled. “I still don’t see why I’m here though. And it’s just, the Germans have him, don’t they? And they’re not going to hand him over because we say please!”
Watson and Smith exchanged glances. This boy really was a dimwit.
“That’s why you’re armed, boy,” said Smith. “Now be quiet and keep a look out. There’s a lot of debris so we must be getting close to the line now. Stay vigilant.”
The threesome continued in silence for a few clicks until Watson, ahead of the others, held his hand up to halt them. He turned, his finger to his lips, and pointedly looked at Carpenter, who mouthed, “What?” and shrugged his shoulders. Watson pointed to Smith, then to the right, where an old barn had come into view. Smith nodded, and started to creep towards it, gun cocked and ready.
Watson grabbed Carpenter’s arm and pulled him to where a shell hole provided some cover. They watched Smith edge closer to the barn, then heard shouting as someone opened fire. Watson jumped up and ran towards his man. He found Smith taking cover behind a rusty tractor while whoever was in the barn emptied load upon load above their head.
“Status?” Watson mouthed.
“Unclear,” came the reply.
And then it was silent. Either the people in the barn had run out of ammunition, or they realised the target was gone. Watson chanced a peek over the tractor and saw a face peeking back from the barn’s door.
“Didcot! Is that you?”
Watson emerged from behind the tractor, arms in the air – though still holding his gun in his hand.
“Didcot, you fool! What are you doing in here? Camp is about 3 miles that way!” he motioned behind him.
“We got caught out, thought we’d take refuge here overnight. I didn’t realise we were so darn close, though! Gosh, that’s some folly, isn’t it?” Didcot laughed and took the hand Watson offered him. The two men hugged in that close-but-not-too-close way of Englishmen at war.
“What did they have you do that took you out here?”
“Oh, we were scouting for the next push, marking any potential issues. We found a load of Jerrys in this barn, actually. Look – there they are!”
Didcot opened the door to reveal three German soldiers, tied to the support column, gagged.
“Why on earth are they in their underwear, Didcot?”
“Oh, you can never be too careful with this lot, can you? Did you hear the 51st got caught by a bomber? He’d strapped dynamite to his chest when he saw them coming, then detonated it as they were getting him out of the van at the camp!”
“Golly. This war, hey?”
Watson looked behind him to see both Smith and Carpenter staring.
“Righto, must push on. Got a secret mission behind enemy lines, don’t you know.” He winked at his old ally.
“Cripes! Hope it’s worth it!”
The two men bade farewell. As the threesome fell back into formation, Smith asked: “What was that all about? Didn’t realise we had time for tea and a natter!”
Watson hushed him. “Got to keep these fellows in good spirit, my man. Didcot’s had quite the war already. And given those Jerrys I spied behind the barn, I think his war might be over.”
Carpenter’s mouth was agape. “And you didn’t think to warn him?!”
“Look, boy, better those Jerrys are kept busy with a well-armed group with some collateral prisoners than to be following us further up this road. Or would you rather go back…?”
Carpenter started to reply, then realised he wasn’t meant to. He fell back to formation, sullen and withdrawn. The other two men weren’t complaining about that. Smith’s head was darting left and right across the fields while Watson kept an eye on the road in front. These open fields were notorious for the odd crazy Fritz, left behind by his troop and ready to go out with a bang. You never knew what they might be hiding behind.
“We must be getting close,” Smith said. “I remember this forest from the diagram the Colonel showed us.” Then, quieter, he continued: “We better make sure we get the Major back safe, Tom. I don’t fancy what his father will do if there’s a mark on his body.”
“We’ll do what we can,” replied Watson. “But the silly bugger did parachute in behind enemy lines, so God knows what will be facing us when we get there – wait. Stop! Quick, on the ground in the field. Something’s coming.”
The threesome again threw themselves to the ground, Carpenter lamenting the state his uniform was now in. Smith glared at him; he was perfecting that look. Both the older gents shushed.
They lay still for what seemed like forever before it came into view: a Panzer rolled heavily by, its top hatch open and two Germans casually lounging on it like it was a bright August afternoon. They were chatting, playing cards by the look of it, cigarettes dangling from their mouths.
“Why aren’t we shooting at them?” asked Carpenter.
“Because, boy,” hissed Smith, “that there is a Panzer, and you don’t stand a chance against it.”
“But they’re not even paying atten–“
“But we could use it to–“
The three men waited a long time after the tank passed before relaxing. Carpenter didn’t understand why they had to wait so long, but the more seasoned knew it wasn’t wise to try to catch a Panzer. Those things were beasts.
When the full moon was almost directly above them, casting its light along the fields and playing delicately with the spent shells and body parts, Watson judged it was time to get back on the road. They were quieter now, though, more careful. The Panzer had signalled they were getting too close for comfort, and Watson intended to make it home to his wife and children. They crept along further into the field, away from the road, not speaking so they could listen for even the slightest change in atmosphere.
Even Carpenter understood what was at stake now.
Around 1am, as the Rhone emerged alongside them and the mud got harder to walk in, the men instinctively knew things had changed. It’s not like there was a sign proclaiming they’d hit the border, nor was there a checkpoint, but they were now British soldiers in German territory. Watson turned to nod at both, they nodded back in understanding, and he slid up the verge on his belly to get a closer look. From what the Colonel had said, Martin had jumped from the plane too late and ended up along the river not far from Lyon. He’d have likely taken shelter somewhere. There was an understanding, said the Colonel, that if he hadn’t made it to camp by 6pm, a secret search party would be sent to creep behind enemy lines to fetch him. Watson had wondered what would happen if he landed in the wrong place – would a search party be sent for him? He doubted it, even with his record. Maybe for Carpenter. That boy had connections; it was the only explanation for his continued presence here.
