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They'd just gotten back from the latest 'piece of cake' job - a mission where they were supposed to kidnap a scientist engaged in developing a chemical weapon that could tilt the entire outcome of the war. HQ said he was close to a breakthrough, this Dr. K Berger, and, after a great deal of thought, based on the extensive intel provided, Garrison had come up with the perfect plan to grab him, his assistant AND his research. Either that or, as Major Johns had so delicately put it, 'remove him, probably his assistant as well, from the picture in some other definitive manner, leaving nothing behind to let someone else continue the work'. It wasn't that HQ was shy about ordering someone's death, it's just that some were squeamish about laying it out so bluntly, prefering a gentler-sounding euphemism, and Major Johns was one of those. Garrison was grimly resigned to the possibility that might be necessary; anyone developing chemical weapons didn't arouse much sympathy with him.

Anyway, the mission - according to Major Johns, when he'd briefed Garrison, it was just a simple thing, one they should really be thanking him for assigning to them.

"A piece of cake, really - look at it as a favor, since you complained so much after that last job, Lieutenant, and since you all, somehow, though I still fail to see quite how, managed to take some damage during that one. As simple as that one should have been, I really don't understand how you managed to let it get so complicated."

Yeah, they had taken damage, and were still wearing the signs of it - and that comment coming from the crisply-uniformed Johns, every hair in place, hadn't gone over so well with Garrison, OR the men when Garrison related the conversation.

That left Goniff, after the briefing, muttering to himself "getting tired of all that rubbish, you know? Like to tell them to take their ruddy 'cake' and . . ."

"Goniff!" Garrison chided, though obviously the other guys agreed with the pickpocket. (Actually Garrison did too, but he was trying to hold the line, however wavering that line might be.)

An injured look from those blue eyes, a quick pout on that wide mouth, and an even quicker, "just going to say "like to tell them to take all their ruddy cake and drop it on their own tea plate so's they can 'ave themselves a nice little snack, instead of giving it all to us," Lieutenant. Amazing 'ow your mind jumps to the wrong conclusion sometimes, it is! Sad, w'en you think about it really. Think it's all that military training, maybe?"

Casino took care of slapping the Englishman over the top of his head, saving Garrison from giving in to the temptation to do exactly that. Well, either that, or laugh at the audacity of the man, and it was pretty much a toss-up which was more appealing, but laughing would just offer unneeded encouragement. No, the last thing Goniff needed was encouragement!

Still, Garrison had to agree, (if not out loud), about whether that mission had been 'a piece of cake' or not, and who he'd liked to have served it up to for tea. Yes, it had its amusing aspects, surprisingly so for something that had sounded so grim to begin with, but 'piece of cake'? Not so much.

Oh, it should have been easy, sure, {"easy! Yeah, right!"} but there were a few snags along the way, snags that presented themselves only after they got off the train at their destination. It had been a long, if uneventful trip - sub to the closest landing spot, car to the closest rail station, then train to Grenoble. That gave Goniff three separate opportunities to turn green, except for him remembering to put a few of those motion-sickness doses in his pocket before they left. Well, at least the last two methods of transport were less claustrophobic than the sub.

The first sign, one that should have warned Garrison right up front just how far off track things were likely to get, was the approach at the Grenoble train station by two redheads in expensive traveling dresses - Meghada O'Donnell and her younger sister, Ciena. The group of five somehow became a group of seven, and Garrison quickly adjusted his expectations away from that 'piece of cake' operation to something far more complicated. The O'Donnell sisters and complicated just seemed to go together, like bread and jam. And more complicated it certainly was becoming! Layer on top of layer on top of layer.

Like that German industrial group hosting a high-level, well-attended conference in Grenoble where Berger had his lab. No longer a mildly bustling center of business, now the place had three times the usual number of soldiers milling around, the nearby hotels were full to the brim, sidewalks and streets and cafes crowded, and security was at its highest in weeks, perhaps months.

And Berger's female assistant, Elsa, a lovely and highly-intelligent blonde ("don't know her last name, but she's his assistant, possibly his mistress as well," Major Johns had offered casually, as if that really wasn't a very important detail)? Garrison had been counting on Actor to charm, beguile, and seduce that lovely lady and obtain certain vital information regarding where Berger's records might be stored, elsewhere than in his lab - well, that WAS his speciality.

However, Elsa BERGER, Berger's assistant and younger sister (certainly NOT his mistress), had her own ideas about who was drool-worthy and who was not, who she just might be interested in possibly sharing pillow-talk with, and Actor was definitely NOT on that list.

Well, neither were any of the other guys on the team, it would appear, much to their combined chagrin. They'd played that game before, and usually if one of the men didn't appeal to the target, one or more of the others did.

Still, there was someone - actually, two someones - who DID obviously strike her fancy in that direction, garnered her rapid attention and focus, and that required a quick regrouping, a considering of the possibilities.

The team was still reeling from watching Meghada and Ciena so casually discuss how to approach the woman, how to present the bait for the con.

"Since we don't know what she prefers, we'll give her a clearly-defined choice - young and innocent versus slightly-older and more worldly. One or the other should work, from the look in her eye; certainly the physical attraction seems to be there already. Flip you for 'older and more worldly', Meghada," Ciena said, drawing out a coin. "We could each play either role quite well, of course, but Coura says I do 'worldly' a little better than you."

