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Obstacle Course

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Buried under two sweaters, the alarm clock went off, announcing it was 5 a.m. Terry’s hand quickly slapped at it until it went silent, hoping not to awaken the men. The blackout curtains kept it dark in the room, so she turned on the bedside lamp in order to see. With a stretch, she climbed out of bed and put her robe on. Barefoot, she went down stairs and started a fire in the Aga. The coffeepot was filled with water and ersatz coffee grounds were carefully measured into the basket. In a baking dish, she tore up stale bread and added a scant handful of sultanas. Powdered eggs were reconstituted and mixed with sugar, cinnamon and milk. This was poured over the bread and the dish was put in the refrigerator to soak up. A clean dishtowel was draped over it.

By the time she was finished, alarms were going off upstairs. Terry walked back up to her room. She could hear noises and grumbling coming from the men’s rooms. Garrison had decided they were in need of some practice on the obstacle course. It was not their favorite pastime. Well, today she was going to stir the pot so to speak.

For the past couple of months, she had run the obstacle course alone on the occasions she was at the mansion when the men were on the Continent. She had tried to time herself, but going it alone was slow work as the course was designed to need the assistance of another person. She wanted to see if she could keep up with the men.

Waiting until her brother, always first outside, had trotted down the stairs, Terry, still in her robe, bounced to the end of the hall and tapped on Goniff’s door. He opened it, clad in boxer shorts. By now, near nudity bothered neither him nor Terry. She slipped into his room.

“Hey, Goniff, do you have a regulation tee-shirt and pants I can fit into?” she asked. “I’m tired of ruining my good clothes.”

“Wot? You comin’ wif us?” he asked in surprise.

“Why not?” shrugged Terry. “I have to be able to do what you do on missions.”

“It ain’t easy,” warned the Englishman, even as he was getting clothes out of his armoire.

“If it was easy, we wouldn’t be doing it,” said Terry, repeating one of their favorite phrases.

She accepted the clothes from him and hurried back to her room. Heavy socks and underwear were thrown on and the borrowed clothes donned over the top. Digging in the back of her armoire, Terry came up with a well worn pair of high-topped lace-up boots she had come across on one her forays into London. Her hair was French braided and tied out of her way.

Appropriately clothed now, she waited for the footsteps of three men to descend the stairs. It was a given that Actor would be late. Unless it was something that involved ‘one of the great beauties of the world’, he was rarely on time. At a leisurely pace, Terry followed the others outside and to the start of the course.

Garrison, shaved, starched and pressed, looked up at her arrival. He did a double take at her outfit. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked with exasperation.

“Practicing with them,” said Terry.

Craig just shook his head. “Fine. See if you can keep up.”

“Warden” came the pickpocket’s familiar whine. “Could yer see’bout getting’ ‘er a set o’ clothes ov ‘er own?” He eyed the woman. “She’s stretchin’ all o’ mine out.”

“In all the right places,” leered Casino. Suddenly he remembered whose sister she was. “I mean, the Limey’s clothes fit her good.”

At that point, Actor strolled up. Where the other cons were in wrinkled clothes and unshaven, the aristocratic con man was in a neatly ironed jumpsuit and freshly shaven. “Good morning, Warden,” he said politely.

“So nice of you to join us,” said Garrison, wryly.

Actor merely smiled and turned to his fellow cons – all four of them. His eyes swiveled to Teresa and he scanned her attire, fixating on the form-fitting tee-shirt stretched across her upper half. Not a word was spoken, but he made his disapproval known to the girl.

“I’m not wearing a dress,” objected Terry snidely.

Actor turned to the Lieutenant. “You are allowing her to wear that?”

Garrison smiled, “Well, Actor, I’m not making her wear a dress.”

The Italian’s expression registered his displeasure with that answer.

Used to the routine, the cons grouped together. Terry joined them. Garrison watched as his men discussed amongst themselves where Terry should go at various obstacles – generally third or fourth over the wall. They were working as a team, adjusting to take into account Terry’s presence. Garrison’s mood soared, but he wasn’t about to let them know that, so he didn’t let it show.

“You know the course,” he said in his usual curt, officer voice, stopwatch in hand. “Terry, try not to get too far behind.”

There was a barely audible sniff at that remark.

Craig watched the second hand and as it reached twelve, yelled “go!” The group took off at a run. The officer walked briskly on an angle so he could keep track of how they did. He needed to observe the group dynamics, how they worked together as a team and each individual’s performance for his report. If someone was having problems, he would work with them afterwards to improve their performance. Terry was sprinting in the midst of the pack and Actor was bringing up the rear as usual. The start was good.

They came to the first downed tree and took it in each their own way. Goniff scrambled over it. Chief leapt with one foot atop it. Casino and Actor pivoted on one hand over it. And Terry? She never slowed, just cleared it like a hurdle.

The fitness and strength of the men told in the sprint to the next obstacle: she ended up back by Actor shimmying under the low barbed wire barrier. But she didn’t stay with him long.