Watson chanced standing up straight, and that’s when he saw it – just by the river, in a clearing, a cottage with smoke coming from the chimney. Surely Martin wouldn’t be that crazy…? Then again, he remembered having to meet with the man to open an account and get a mortgage. He was a few shillings short, that was for sure.
Watson crept back to his companions and shared the news.
“He must be in there,” he concluded. “It’s the only thing I could see for miles, and this is the expected location. There’s the woods and the river, and the remains of the bridge they exploded back in ’40.”
“Would he really be so stupid as to light a fire, though?” asked Smith. Watson raised one mud-soaked eyebrow. “Yes, I suppose you’re right,” Smith replied. “He declined my sister’s overdraft because she was ‘too pretty to need the bank’s assistance’ and advised she go and find a new husband.”
“Seriously?” gasped Carpenter.
“Life’s different when your father owns the mill, lad,” replied Smith with another of his Carpenter-only glares.
“Why are you always so grumpy with me, chap? It’s really not necessary.”
“Are you actually standing up for yourself? You’re choosing this moment to push back? When we’re crouched in mud and surrounded by Germans?”
“Leave it out,” said Watson. “We have a mission to complete, and I would like to get out of here and back to camp as soon as bloody possible. Right?”
“Yes, sir!” Smith mock-saluted his old friend, elbowing Carpenter in the process. The boy fell backward, into a pool of muddy water, flailing as he tried to stand back up.
“I think my pack is caught on something…”
Watson motioned for Smith to deal with it as penance for his tomfoolery and turned back to the road. He could hear a ruckus behind him.
“Just – stop – moving!”
“I’m trying to get loose!”
“You’re un-doing all my untangling!”
Watson tried to ignore them, eyes only for the cottage and the smoke and the – was that light coming from the front room?
Then they all heard it.
Watson spun around, locking eyes with his companions, fear making the air thick with anticipation. Grenade. They each counted: One.
But no explosion. Carpenter breathed a sigh of relief. “It was a dud,” he smiled, and released his arms from his pack. He put his hand on the ground to push himself up from the pond when he stopped again. His hand sunk into the ground; he was trying to get a grip. He stopped gurning at his companions and looked down to where his hand was resting. A dead eye stared back up at him.
Never mind the click; the prolonged scream that came from Carpenter was enough to both make your blood curdle and enable the enemy to pinpoint your exact location. Smith punched him square in the jaw, knocking him out; Carpenter fell like a sack of potatoes, face up in the mud.
“We’ll come back for him later,” Smith said nonchalantly, standing up and pulling himself onto the road. “Now let’s get on with–“
The bullet clipped his arm. Watson dove back behind the verge and watched as Smith did similar, slightly further down. A second shot rang out, missing its mark. The sound was too deep for a rifle; Watson presumed it was an army-issue revolver, held by a single man. There were no other noises, no other guns, no other footsteps. Just the voice, ringing loud and true:
“Right, I saw you there chap so just come out and surrender and we can be done with this nonsense.”
Watson recognised that voice. It had declined his mortgage.
He slowly stood up, hands aloft, knowing Major Martin was looking for Smith.
“Major Martin, sir. We’ve been sent to fetch you.”
Martin spun on his heels, revolver still cocked. When he saw Watson, he relaxed.
“Thomas Watson? My word, what a sight you are!”
“Yes, sir, Major Martin sir. The Colonel sent us to get you – me, Smith and, um, Carpenter over there.”
Martin peered over to the pool and saw the youngster sitting up, somewhat dazed. He waved: “Hello, there, young Carpenter!”
Carpenter waved back, grinning.
Watson cleared his throat. “Major, sir, you shot Ellis Smith in the arm. We best get him some medical attention.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Right this way. I’ve got the fire going!”
The threesome traipsed behind the target of their secret mission, somewhat confused as to what was going on. Major Martin wasn’t taking defensive manoeuvres. He was just walking along in the open, like there wasn’t a war going on around him – and on a clear night, too!
“Sir,” Watson ventured. “I was told you landed behind enemy lines–“
“Pish posh! Who told you that? Was it that prankster Davis? Oh, he is a lark. No, no, lads. We captured this territory weeks ago. Come now, come in by the fire and get cleaned up. The medic can take a look at Smith’s arm.”
They shuffled in the door, exhausted from their mission and totally baffled. The first face they saw was the Colonel’s.
“Ah, boys, there you are. Tell me, how was it?”
“How was what, sir?” Smith asked.
“The mission, of course!”
“I’m not sure what to say, sir. We found Major Martin, yes, but it turns out he was with you the whole time?”
“Oh yes, yes. I found that out not long after you boys set off and headed straight over! Thought it best to let you get on with it, though. Young Albert here could do with a few stories.” The Colonel tousled Carpenter’s hair, then put his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “Looks like you’ve had a bit of an adventure!”
“Daaaaad,” Carpenter said. “Stop embarrassing me in front of the men!”
“Right you are, son. Now, lads, who needs a cuppa?”
Smith’s glare could’ve stopped several Panzers dead. Watson passed out, but the last thing he saw was his friend lunging for the son of a Colonel.