"Wait! I can't ask you . . ." Garrison started, only to get questioning, even bewildered, looks from both the women.

"Unless all the stories are just stories, every one of you has played this role at one time or another in order to achieve the mission. And there's no bad aura coming from her, nothing poisonous, it doesn't feel like a trap, and we NEED that information, don't we? In case there are files elsewhere that could let someone else complete his research?" Meghada offered.

Ciena couldn't resist adding, "unless this was just an added perk to keep Actor happy, of course, in which case we can ignore her entirely. No, I didn't think so. Don't worry, Lieutenant. Whichever of us Elsa doesn't choose will keep a close eye, stay out of sight but close at hand in case it all hits the fan."

Well, the first part was true, undoubtedly, they had all played the role of willing bed-partner when there had been need, and the sisters didn't seem overly concerned, so Garrison set his own qualms aside.

If nothing else, the resultant conversation around "the necessity of doing one's patriotic duty, as we've been told on various occasions by various individuals in this very room!" was amusing as hell to at least SOME of the participants.

Casino was a little put out about Garrison refusing to let him hide in a closet, crack that door and get a good eye-full. Somehow the officer wasn't interested in going along with the "what if she runs into trouble, Warden? SOMEONE needs to keep a look-out, right??"

"I think we'll let her sister take care of that sentry duty, Casino," was Garrison's firm decision.

Meghada and Ciena had deliberated, decided it was necessary to run do a 'trial run', determine whether the luscious Elsa was more inclined toward the innocent but eager type, or the experienced and even MORE eager type. That had proved interesting, to say the least, the two sisters, so much alike, but in this operation, quite different. Ciena now had a very knowing way about her; Meghada, though the elder by a couple of years, seeming much more shy and innocent as they headed toward the ladies' salon.

Goniff was still giving serious consideration as to whether it was better Ciena was the one ending up running the con rather than Meghada, or whether he . . . Well, never mind. He firmly stomped on any conflicting ideas, notions, imagings, or anything else. Frankly, he had enough on his mind without confusing things any more! Still, the images, the possibilities DID engage his thoughts; he just couldn't quite help that, and besides, he figured he wasn't the only one. At least he had sense not to go maundering on about it, unlike one of his teammates! He was seriously considering slapping Casino upside his head if he didn't ruddy well shut up about it, too!

So the plan was put into play, and soon there was an intimate dinner for two being enjoyed in a private room. The guys, including a still-disgruntled Actor and an even MORE disgruntled Casino, had room service in their own suite on another floor, nervously waiting for the sounds of gunfire or shrieking or SOMETHING!

It was lucky they had the O'Donnell sisters along, Garrison had to admit. The information from Elsa might just be the linchpin to grabbing Berger and ALL the research files, but the pretty blonde wouldn't have shared it with any of them.

No, as far as he knew, HQ hadn't expected the sisters to meet them as they got off the train, Johns certainly hadn't mentioned it in his briefing, but HQ didn't have to know EVERYTHING. He and several others had figured that out a long time ago.

Besides, the ladies assured him that, while their meeting at the train station had been happenstance (though he wasn't at all sure how true that was), they were glad to lend a hand. They HAD claimed they had other business in the area, things Garrison was pretty sure he was better off NOT knowing the details of. The few words he had caught of their quiet conversation - 'worth a fortune', 'far too valuable to be left in unappreciative hands', 'quick way past the guards', 'like taking candy from a wee babe' - none of that he felt he needed to pursue!

 

Meanwhile, in that private suite, in the dim light from the lowered lamp, there came a faintly amused chuckle, though somehow wistful.

"This isn't really going to last . . .?" Elsa asked, already knowing the answer. Skillful, yes, her partner undoubtedly was. Pleasurable to be with, oh, without a doubt. But, there was something missing, some emotional connection, something she'd hoped to find with the redhead that just hadn't quite materialized. Oh, it had been lovely, but now, in the aftermath, the 'happily ever after' she yearned for seemed even further away than before.

"No, not exactly," Ciena admitted, stretching in the silky sheets. "But lovely, still, for the moment; never doubt that, Elsa. Just as you are lovely. In fact . . . Well, it occurred to me, after what you told me - perhaps you just need a different perspective, a different venue. No, I am not encouraging you to try the masculine persuasion. I really don't think that is for you. But there are places, people better suited to give you the scope you perhaps would enjoy, would allow you to truly spread your wings and fly. And you, my sweet butterfly, deserve to fly free! How do you feel about taking a vacation?"

Elsa gave her an odd look. "Funny you should mention that! Klaus and I are leaving in the morning, well, in about two hours, to do that very thing!"

"Really? May I ask the particulars? It might be something my friends and I would be interested in experiencing as well. Wouldn't that be fun? It would give us more time together," Ciena offered with a coaxing smile. {"Two hours! Garrison is going to have a fit!! There is no WAY we can get the job done in that time!"}

 

"You have got to be kidding me!!! Evian-les-Baines??! On the morning train?"

