Read The Losing Role Online

Authors: Steve Anderson

Tags: #1940s, #espionage, #historical, #noir, #ww2, #america, #army, #germany, #1944, #battle of the bulge, #ardennes, #greif, #otto skorzeny, #skorzeny

The Losing Role (9 page)

BOOK: The Losing Role
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Another sip, choking it down. Braun probably thought
he was saving them with his senseless act. Or? Perhaps Braun was
the smartest one. Perhaps he saw all too clearly what lay ahead for
him, for Germany, for all those he loved still living. The kid had
saved himself. Cashed in. Gave in. He was no fool. Only fools had
hopes and dreams. Only fools kept secret plans. Max, in that case,
was the biggest fool of all.

A gulp, his tongue numbing. And yet, what else can I
do? Max thought. The sad fact was he’d have to be even more foolish
if he was going to make it—if he was going to save himself. Set
yourself free, Max. He raised his cup in a toast.

“Here’s to the fools,” he blurted in English.

Around the barrack, deadpan faces turned his way.
“Here’s to ‘em,” said a prisoner. “Said it, Jack,” grunted
another.

The guards came minutes before lights out. They
pulled Max, Felix, Zoock, and the other undercover Germans from
their barracks and kept them safe in the German section of the
camp. Others had not fared well, they learned. One was knifed in
his bunk (a flesh wound, luckily) while another had the gall to
make a pass at a prisoner. This one was bound with wire and tied to
a post in the shower hut—naked. The sorry tale had made Felix smile
for the first time since Braun’s death.

Nevertheless, the
Kommandant
vowed to keep
the remaining fifteen in camp until their two days were up—Doktor
Solar’s orders would be fulfilled. The solution? Compulsory
language lessons. The next day the
Kommandant
offered rare
ersatz beer and meat rations to any American who came to the
auditorium and spoke their brand of English with the camp’s mystery
guests. The prisoners came in droves. Even Sergeant Espinoza
stopped by. “You got to lay off the stuffy Mid-Atlantic talk,’” he
told Max, tugging on his watery beer and making it last.

“Thank you.” The heavy ache in Max’s chest was back.
He lowered his beer. “You must tell me. Why Braun?”

“Why? No why. The kid picked himself. Might as well
have had ‘kraut’ stamped on his forehead, the way he was talking
and acting—till he got a baseball glove on, that is.” Espinoza
shook his head, took another sip. “To be blunt? Rest of you were
little help. Amish? My ass. He’s Amish, I’m a goddamn
Rockefeller.”

The language sessions were helpful, yet the day left
Max with an even greater ache in his chest and head. The prisoners
could have refused to take part. After all, weren’t they aiding and
abetting the enemy? Yet it didn’t seem to matter to them. Max saw
it in the way Espinoza and his gang smiled at him. They must be
thinking:
These undercover krauts are so moronic, so doomed,
they aren’t even worth the fight.
It was only worth the bad
beer.

By the last day in Stammlager VII A, Max had fallen
into a blue funk. He needed to get back to Grafenwöhr and move
onward. The show must go on. As they waited outside for the truck
that would haul them away, Max nudged Felix and they shared a
cigarette alone by the fence. “Don’t tell anyone how off I was,”
Max said, speaking German again. “How rotten. My God, if that was
not the worst performance of my life.”

“I won’t,” Felix said. Max huffed and smoked,
glaring out beyond the fence. Did Felix have to be so callous? The
least he could have done was ask the same of Max. “Look, don’t fret
it,” Felix added, placing a hand on Max’s shoulder. “You’ll have
the chance to make up for it. We all will. I will. Not all
Amis
will prove so sly, of that I can assure you.”

 

The fifteen exhausted and humiliated
agents-in-training returned to Grafenwöhr late at night. The sky
was still and pitch black, smothered by low heavy clouds. Max and
Felix said goodnight to Zoock and trudged off to their barracks,
Felix leaning into Max they were so tired. They headed up the
steps, opened the door. All dark. All quiet. Max shut the door
behind them, letting his eyes adjust. The lights flashed on.

“Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah for the Special Unit
Pielau!”

“Long live our Pielau commandos!”

The whole barrack had stayed up. Max and Felix stood
at the door, stunned. The men clapped and stomped and knocked on
the tables and bunks. Max smiled. Felix grinned. Max bowed. Felix
gave Max a playful punch in the ribs. Max grasped Felix’s hand and
they bowed together.