The high wall was coming up, and Garrison watched them closely through field glasses: this was where co-operation was essential, and he hoped that was what he would see. Goniff scaled it as though climbing a ladder. On top, he straddled it and leaned down with outstretched arm. Casino went down on one knee and Chief stepped on his bent leg for a boost up. Goniff grabbed his wrist and pulled him up to where he could get a hand on the top. Once up Chief and Goniff reached back down. Casino took a few steps back and gave a short running jump. His wrists were caught by both men and he was hauled to the top. Goniff slipped down the back of the wall and Casino took his place astride the top. Terry came running up and leapt. She could not quite get the height she needed, missing the reaching hands by fingertips, and slid down the wall. Before she could regain her balance, Actor arrived and tucked his head between her legs, lifting her on his shoulders. Her wrists were grabbed, and she was hauled up and over. Actor took a running jump and was caught by his wrists and hauled up.

The three men had not made it down the other side of the wall yet when Terry took off at a dead run. She passed Goniff and headed for the narrower end of the pond. Craig shook his head. It didn’t surprise him that she knew the route. Back home, every suicide race, she had walked the five-mile course three times to know every rock, dip and obstacle before she walked her horse over it a fourth time. Now she ran the same way she rode horseback . . . no fear.

There was a tree branch hanging over the water with a rope dangling from it. The first one across had to make a flying leap to catch the rope and swing across before sending the rope back to the others. Not a problem for Terry who had grown up with the rope swing over the swimming hole. She kept up her momentum and flew out to grasp the rope and swing across, allowing the rope to slide through loose hands to grab the end and fling it back across. Goniff swung across like a monkey. Casino came next. Chief waited on the bank for Actor and held the rope out to the con man. Bigger and slightly heavier than the others, he did not quite make it and came down with one foot in the water. Terry and Casino each grabbed an arm and yanked to keep the Italian from falling in. The rope went back, and Chief swung across. They strung out single file and ran on.

There was a downed tree over a hollow. Goniff danced across it, followed almost as agilely by Terry. Casino and Chief crossed a bit more slowly. Actor did not even attempt it. He slid down the bank, strolled across the hollow and climbed up the other side.
The route took them in a wide circle from there that brought them back to the pond. They dove in close together. That was where Actor took the lead. Garrison didn’t know if the con man liked water, but he was the strongest swimmer of the group.

Garrison was waiting for them at the starting point. They collapsed on the grass, breathing heavily. Craig looked at his sister and wondered if Terry was aware of how transparent that tee-shirt was when it clung wetly to her skin. Chief kept his eyes averted. Goniff didn’t seem to notice. Both Actor and Casino took a good look but seemed unfazed. Garrison knew Actor and Terry had taken care of each other a number of times, so maybe familiarity bred lack of interest. That didn’t explain Casino. The safecracker was always ready with a quick lecherous remark about Terry’s figure.

Craig sat on his heels beside the group and looked at his stopwatch. It was a good time, not their best, but they had Terry to figure into the mix. “Not bad,” he said.

Terry clambered to her feet, Actor’s hand around her calf to steady her. “I get the shower first,” she said. “I have to make breakfast yet.”

“There goes all the hot water,” lamented Actor.

Terry walked away. “You could always come back with a bar of soap and go skinny dipping in the pond,” she tossed over her shoulder.

“I think not,” he retorted.

GGG

Garrison ambled into the kitchen as Terry was putting the bread pudding into the oven. She straightened and poured a cup of coffee for him.

“Actor cheated back there on that log bridge,” she remarked casually.

“I know,” replied Craig unconcerned. “He always does.”

“Why?” asked Terry curiously. “A Savate should have enough balance to cross that easily.”

Garrison shook his head. “The first time across, a piece of bark came loose, and he lost his footing. Fell off and landed on his rear in a prickly bush. Ego couldn’t take it. Especially with Casino’s teasing. Now he takes the low road while the others take the high one.”

Even more familiar with how easily that big ego could be bruised, Terry shook her head. “Poor Actor.”

Craig took a sip of hot coffee. “Yeah, it was almost as thorny as a rosebush.”

“Ouch,” Terry grimaced.

“Don’t tell him I told you,” warned Garrison.

“I won’t.” She might tease him unmercifully at times, but she wouldn’t think of stripping away all of the con man’s dignity.

Terry frowned. “So, what is he going to do if something like this comes up on a mission and he can’t take the low road?”

“He can do it just fine,” said Garrison, blowing on his coffee to cool it. “I take him out when the others are busy and have him do it with just me there. He is extremely agile for someone of his height.”

“You’d never make it as a basic trainer,” laughed Terry.

Craig shook his head. “I have no desire to become one either.”

He straddled a kitchen chair and eyed his sister, who was now clad in boots, trousers, and a short-sleeved blouse. His voice was casual as he said, “Glad you had a bra on this morning.”

That remark struck Terry as odd. “What?”

“That wet tee-shirt left nothing to the imagination,” said Craig disapprovingly. “They don’t need that kind of stimulation.”

Terry snorted a laugh. “Come on, Craig. About the only one it might bother would be Chief. Goniff has seen his share of women in bras, I’m sure. Casino could probably give Actor a run for his money with the women, just in a different social class. And as you might recall, Actor has seen it all.” She poured herself a cup of coffee. “Besides, Goniff and Casino run around here in their underwear. Chief and Beautiful don’t. I’ve taken care of most of Chiefy. At one time or another I’ve seen every part of Actor. I don’t get hot and bothered.”