Garrison groaned, then quickly figured out how to best salvage this 'piece of cake' mission. He watched as Berger and his sister, luggage in hand, departed in a taxi bound for the station.

"Okay, Casino, you and Actor - search his flat, but don't leave any signs. If Ciena is right, what you're looking for should be in his desk. Then, hit her flat, see if there's anything there we need to grab. We'll meet up afterwards."

Garrison was headed to the next street over with the rest of the team to deal with the lab - records to be the unfortunate victim of an accidental fire. They'd regroup, take the car Chief had organized for them, try to catch the train at a station further along the way. There were several scheduled stops, a few with some wait time, so that was a strong possibility they could make it if they didn't run into any trouble.

Luckily, things went smoothly - the lab was deserted, the records destroyed, the men out and gone before any alarm was sounded. Berger's flat had yielded the few files pertinent to his research, and Elsa hadn't had anything in her flat that was connected to her job. Finding the closet at the woman's place pretty well empty seemed odd, and the lack of any jewelry, but Actor assured them "surely she will need the appropriate clothes and accessories for a resort, even one of the health spa variety. Evian-les-Baines has some very elegant venues, after all."

The good doctor's vacation plans hadn't helped the officer's mood any, and left the others shaking their heads as Actor read from the brochure he'd found in Elsa's waste can.

"Sulpher pools and mud baths? Vinegar purges? Is this guy freakin' nuts??" was Casino's take on the scientist's destination. The photos indicating the massage facilities employed masseurs instead of masseuses didn't improve his opinion any.

 

There was a mad race to chase that train, finally boarding it three stops before its arrival at the spa. Luckily they'd managed to arrange an 'accidental meeting' with the doctor and Elsa in the lounge car. Elsa was delighted by the reappearance of Ciena AND now Meghada and obviously was making grand plans for a reunion in more private quarters, and by the time they all deboarded, they were all becoming fast friends.

Actor had retreated into a charming but non-encroaching presence, though the same couldn't really be said for Casino, who appeared to be enthusiastic about 'storming the fortress'. "Hey, maybe Beautiful just isn't her type; don't mean someone else might not be," he protested as one after the other of his colleagues suggested he stand down.

 

They stepped off the train as one concerted group to find the trolley to the spa waiting. Elsa was happily telling Ciena and Meghada all of the lovely things the resort town had to offer.

"Museums and restaurants, parks and so much more! And that is in addition to the spa itself, which is said to be one of the very best for relaxation and beauty treatments and rejuvenation. For us, there are hairdressers, and those who give massages and facials and manicures. There are steam baths and deep pools with scented water, with flower petals floating on top! Oh, it will be so lovely!"

Her voice dropped to a whisper. "It is said the men's side has very special treatments to restore 'vigor', if you know what I mean. Also those to reduce overly-heated blood; perhaps your friend might try one of those? And for those who just need a general pick-me-up, there are facial treatments for them too, and masseurs especially skilled in Oriental methods of muscle toning. Oh, so many, many things to enjoy!"

 

Garrison sat at the corner writing desk in the elegant suite, staring down at the paper in front of him, going over the facts so far.

Could he count the mission as a success? Well, Dr Berger was out of Grenoble and in their hands - well, sort of, anyway. All records, either at the lab or elsewhere, were safely destroyed. That was all to the good.

On the other hand, instead of being on their way back to England, they were in a set of very nice rooms at a health resort that offered a wide array of services his men were not only unaccustomed to, but more than a little intrigued by. Heck, he himself was rather curious about what a 'heated mineral stone and chilled crystal rejuvenating massage' might entail; the brochure, one of many left in the room, made him really, really want to give it a try! That part about 'relieving deep-seated tension and soothing overworked muscles, while instilling a renewed and long-lasting ability for sound sleep' - yeah, he could go for something like that!

Chief had mentioned the cold-water plunges as something his grandfather had recommended, though he couldn't remember just what for. This place featured something similar, although if that seemed too placid, you could instead elect an alternative plunge if you wished. None of the guys found the idea all that appealing, no matter how the brochure enthused - the description included being strapped into a chair and dropping into deep water 'with an average temperature of -10 degrees celsius' only to be yanked up and dropped in turn into something hot enough to immediately redden the skin, then back to the icy cold, and finally, with one final wild swing of that restraining chair, down into the pounding ocean that surged into the cove below.

"You sure that's a treatment for 'rejuvenation', not a threat of w'at 'appens if you don't pay the tab?" Goniff queried, the highly-skeptical look on his face showing just how non-tempting that whole picture was. "Sounds like it would give you a ruddy 'eart-attack to me!"

Well, even if some of the treatments didn't tempt their Englishman, the food, provided you resisted the temptations of the 'vinegar purge regimen' for weight loss, or the 'rusk toast and essence of pulverized sea snails' offered as a healthy substitute, was good enough to send him into a moaning mess just reading the menus. He could read those aloud with as much passion and enthusiasm as Actor was reading aloud passages from the rare art treatise by Leon Battista Alberti he had inexplicably found in the library in the west wing.

Yes, even Actor, that cosmopolitan world traveler, had looked around and seemed more than a little impressed.