Zugabe!
Bravo!”

“On to victory with Special Unit Pielau!”

The big news from camp was the fifteen were now part
of an elite new unit—named after the dead man Captain Pielau
himself. The men surrounded Max and Felix, asking questions all at
once. Said one, “Bet your English is stellar now, eh? Tell us.”

Max placed a hand to his heart, with fingertips.
“Well,” he began in English, “ours was a tough mission. But that
was the boat we were in. And it was a bad one.”

They stared. “A poor ship?” muttered one. “Must be
an idiom,” mumbled another.

Someone tossed Felix a pack of cigarettes and
lighter and he juggled them. “It’s like this. We showed the
Amis
who’s boss, really had them spinning—just like this,”
and they passed him more to juggle—pack of cards, bullet cartridge,
a knife. “Shame we can’t give you the juicy details. But just you
wait and see what we got in store for them.” The men shouted and
stomped some more. Felix kept it up. “These fool Americans, they
can bomb us but they can’t stop us. When the going gets tough, such
a bastard and lazy nation stands no chance against the likes of
us.” Men hollered and punched fists in the air. They lifted Felix
and carried him around the barrack like some Egyptian prince.

Max clapped along. He shouted, too. Of course, they
were no elite force. Yet to these young men in the barrack, he and
Felix were the one great hope. And why not? Their illusions were
probably healthier than Max’s own.

By the morning, Felix had totally rewritten the
script. “You want to know what went wrong in that POW camp?
Nothing. It was the
Amis
’ fault,” he told Max on the way to
mess. It wasn’t the
Amis
’ fault that Max forgot the American
word for petrol. Yet Max held his tongue. “See, they set us up from
the start,” Felix continued. “Like true dogs they tricked us. Only
a sly and degenerate—no, evil—race could concoct such a scheme. We
all agreed—you heard it last night. So how can it not be so?”

It certainly drew the greatest applause. Max
shrugged. “All I know is, Dear Felix, war will do strange things to
people.”

The first week of December. The snow was falling
nonstop. The camp linguists had determined that out of all the
supposed English speakers in Grafenwöhr, roughly twenty could speak
fluent American English. Zoock belonged to this group, while Max
and Felix belonged to the next range of twenty or so who’d mastered
near-native American English. Another good hundred could speak the
language, but their accents gave them away. And the rest? Beyond
redemption. In a casting call, they’d barely make the cut for
background extras. Once behind American lines they would not speak
unless absolutely necessary, it was decided. If forced to speak,
they would stick to grunting words such as “yes” and “no.” By no
means would they utter any American words containing “th” or “w.”
If pressured they would act crazy, shell-shocked, nauseous or even
diarrheic, in which cases they might escape by holding their
stomachs and wandering from the scene.

For those who could master limited pronunciation,
prepared scripts would provide stock slang phrases soldiers could
employ to stall and run away—or get off the first shot. With his
background, Max was recruited to help draft the scripts. One went
like this:

 

Situation: You face an American sentry.

American sentry: WHO GOES THERE?

You say: IT’S OK, JOE.

If the sentry repeats the question, you say: IT’S
OK, JOE. DON’T MIND ME.

If the sentry is not satisfied, do not try to
understand his demands, as this will only give you away. Respond in
one of four following ways:

1.) GO ON, DON’T BOTHER ME.

2.) SAYS YOU. LAY AN EGG.

3.) COME UP AND SEE ME SOMETIME.

4.) SO IS YOUR OLD MAN . . .

 

For Max, the language problem was only the tip of
the iceberg. They’d studied US Army handbooks and could march
American-style, but how good was any of that at the front, under
fire? Then there was Max’s own plan. He would be a crude and
perverse sort of double agent—betraying Germans and conning
Americans at the same time. Would he have to kill Americans to get
free? Or would it be one, or more, of his own? When, how, where to
act? The risks were multiplying faster than he could grasp
them.

 

Grafenwöhr, December 10 now. Their world had turned
white. They trained on packed snow and ice. That evening, Max went
for a stroll. He lit a cigarette and let himself daydream, if only
a little. He had a woman here, he imagined, and he entertained her
in Skorzeny’s villa. As always, he was careful not to have her be
too much like his Liselotte. This time she had a deep and silken
voice like Dietrich and her hair was long in the style of Veronica
Lake. Max proved the old raconteur. He sang her songs. She took him
right there in the den . . .

