July 20, 1918
Even before his superior officer laid a hand on his shoulder, Sergeant Grant Halverson’s eyes flew open.
“It’s time, Grant,” Major Michael Malone whispered.
“Yes, sir,” he whispered back and sat up quickly.
It was almost midnight. The air in the wooden hut was stifling, the confines cramped with the bodies of his fellow soldiers, all members of the United States Army’s prized intelligence unit called the Secret Seven. Their capture was a victory for the Germans who had promptly thrown them into one of the most horrific prisoner-of-war camps of the World War.
The major’s body, thin and starved like his own, was just a black shape in front of him, but Grant could feel his tension. Captain Drew Hammond crouched beside the hut’s opening, keeping watch for any one of a slew of Kraut guards who could wander over and guess their intent.
“If anything goes wrong, you’re in charge,” the major whispered.
“Nothing will go wrong,” Grant said firmly.
“You and the captain’ll be back in no time, Major.” Whispering, too, Jarrett LaCroix raised himself up on one bony elbow.
Major Malone held a finger to his lips, signaling silence. His glance passed over each of his men, sprawled on woven mats thrown onto packed dirt. Grant and Jarrett, Kane Purcell, Lee Pennington and Rico Mendoza–bearded, filthy, their uniforms in tatters, but each devoted in the fight to protect each other and their country.
“If we don’t make it back, you know where we’re headed,” he whispered. “Start there to make your escape. The South Gate, by the creek.”
Grant wanted to assure him that this rendezvous set up by the major’s brother, Benjamin Malone, would finally clear suspicion about whether Benjamin had committed treason, switching his loyalty from the United States to the German enemy. That Benjamin wouldn’t steer him wrong, that there’d be no ambush, no fighting, no betrayals. That after two agonizing years, their reunion would be happy and complete.
But Grant’s gut told him otherwise.
“Yes, sir,” he said instead.
“I don’t have to tell you to stay together.”
“One for all, and all for one.”
“Yes, sir.” With Grant, the others nodded somberly.
“Major.” Captain Hammond whispered over his shoulder. “It’s clear. We have to go.”
The superior officer inhaled. And didn’t move.
“Go,” Grant whispered roughly. “We want a full report when you return.”
He nodded once. “You’ll have it.”
Knowing he might not see him alive again, Grant swallowed hard and lifted his hand in a sharp salute. Four more salutes followed. With a final sweeping glance over them, Major Malone swiveled away, and led by Captain Hammond, he slipped through the hut’s low opening and disappeared into the night.
For a moment, no one spoke.
“Damn,” Jarrett muttered finally, echoing the worry they all felt.
“Yeah.” Grant eased onto his back and stared into the darkness. His comrades shuffled on their mats and fell quiet, too.
No one would sleep, of course. Their anxiety would all but eat them alive. A thousand things could go wrong–Benjamin’s message could be a hoax, or worse, a clever trap, unthinkable for one brother against another. Or the officers could be caught, chased by the Kraut guards, sniffed out by the bloodhounds and never seen again.
Seconds dragged into agonizing minutes. Grant lost track of time, his senses on high-alert, his muscles coiled too tight to relax.
Then, from outside the hut, the sound of his worst fear–the crunch of boot soles. His eyes locked on the beam of a flashlight drawing closer….
He couldn’t breathe. He prayed, prayed, that the footsteps would keep going, past the opening, that the light would fade away as the guards moved on to inspect the next crude dwelling, the next group of starved and pathetic prisoners.
But they didn’t.
Two pair of legs appeared in the hut’s low doorway. One of the guards crouched and shined the beam inside, sweeping it from side to side. Squinting in the brightness, the five men didn’t move, didn’t speak. Grant braced for the worst.
“Two are missing,” the Kraut barked in coarse English. “Where are they?”
Jarrett made a show of looking around their small quarters. “Damned if I know.”
“The infirmary, maybe,” Lee said.
“Yeah, maybe they got sick,” Kane added.
“The latrine.” Rico spoke up. “Probably just taking a piss.”
“You’re lying.” Young, square-jawed, and clearly full of hate for the American doughboys, the guard’s lip curled back from his teeth. “Who’s in charge here?”
Dread wadded in Grant’s throat. But he didn’t hesitate.
“I am,” he said.
“Come with us.”
He took his time sitting up. Five months in the notorious Wittenberg prison had taught him what to expect. He’d been beaten before. He’d survived then, and he’d survive now, and he refused to make any of this easy for them, the bastards. “What for?”
Infuriated, the guard lunged inward and grabbed him by the arm, jerking him off his mat and onto his knees. The second guard–older, heavier–leaned in and grabbed him by the other arm, dragging him roughly out of the hut.
Grant steeled himself against the stricken expressions in his men’s faces. They were powerless to defend him; weakened, unarmed, they’d be foolish to try. Grant longed to assure them, but there was no time, no words for promises he might not be able to keep.