"Do you know, Craig, a great many of the paintings and sculptures in the corridors and public rooms are actually authentic!! The tapestry of the Ascension is by an artist unfamiliar to me by name, but there is a certain feeling, an aura, that makes me wonder which of the great artists tarried for awhile here, amused themselves for a season or two incognito. There is something reminiscent of Le Brun, but at the same time, I perceive a hint of Vermeyen as well. I suppose we will never know, but it would be most interesting."

"Yeah, yeah, Beautiful, it's all classy as hell, I know," Casino growled, "but I really don't give a shit. Where the hell did the girls go? Thought we were all gonna get together for a drink, Elsa and the doc too. Maybe grab some dinner. Listening to the Limey read those menus's got my appetite going."

Well, Elsa had his appetite going, too, but it was pretty clear to everyone except him that he'd be better off resigning himself to having at least THAT appetite going unsatisfied.

Casino was still in fervent pursuit of the lovely Elsa, much to her annoyance and most of the others' amusement. The sheer bewilderment on the safecracker's face after each new encounter was something Chief and Goniff intended to rub in for a long, long time.

"They'll be back. Said they wanted to check the fresh markets and the flower markets. You know 'Gaida, always looking for something new for the garden," Goniff offered with a decided lack of concern. "Someone 'ere told 'er about some sort of squash that would be all sorts of useful - like to 'ad tears in 'er eyes just 'earing about it. She's gonna see if she can get some seeds for that and anything else that strikes 'er fancy."

Well, it was hardly likely they'd get into trouble on their jaunt; the average age and disposition of the visitors seemed to be past that of giving two highly-trained agents, Clanswomen at that, any trouble, even with the lovely Elsa in tow.

"And I think the doctor is 'aving 'is tonsils buffed, or maybe 'is kidneys polished. Some sort of fancy 'take ten years off your age' treatment, but it's all being done in 'is room. Chiefy's keeping an eye on 'im."

Garrison looked back down at his scribbled notes. No, he couldn't keep any of those, would have to destroy them as soon as he finished this session of trying to put the pieces together in his mind. {"Not that THAT seems to be happening! There's something missing, a big piece of the puzzle I'm just not getting! But what??!"}

Besides, none of what he had in front of him would be something HQ would be interested in reading; hell, it wasn't like he could include most of that in a report, anyway, not with a straight face or without prompting a harsh scolding for 'not attending to business!'. And it was a good thing the sisters had come well prepared; HE sure didn't carry around the sort of money this little jaunt was costing; otherwise they just might find out if that 'plunge' really WAS for those who didn't have the funds for the final tab!

The women returned, Meghada all smiles at the pouch with a variety of seeds she'd managed to purchase, though the three foot long tan vegetable she'd carried back over her shoulder had them all gaping.

"No, I'm not going to try and take the whole thing back, Craig, so don't scold, though it would make a lovely club, wouldn't it? But the vendor swears it's lovely baked at this stage, and the seeds are ready to harvest, so I'm going to ask the chef to prepare it for dinner tonight, probably for the whole dining room considering the size, but save a good sampling of the raw seeds for me."

She turned to give Casino a stern look, "though Elsa wanted to buy one too, just in preparation for your next attempt at sweet-talking her out of her panties. I talked her out of the notion, not wanting her to strain her shoulder, but I have no doubt she'll think of some other way to get her point across. Casino, my friend, she is NOT interested, and at this point all you are accomplishing is pissing her off! Just accept that!"

Somehow no one thought that was going to happen.

 

Drinks, dinner, then later, Garrison and Actor accompanied the good natured and amazingly congenial doctor to the heated steam pool on the mens' side of the resort to soak and relax and, hopefully, gather a little more helpful information from the doctor about his research, and the chances of his being willing to work for the Allies instead of the Nazis.

Sunk up to their chins in the steaming water, letting the heat sink into their bones, sipping at the odd but most interesting herbed brandy tonic from the decanter they'd been offered by the attendant as they arrived, Garrison and Actor found themselves feeling almost guilty at just how much enjoyment they were getting from this mission.

{"Us, here. Goniff with the menus, Actor with the art. Meghada with her garden seeds. Major Johns would NOT approve!"} Garrison thought with some amusement. He hoped the brandy would hold out for awhile; it was something he was enjoying a great deal, and there was only the one decanter, sitting on the tray on the stone ledge behind them. The attendant had left, giving them their privacy with a quiet smile and sly wink, assuring them the 'Do Not Disturb' sign had been placed on the exterior door. Garrison refused to think what significance THAT might have had, but there hadn't seemed any ill-will involved.

Berger's voice faded into the background as Garrison relaxed even more, feeling the wisps of steam start to permeate his hair. Soon he'd need those terry cloths laid at the rim of the pool just to keep the droplets out of his eyes.

Then he sat upright, startled, his relaxed state changed quickly when he realized what Klaus Berger was now telling them. Berger was, Garrison realized, on his fourth glass of that 'rejuvenating tonic' to Actor and Garrison's second, and was so relaxed he could easily have slid under the water and drowned if it hadn't been for the men sitting one on each side of him. Well, relaxed is one word for it. Actually, soused would have been a more accurate, if less elegant, term.