Garrison shrugged, “You’re not a man.”

Terry took a tentative sip of hot coffee. “What’s your problem anyway, Craig? You know all of us Garrison kids go skinny dipping together in the swimming hole at home.” She chuckled. “That ought to shock Beautiful.”

Just at that moment, the kitchen door opened, and the tall Italian walked in.

“And just what would shock me?” he asked.

“Nothing,” said the two Garrisons together.

GGG

A half hour later, Garrison was sitting at his desk, cigarette resting in an ashtray half filled with butts, contemplating the files that belonged to each of his men. There was a new one now for his sister. He had been instructed to report on her progress also.
Craig decided to get her out of the way first. He picked up a pad of paper and began to write. The girl knew her strengths and most of her weaknesses. She could use more laps around the running path to build up her endurance. Still, it wasn’t as bad as he had expected. Except for her obvious attributes, she blended into the group well. Terry had offered assistance when she could and accepted it when she needed it. This was the first time she had run the obstacle course with the group. She tended not to practice with them. Garrison had no objections to this. He sat back and contemplated his sister’s abilities. Chief was their sharpshooter. At home, though she hated to kill an animal without due cause, Terry was the best shot in the family. He would not want to pit her in a contest with Chief, knowing that Indian would come out ahead merely because he had no hesitations about shooting a man.

Chief had the agility and stamina needed in their line of work from practice here and his upbringing. When the group had initially been formed, the youngest of the bunch had not interacted with the others unless forced to. He had opened up quite a bit in the year they had been to together now. Not only had he become a team player, he helped the others when he could. Garrison knew the Indian was honing Terry’s prowess with a switchblade. He was also teaching Actor how to use one.

The older, cultured man was still an enigma at times. Preferring a sedentary, comfortable, stylish life, the con man could still come up with a few surprises. With Actor’s permission, Chief reported to Garrison on the man’s progress with a switchblade. Throwing did not seem to be one of Actor’s fortes; he was deliberate, slow and precise, which telegraphed his intention to his opponent. However, Chief had been impressed with the man’s ability in close combat and his ruthlessness with the blade. Who knew? It was one of the many things missing from the confidence man’s well-ventilated dossier. Another surprise was finding out the big man was a Savate; and a darn good one. Terry was no match for him. Craig had no desire to get into a competition with the man, certain he too would be shown up by the Italian’s ability. Casino had tried to learn from the con man but had given up after the first lesson.

Casino had taken awhile to become a team player. With the exception of Goniff, he tended to prefer to work alone, though not to the extent of Chief. When it counted, the safecracker was right there helping the others. His stockiness was deceptive. In reality, he was lean, wiry, and strong. On the course and in the field, Casino had the agility and strength of a fighter in the ring. He threw his fists almost as much as his objections to everything Garrison might come up with. It had taken awhile to see past the man’s bluster and pessimism and discover his objections almost always had merit. Still, it was oft times difficult to get beyond the defensive man’s in-your-face articulation. It had taken Garrison awhile to learn to listen to the man’s concerns while overlooking his style of presentation.

Goniff was another matter. The slight man had a strength that was deceptive, as had been shown when Terry had fallen from the roof and he held her by one wrist until help had arrived. His agility was unsurpassed on the course and on the missions. His was an odd mixture of optimism in bolstering the group’s mood and a personal pessimism regarding his chances of surviving the war. Though vehemently protesting his fear of pain and his intention of ‘spilling his guts’ if captured, he had shown spine in his resistance to a brutal beating and interrogation by the Gestapo and had told them nothing.

As a group, they were coming together better than Garrison could have hoped for. In the beginning they had fought each other more than they had the Germans. Slowly they had developed a loyalty to each other and to him. Actor had gravitated to becoming their leader through his age, wisdom, knowledge and experience. Throwing Terry into the mix had gone smoother than expected also, once she and Actor had gotten over whatever their differences had been in the beginning. Garrison had learned he could trust his men to watch out for his sister, and she was fiercely loyal to all of them.

GGG

The group was sitting around the kitchen table while Terry dished out warm bread pudding and cups of coffee. Garrison took his seat as the de facto head of the table. His sister refilled the coffee cup that he had taken with him to his office.

“You finish your report?” she asked.

“Yes, and updated all the dossiers,” replied Garrison. “Including yours.”

Terry shot a surprised look at him and grinned widely. “I have a dossier?”

Craig nodded, hiding his mirth at her enthusiasm. “Yes, you now have a dossier.”

Terry turned her grin to the big Italian at the other end of the table. “Hey, you hear that, Actor? I have a dossier. Now you can sneak in and read it and tell me what’s in it.”

“Teresa.”

There was laughter around the table.

“Listen, Babe,” said Casino with a wide grin of his own. “Why don’t you just sneak in and read it yourself. You know where the key tuh the drawer is.”

“That’s no fun,” objected the girl.

Garrison exchanged a look with his second and both simply shook their heads.