Strolling on, the fresh snow barely swishing beneath
his feet, Max rounded the front of the mess hall—and heard
something. He stopped. Put out his cigarette between fingertips,
let it fall to the ice. Someone was whispering, and then another,
and so heatedly it sounded like hissing. It came from around the
corner, from the side of the mess hall. Between the hall and
another building was a dark and narrow alleyway. During the day
some used it to duck from duty. Yet now, so late? From there Max
heard:

“So-called secret mission quite a fiasco, eh?
Couldn’t even handle some filthy Yankees in a POW camp. So who
screwed it up, then? You? I’ll bet it was you . . .”

This sounded like Captain Rattner.

Max heard a hollow bang—someone pushed up against
the wall. He tiptoed forward, and took a peak around the
corner.

Two figures about halfway down the alley. It was
dark, but the one doing the pushing was definitely Rattner—Max
could tell by his thick shoulders. The one Rattner pushed was
Felix.

“Why should I tell you?” Felix shot back. “Why tell
you anything? You’re just envious.”

Rattner slapped Felix on the side of the head.

Max pulled back, squatting low. He heard Felix say,
“You wouldn’t have stood a chance in there.”

Rattner slapped him again.

Max could break this up. All he had to do was
whistle and stroll on by. Despite his early stumbles, Felix Menning
had made it into Special Unit Pielau. He’d taken part in a
reputedly heroic operation. And yet Captain Rattner’s wrath over
Felix had only increased. At the same time, Max had noticed a
strange parallel—the worse Rattner treated Felix, the more fervent
Felix grew about their looming mission. Max had judged this to be
the result of longstanding, unrealized drives lurking in each of
them and imagined it a sort of mutual father-son complex—only
through a glorious victory might Felix the son prove himself to
Rattner, the father.

It had gone quiet down there. Max turned to look.
Felix had grabbed Rattner’s cap. He tossed it. Felix kicked Rattner
at the ankles and knocked the lieutenant to the ice. Crouching,
Felix twisted Rattner’s arms behind his back and pushed the
lieutenant farther down the alley, into the darkness.

Felix was knocking Rattner around. And Rattner let
him?

Rattner was on his knees. Felix pulled down his
trousers, slapped Rattner on the side of his head and pulled the
lieutenant’s face to his crotch. Max heard a giggle, and it wasn’t
Felix.

Max pulled back, picked his cigarette stub off the
ice and hustled off on tiptoes. He was no prude. A man’s company
was one thing, he thought, and he’d seen it often enough in the
theater world. This was something different. This was where love
and hate spoke the same language.

 

Next morning at mess, the men’s zeal was peaking. The
rumors and theories turned so grandiose, Max found it hard to keep
up. They were to capture the American General Staff, went one
rumor. No, no, they would retake Paris in American uniform, said
another, and push the Allies back to Dunkirk just like in 1940.
Even Zoock got in the game. They were to sail to England and bag
that old navy man Churchill, of that he was certain.

“Ask me, I say we’re going to take out Eisenhower
himself,” Felix shouted.

Max was sitting at Felix’s right as always. What
he’d seen the night before did not happen, he’d reminded himself
three times this morning. “That sounds about right,” Max said,
smiling. Then he picked at his potatoes and sipped his cold ersatz
coffee.

That evening, SS Lieutenant Colonel Skorzeny
addressed Special Unit Pielau in his villa. Numbering about forty
now, the commandos of Special Unit Pielau had packed into
Skorzeny’s dining room. They sat shoulder to shoulder on chairs set
out in perfect rows as if they were about to hear a baroque
quartet. Skorzeny stood before them, where the quartet might have
been, and Arno the adjutant served the men champagne glasses filled
with thinned beer just like they got in the POW camp. Max was near
the back, next to Felix, yet they didn’t have to strain to see the
tall Skorzeny. The man wore the combat fatigues of an American
Colonel, a tight-fitting and much drabber costume than his tailored
SS finery. Skorzeny raised his glass and they all raised their
glasses and stood on the tips of their toes. Skorzeny said:

“Congratulations,
Kameraden
—you brave men in
this special unit are the spearhead of what is now called
Panzerbrigade 150
. We move out in two days.”

BOOK: The Losing Role
8.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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