"And then, when the money was running out and I could not afford the laboratory or our quarters, when we thought we would have to return to the country, that man came to call. He had mistaken me for my cousin, Klaber, you see. Klaber was a scientist as well, but of a most uncertain, well, unpleasant turn of mind. Such dreadful things he wrote of in the papers he published! Truly dreadful things!

"When he committed suicide two months ago at our home in the country after being rejected by the wealthy widow he had thought to marry, thinking she would fund his research, the family hushed it up. No official notice was ever given; we buried him in the orchard behind my parents' home. Still, the family thought it best if his disappearance 'occurred' in a more public venue, though mysteriously, of course. For the family's reputation, you see."

Berger drifted off into a light doze, not noticing the incredulous looks Garrison was exchanging with his second in command. {"We've got the wrong damned scientist???!"}. Then he roused up and continued the tale.

"So, there we were, Elsa and myself, in our cousin's flat, rent due the following week but nothing in our pockets. I had presented myself at Klaber's lab, thinking to perhaps - ah - insert myself into the works without anyone knowing the difference, at least til his paycheck was handed out. We were enough alike, at least in looks, and he was the unsociable sort, didn't get close to any of his co-workers, and I do have a scientific background, but with a much different emphasis. But it seems his prior employer had grown annoyed and abandoned him, so there was no paycheck in sight.

"Then, like a miracle, this man appeared, offering a great deal of money for me to continue 'my' work, but for him and his people. I protested, just enough, and then there was more money being offered, enough to give me a more private lab, to rent a separate flat for Elsa, and more. It seemed like our prayers had been answered. What he wanted me - well, Klaber, I suppose, though my cousin only went by 'K Berger' - to work to develop was a very nasty substance indeed, quite suitable for my cousin, yes, but not for me.

"I study nutrition, gentlemen, specifically nutrition as it might benefit and enhance the well-being of household pets - small dogs and cats, exotic birds, you know? What do I know about poisons like he was speaking of? Why would anyone even THINK about such things? Yes, it probably WAS something my cousin could do, even would do, but ME???! No, no, no, no, no!

"But still, for a short time - it was too good an opportunity for Elsa and myself to pass up. We knew it couldn't last forever; sooner or later they would expect verifiable results. Still, we determined to play our parts for as long as it seemed safe, gather what resources we could, then to depart on a brief 'vacation' and disappear forever. Well, we had already intended for that to happen, before things became so dire."

As Garrison and Actor listened, they heard the details of a short-lived but remarkably effective con, one carried out by a pair of total amateurs.

"For myself, I have heard drowning is not such a bad way to die. I thought perhaps to do that, for myself, and here, with so much water around, it seemed ideal. And, of course, to give us one last, how do you say, 'fling'. But also a resort such as this, with so many people coming and going, I thought perhaps I could arrange to get my sister into one of their groups, give her a chance at making a new life. You must see, we could not just wait it out. I am quite sure whatever way THEY might find to deal with me, with us, once they realize I have taken their money, their support, without even the slightest intention of creating such a substance, will not be agreeable in the least!"

After listening to the increasingly-incoherent Berger, Garrison gave instructions and Actor disappeared to get the other men. Together they got the happily-smiling, almost staggering doctor back to their rooms, where Garrison filled the others in on the quite-different situation they now found themselves in.

"Food for dogs and cats and pet birds? THAT'S 'is lay, not that nasty stuff?" Goniff asked in sheer disbelief. "And they managed to con the Nazis this far along? Coo! That takes nerve, that does!"

"No, Goniff, that takes a high-level of sheer stupidity," Garrison retorted in disgust. "And HQ is never going to believe any of this! Hell, I'm not sure I believe any of this!"

He ran his hand through his hair in frustration. "What a mess!"

"So, where do we go from here, Craig?" Actor asked, looking over at the humming and smiling Berger stretched out on Garrison's bed, happily making little circles in the air with one hand. "If we simply depart, leaving them behind, it will not take long before the Nazis catch up with them, you know that."

"He wants to off himself, I say we let him," Chief offered, getting stares and frowns from everyone, that being a little harsh, even considering the situation they'd found themselves in due to that little con. That smile in the back of those dark eyes, though, made them wonder just how serious he really was. "Well, they'll stop looking for him if he's dead, right? And our side, they won't BE looking for him if he's dead, right?"

"Chief - " Garrison began, then paused, letting that sink in.

"Chief, you're right! That is exactly what we need to do! We just have to figure out a way to make sure there's no doubt about his death, but WITHOUT a body! But what about Elsa?"

Meghada laughed, "I do not think Elsa will be a problem, not if Goniff can do a little shopping for us. A tragic accident, to be sure, brother and sister together like that!. And surely we, others will not wish to remain in a place where such things can occur, so our rapid, but somber, departure will gather no attention."

 

And so it was, in the aftermath of the tragic deaths of both Dr. K Berger and his sister Elsa, they departed the subdued resort - Garrison and his group, accompanied by two gentlemen, one elderly, one younger, who they'd encountered on their way to the trolley taking the visitors back to the train station.

Well, of course the resort was quieter than usual - it was hardly in keeping with the sadness of the unexpected deaths of two of their visitors to be laughing and chattering in the halls! The presence of the local authorities, the health inspector, it all had a dampening effect, not to mention the loss of one of their most popular attractions.