Heedless of the haggard faces of other prisoners peering curiously out of their own huts, the guards hustled Grant across an acre of uneven ground toward the barracks at the edge of the camp. Rocks cut into his bare feet. The guards dug their fingers into his feeble muscles and flaccid flesh, grim reminders he was no match for their combined strength. He didn’t bother to protest, didn’t try to resist. It was either cooperate or be shot–or worse–and Grant fought for the will to endure what lay ahead.
The youngest guard pulled open the door and pushed Grant inside. In here, the air held none of the camp’s stench from sick prisoners. Sparsely furnished, the room was neat and clean, devoid of the misery that ran rampant beyond its walls.
Illuminated by the glow of a single lamp, a German officer looked up from the papers on his desk. If he was surprised to see a ragged-looking inmate dragged in at midnight, he didn’t show it.
“What is it?” he asked in guttural English.
“Two Americans from his unit are missing,” the older guard said. “His commanding officers. He refuses to say why.”
The officer’s stony gaze swung to Grant. “Your name.”
“Sergeant Grant Halverson, First Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces,” he said, making sure there was pride in his voice.
The officer checked a binder, thick with thousands of names. Eventually, he paused to read one of the pages. “Major Michael Malone is your superior officer?”
“Yes, sir.” No sense in trying to deny it. It was all right there in the binder.
“Hammond is your captain?”
“Captain Drew Hammond, sir, yes.”
The officer nodded, leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. He was dressed in full uniform as a non-commissioned lance corporal, and Grant guessed the man had drawn the short straw, making him the Germans’ night shift commander. Which meant he could do whatever he damn well wanted without having to answer to anyone until daylight.
“So you are with the infamous Secret Seven. The United States Army special intelligence unit.” His face contorted in a contemptuous sneer. “Are you intelligent enough to tell us where your officers are?”
The guards laughed, but Grant kept his mouth shut. Tell a lie or tell the truth–neither was an option.
“Perhaps they have escaped our camp,” the lance corporal said, studying him.
Grant kept his features expressionless.
“You know where they are, don’t you? And yet you choose not to tell us, even when you are aware of the consequences?”
He stared straight ahead. Infuriated, the German officer thumped the desktop with his fist.
“To hell with your honorable silence! Where are they?” he roared.
Again, Grant failed to give a reaction. Sharply, the lance corporal gestured to the guards. “You know what to do.”
They clamped hands on both of Grant’s arms and pulled him into another room at the far end of the barracks, locking the door behind them. Though small, this room was brightly lit. A narrow gurney occupied the center of the quarters, one side tilted downward. A black towel and several buckets of foul-smelling water sat near by.
The blood turned cold in Grant’s veins.
This time, when the guards tried to push him forward, he fought back, writhing in their grip, swinging his fists and kicking his legs, but they soon overpowered him. Quickly, they restrained his ankles and wrists with leather strips, then strapped his body onto the gurney with thick belts.
Breathing heavily, fighting the fear, he laid immobile with his head on the lower end. The older guard soaked the towel and held it dripping over the bucket.
“We will see how intelligent you are,” he said harshly. “Tell us where Major Malone has gone, or you will drown in filth. Which will you choose?”
Grant clamped his jaw tight, but his pulse thundered with growing terror. He’d never been afraid of water before, but this, this would be an agony he didn’t know if he could endure. The guard raised the towel high, and too soon, before Grant was ready, he flung it on to Grant’s head. The wet fabric clung to his face, his nostrils, suffocating him; the darkness blocked out the light. Instinctively, Grant breathed inward, sucking in the sour smell of urine and rank feces. He gagged, his fists clenching, his body lurching.
His head rolled from side to side in growing panic, desperate to shake the towel loose from his face. He could hardly breathe from the smell, the taste, and sweet Jesus Christ, how would he get through this?
Desperate for air, he inhaled, and then the water came. Over his face, into his nose, down his throat, choking him, stealing the air he needed. His mind screamed, his lungs burned, and still the water came. Again and again, endless torture, battering his will, his need to keep silent.
He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t swallow, couldn’t die.
One for all, and all for one. Major Malone’s face loomed out of the darkness. One for all, and all for one. Grant’s mind, delirious from panic, clung to his orders.
He refused to talk. Refused to be weak. He couldn’t reveal his commanding officers’ whereabouts.
Never, never, never.
He needed to breathe.
He was dying. Dying for his country, for the major and captain. The guards’ voices swirled around him. Yells and threats, demands for answers, but he refused to listen, refused to talk.
Blackness swirled behind his eyes. Water was everywhere. He couldn’t escape the water, water, water….
* * *
He came to on the floor of their wooden hut. His eyes fluttered open to see Jarrett and Kane, Rico and Lee, staring worriedly down at him. Outside, the night was hauntingly quiet. He still smelled the stench, still tasted the foul water that soaked his hair and uniform.
But he’d survived. And he could breathe.
“It’s over, Sarge,” Jarrett said. “Those Kraut sons-of-bitches were pissed as hell they didn’t get any information out of you.”
The words revolved around him.
He was alive.
And he hoped Major Malone and Captain Hammond, wherever they were, were still alive, too.