It was with some reluctance that the resort management had closed the entrance to the enhanced plunge experience. They would reopen it, of course, eventually; it had been too popular not to. But not until it had been glossed over by uncertain memories - the accident with the plunge chair, the straps and restraining rods somehow coming undone, the young woman tossed into the churning depths of the sea. That her brother, in his devotion, should throw himself after her in a vain attempt at rescue just doubled the tragedy. That no bodies had been recovered - well, what did one expect, after all, the ocean being both wide and deep, with such currents and undertows? And there had been several witnesses, other guests waiting their turn at the experience. No, there could be no doubt, and so they sadly informed the black-coated men who would show up several days later making enquiries.

 

And so it was - a final mad dash for freedom, Dr. Berger and Elsa firmly under their wing, Berger to be deposited with a 'Friend' somewhere safe along the way. Garrison was, or rather, he soon would be, in possession of a letter from the 'deceased' doctor, confessing his failure to develop what the Germans had required of him, bemoaning his cowardice in 'taking the easy way out' for himself and his sister, hopefully assuring HQ of the non-existence (now and in the future) of such a biological weapon, at least one created by K Berger. He intended to present that 'letter', rather inexpertly forged (quite deliberately 'inexpertly' forged) with a carefully-crafted smile, one intended to let Major Johns know that original suggestion of finding alternative means of silencing the good doctor had indeed been necessary, and this was the 'polite' smoothing over of that necessity.

No, HQ wouldn't be happy with the team showing up empty-handed, but his report could account for that. Well, it would once he figured out exactly what he was going to tell them - perhaps, more accurately, how much he was going to NOT tell them.

{"Creative Writing 301! By the time the war is over, I'm going to be able to teach a Master Class in the subject!"}

 

A disguised Elsa, paperwork now proclaiming the carrier to be 'Josef Mearing - shipping clerk', was determined to return with them, to visit London where Ciena had promised to see her nicely settled "at least temporarily, until we see if someplace else might better suit you. I know a great many people; I'm sure we can come up with someplace quite agreeable to you. I'm thinking you should perhaps meet our Grandmother; she is quite intuitive as to the best setting for newly-discovered jewels."

That was something else HQ didn't really need to know, but since HQ didn't know Ciena and Meghada were with them to begin with, that could be handled - the sisters had their own plan in place to slip away quietly before Garrison and his team checked in for debriefing, and they were using an alternative exit plan, one HQ wouldn't be aware of until after the fact.

So the group of five that started out from the Mansion, turning into seven upon their arrival at Grenoble, had turned into a group of ten on the train by the time it departed for the Swiss border - Garrison, his men - a heavily-disguised Dr Berger - a transformed Elsa/Josef, now with close-cropped hair, slender moustache made from a part of what had been sheared off, and wearing a suit and hat lifted from one of the other guests at the resort - and the two O'Donnell sisters.

Oh, and that 'ten' now included that unexpected late addition to their increasingly-odd group - 'Pasha', yet another gorgeous blond.

That earlier conversation Garrison had heard between the sisters? It was now revealed that THAT had referred to (well, partly, anyway - the only part they felt he needed to know about) an Afghan hound their parents were most eager to rescue, product of a tiny breeding kennel no longer in existence thanks to the Nazis. The sole known survivor of the original line, a young male, had ended up (but not for long, if the sisters had anything to say about it!) in the hands of a scientist thinking to create a breed of 'super dogs' enroute to his eventual plan to create a breed of 'super men'.

But Garrison wouldn't find that out until the final train journey towards home, when he found himself accepting that out-thrust leash and staring into the melting emerald eyes of that sleek, golden-haired hound with the long nose and even longer ears.

The sisters had disappeared once again, after quickly depositing Pasha in their custody, assuring everyone they'd rejoin them before journey's end. Garrison had started to order them to stay put, but then realized he was talking to a closed compartment door. Well, he should have known better. He didn't really want to know what they were up to this time, not if a half-grown dog had been the result of their last brainstorm!

(Actually, they'd gone after a small stash of jewelry one of their contacts had told them was being closeted at a close vantage point, in the custody of someone far too careless with his valuable charge. Well, they intended to share the proceeds, of course. After all, they thought the guys deserved SOMETHING nice to add to their 'retirement fund', and certainly none of them had had the opportunity to do any shopping on this busy trip! No, Garrison would NOT have been pleased, but in their opinion one didn't just take a 'pass' on acquiring a piece or two or six of the fabled Romanov royal collection, complete with written provenance!)

But for now, there was that dog! Glancing down at the collar, he could make out letters, probably a name. "Pasha" he said with more than a little resignation. "I suppose that's his name."

"Well, it suits him, anyway," Actor offered. "He is really quite elegant in appearance."

"Coo, 'e's a right 'andsome lad, now aint 'e??! That 'air, those muscles in 'is shoulders, that long line to 'is waist! Looks just like w'at YOU'D most likely look like, if you were to be turned into a dog, Lieutenant," Goniff offered gleefully. Then he quickly added, "other than the chin, acourse." That assessment got an amused snort from the others on the team, and a wary and slightly skeptical "Uh, thanks??" from Garrison.

Well, SOMEONE had approved of the comparison, or at least the admiring tone in Goniff's voice. An adoring canine head was quickly deposited in Goniff's lap, pleading green eyes searching his blue ones, obviously ready for some petting and stroking and a smoothing of that golden hair, those silky ears. For some reason, Goniff's quick laughing glance at Garrison as he complied with all those silent commands caused the officer to flush and clear his throat uncomfortably.

That flush only got deeper when it was time to crawl into the berths. Garrison was looking around for where to settle his unexpected charge, not really wanting anyone to stumble over him during the night. Casino had declared firmly, "no way that mutt is sleeping on MY bed, so don't even mention it, Warden! Put him in with our other two guests; there's room in there with the girls off doing whatever the hell they're doing."

"Actor will be taking one of those beds, Casino; I can't let them go unguarded. And he seems disinclined to do any dog-sitting. Anyway, I doubt the dog is interested in your berth or Actor's; I don't think he can climb those ladders," Garrison growled.

Goniff's confident reply, "got room in with me. Imagine 'e and I will do well enough; seems a pleasant sort, sort of cuddlesome, really. Not the type to steal the covers or toss about; probably don't even snore much. I expect I'll sleep warmer than anyone else too, ei, Lieutenant?" drew snorts of amusement from the others, but Garrison refrained from making any response. There really wasn't anything TO say, and glaring just didn't seem to have any impact on his impertinent pickpocket. Of course, that didn't stop him from sending one or two choice glares over in the direction of Goniff's berth later, but in the dark, no one noticed, though just what that final chuckle from the Englishman meant, no one asked.

 

By the time the team got back to HQ, by the time Garrison was standing in front of Major Johns, it had all clarified into a solid plan, with a surprisingly simple briefing.

"All of the research has been destroyed. Yes, I'm quite sure, all sources were confirmed. As for Dr. Berger, it appears he had more to be afraid of than just us. It appears he was deceiving his employers as to the status of his progress; it appears he was unable to come up with the product they'd set him to discovering, and was most apprehensive of their reaction. He committed suicide, Major, and his sister along with him. Yes, it is official. At the resort at Evian-les-Baines. I imagine the resort will try to keep it quiet; it hardly improves their image, of course, though the local records should be able to confirm. Supposedly an accident, yes, sir, but I believe this copy of a letter I 'discovered' makes it clear what really happened. Yes, sir, unfortunate, but we did discuss the possibility of such an outcome, and it really does reduce the complications for us, and without any nasty blame attached to us that could be used as Nazi propaganda."

Major Johns was more than a little impressed by Garrison's calm acceptance of that necessity, his cool professionalism at taking care of what had obviously been required. {"Maybe I was wrong about him being a little too much of a boy-scout,"} Johns admitted to himself as he prepared to close the file on Doctor K Berger and his assistant, whatever her name was, once and for all.

 

Now, back at the mansion, the men were sprawled in the chairs in the Common Room, Garrison at the small table off to the side trying to work on a first draft of an official report that was just going to have to be about 80-90% pure fiction. {"Scratch that 'Creative Writing 301'; I have to be up to at least 'Creative Writing Series 701' by now!"}

They all agreed, "yeah, just a piece of cake", with a combination of frustration, amusement, and overall relief at having gotten back in one piece.

It had also been a relief when Pasha had made his departure with the sisters, along with Elsa; the men couldn't see Sergeant Major taking the presence of a dog all that well, and frankly, watching Goniff make over the hound made Garrison a little uncomfortable. Oh, alright, uncomfortable and a little envious. He had the feeling that, while Goniff genuinely LIKED the dog, at least part of that devoted attention was the Englishman's way of teasing Garrison on the sly. Garrison decided to take whatever comfort he could in the fact that at least HE didn't make those little crooning noises like Pasha insisted on making, or those eager little whines. (At least he HOPED he didn't, and he decided it was better not to ask Goniff for confirmation of that, just in case. His pickpocket would most likely tell him!)

And, there had been a great deal of satisfaction (at least among the team) at that envelope Ciena had just slipped to Actor with such a sly grin and triumphant nod. They didn't know how much was there, wouldn't look til Garrison was safely elsewhere, but from what they'd seen in that fast glance the women had given them of their plunder, the retirement fund had the potential for growing by leaps and bounds. Actor had actually been stunned and white-faced at what they'd seen, along with that faded piece of paper and what it claimed for those exquisite pieces of jewelry.

"Piece of cake, maybe, if yer talking one of those seven layer cakes, every layer a different flavor!" Casino had proclaimed with a harsh laugh.

He was still feeling a little put out, to say the least. He had continued to strike out with the lovely Elsa, even after multiple attempts, which had been a painful disappointment in more ways than one. Well, it would have certainly given him bragging rights over Actor after the Italian had hit a brick wall. Actor had quit graciously while he was ahead and hadn't even made a second attempt, which Casino thought was just lame of the reputed ladies' man.

"Giving up just cause she says 'No' a time or two! Like you can expect a dame to know her own mind! Think yer just getting old, Beautiful - old and tired! Maybe you shoulda taken some more of those rejuvenating treatments while we were at that health spa, huh? Maybe gotten a few of those face thingies, maybe shrunk some of those wrinkles yer starting to get."

Goniff had scolded him thoroughly, of course, for his continued pursuit of the brown-eyed blonde who had seemed, at least to the Englishman, to know her own mind quite well.

"Seems clear enough to me, Casino! Don't much fancy men, didn't make no bones about it! And not like 'Gaida, who, it seems DOES, but who's just real particular about who," giving a smug smile over at the elder of the two sisters, getting a warm smile in return, "but Elsa don't seem to be fancying them at all! Let Actor know right enough 'e wasn't to pester 'er, and 'e 'ad enough sense to back off. You shoulda done the same, least after the first two times she told you she wasn't interested, in 'im, or you, or any of us blokes."

"Well, yeah, but that was Beautiful over there, and the rest of you! This was ME! I coulda changed her mind if she'd just given me the chance! Hell, what could another dame give her that I couldn't??! Of course, she's staying in London for awhile; I still bet I can bring her around. Hey, Ciena, you said you got her that place to stay with a friend of yours; write down the address for me, will ya? Maybe I'll drop by next time I'm up there."

Meghada and Ciena, listening with more than a little amusement to the safecracker's whining, just couldn't help it - they just had to laugh out loud at that display of ego, pique and sheer male Outlander conceit.

Ciena chided him gently, "Casino, I'd suggest you look elsewhere, for your own good. Elsa truly does not favor men. And she made it clear to me that if you suggested 'a little one-on-one, or maybe a nice little three-some, you, me, the redhead,' one more time, she was going to start to get really annoyed, and you've already had a taste of her displeasure.

"And surely I must have mis-heard her; you couldn't POSSIBLY have suggested me for that 'third'! That would do more than annoy me, and I'm quite sure you don't want THAT to happen. I'll pick my OWN bedpartners, thank you very much, and you shouldn't confuse 'patriotic duty' with 'preference', not without a lot more information to go on. Or to assume I would accept YOU just because you had enveigled Elsa into such a notion, certainly not just for your gratification. You just don't know me that well, to assume OR even to ask, so just don't," she cautioned as she saw the safecracker open his mouth to do that very thing.

"In fact, I'd imagine making such a suggestion unless you were quite SURE of the woman's interest in such activities might have, em, shall I say 'uncertain' results. You might 'get lucky', true; you might also get very UN-lucky," she told him dryly.

Casino gave a hurried if rather weak, "yeah, well, she musta misunderstood! Never meant you . . ."

Ciena interrupted his red-faced defense. "Well, that's interesting, since it seems you specified 'the redhead', and the only other redhead in the area was Meghada, and I am VERY, VERY sure you didn't mean HER! 'Annoyed' would be a huge understatement there, I should think," and the stony glare Casino was getting from the older sister showed her full agreement.

The snarl from their pickpocket, the cold look from Garrison, indicated more than just the sisters were taking offense, and the incredulous laughs from Actor and Chief had Casino trying desperately to remember an errand he needed to take care of immediately.

But he couldn't, and he was on the far side of the room from the only available exit unless he wanted to dive out one of the windows, so he just gave a weak grin. And, then, of course, he proceeded to make things worse as only Casino could.

"Well, okay, she got her point across. Who knew a dame could hit that hard??!" rubbing his stomach where Elsa had resorted to a little physical emphasis, since her words were being ignored.

Somehow those VERY icy looks from the sisters, the very deliberate way Meghada stood and started toward him had him backing up quickly. It seems she just might be intending to show him just how hard a 'dame' really COULD hit!

Sending a pleading look over to Goniff had no effect; the Englishman just shrugged, obviously not going to intercede on his behalf. Casino turned back to the approaching storm.

"Hey, don't get pissed! I'm talking about REAL dames, not you two!"

Somehow that didn't seem to make things any better, although the snort coming from the side seemed to indicate that at least Actor was finding this amusing. (Well, he was, and in fact the whole affair had just given him the loveliest idea for a little 'May-hem' to be engineered specifically for their adventurous safecracker.)

"Pappy, you sure Elsa didn't slam you over the head, not just in the gut? Better shut your trap before they shut it for you," Chief suggested dryly.

"Casino, I think you need to stop shoveling before your head is totally underground," Garrison told him, the officer also seeming to find this more than a little funny, at least once he got that little 'stand down' signal that showed Megheda wasn't REALLY serious about taking his safecracker apart at the seams. Yeah, maybe it would be interesting to see, but he needed the guy upright and able to do the job in case they got a call to head out.

"Hell, I was just joking, really! Come on, Goniff, she's your woman! Call her off! Help a buddy out here, can't ya??!"

The Englishman leaned back in his chair, arch look on his face, carefully studying the nails on his right hand as if he was considering whether he needed a manicure anytime soon, before he lifted his eyes to give Casino a very cool look.

"Glad you remembered that part, Casino, about 'er being mine; seems like maybe you were forgetting that. And, yeah, maybe I could 'elp, but - - - you know? I don't think I'm gonna. Keep shoveling, mate, just keep shoveling. Stop off w'en you get to China, bring us back some quality tea, eh? THEN, maybe we'll see."