I was not surprised by two things as I exited Soviet HQ. First, that the sun was still bright. I had forgotten how long the days were at this time of year in Vienna. I also did not expect to see Cookie waiting for me in our Jeep outside the building. Especially considering that Granville was sitting next to him. The colonel gave me a look that I am sure he normally reserved for bad odors and signaled me that I should hop in the back. Before my butt even hit the seat Cookie took off with a grind of the gears and a squeal of tires. I leaned forward to provide the Colonel with an explanation of what had happened, but he held up his hand and yelled against the wind noise. “Hold it. Wait until we get someplace where we do not have to yell to be heard. Then leaning over to Cookie he said “Find us some place we can have a beer and where we won’t likely be overheard.”
Cookie, whose normally sardonic expression had been replaced by a tight-lipped grimness, nodded and proceeded to take us on a high-speed drive through the streets of Vienna. We all wanted to leave Soviet HQ in the dust. If the experience of the last two hours had taught me nothing at all it was the Russians were everywhere and they were watching. Cookies drive was an effort to get them off our trail for at least a little while. But I also sensed he was exercising some personal demons as well. It was clear Granville was not pleased with him and perhaps he was a little embarrassed too. While not entirely his fault, it was his responsibility to keep me from tripping over my own shoelaces which I had no doubt done in a somewhat spectacular fashion.
After about 15 minutes of driving, where I was in constant fear of falling out of the back of the Jeep,.we pulled up to what appeared to a pile of rubble on Gonzagagasse. It was not far from the Danube Canal and the Old Hotel Metropole which had served as Gestapo Headquarters. Clearly Soviet artillery and Allied Bombers had known this because the area was a sea of rubble. What used to be a bustling section of the city was now just piles of broken masonry and concrete with only a few buildings remained standings. Many of those just barely. None of them without scars of the allied assault. I couldn’t imagine why we had come here. To my eye it resembled more the surface of the moon than any place man might possibly live. Let alone find a bar. Clearly, my eye was not as well trained as Cookies. Or perhaps he had been here before. He led us to a partially collapsed building where a path had been cleared through the rubble. It led to set of stairs that sank into what appeared to be the basement of the building.
At the bottom of the stairs, we had to push aside a filthy velvet curtain that once might have been red and were instantly plunged into darkness. The last hour of daylight and the dimness of the cellar producing a momentary blindness. When I regained my vision, I saw that at some point before the war that this had been a watering hole for the rich and the famous. Its décor was Art Noveau whose sinuous contours and lines seemed perfectly at home in this subterranean refuge. It had a long zinc bar that at one point must have had a large mirror behind it that was no doubt shattered with one of the first bomb blasts. It had been replaced by makeshift shelving salvaged from broken bits of other buildings that held a few bottles of dusty liquor. A few small round tables were scattered over the broken and dirty white tiles that made up the central part of the bar. At one point these tables must have had a high gloss but now were pock marked with water marks from countless drinks. A few had crude repairs to their legs and tops inadvertently making them perfect metaphors for their city. Around the periphery of the room were a few booths that may have once been covered with rich dark red velveteen but now were upholstered in a patchwork of their original coverings and sacrificed bed sheets grafted over holes and tears where wear and war had taken their toll.
. What used to be a place where the wealthy and well to do used to come and laugh about the world had become a refuge for the weary and the worn. A place to anesthetize themselves against the cruelties of war. Except at this hour the place was empty. Not even a proverbial drunk passed out at a table.
The barkeep, a mustachioed formerly fat man who now held his pants up with a length of rope and looking as if personal hygiene was more a memory than a day-to-day occurrence brought us three steins of beer without asking. The beer glasses looked filthy, but thirst and anxiety got the better of us, so we took a gulp of what proved to been warm and watery ale. None of us had said a word since we had exited the Jeep. I cannot tell you what was on Granville’s and Cookies mind but speaking for myself I didn’t know what to say. Do you apologize for getting kidnapped and interrogated by the Russians? It had never come up in basic or at OCS so I figured I would let the other two break the silence first.
When the barkeep was back behind the bar and we had each had drained about half our beers, Granville looked at Cookie and ignoring me, said “What the fuck happened.”
Cookie looked pained. All the languid cocksureness that had defined him to me up until this point was gone. He said “Boss, I fucked up.
Granville growled “You are god damn right you fucked up. This kid doesn’t know any better. He’s still fucking wet behind the ears and as innocent as virgin brought up in nunnery. You’re the veteran. You know the score or at least should after all these years. You were supposed to protect this shave tail and make sure he did not trip all over himself like a newborn fawn. How hard could it be. Just look at the galoot. It is not like he was going to disappear in the crowd. Didn’t I fucking warn you that the Russians were looking for any excuse to pick you up. Didn’t you learn god damn anything from yesterday. My 68-year-old mother who has two cataracts and a hearing aid could have done a better job than you. Instead, you allowed him to get hauled away by the NKVD. Is this job getting to be too rough for you? Just dialing in the job until you get enough points to get sent home. Because if that is what you want to do I can think of a lot better places for you to do that. Perhaps a transfer to a sanitation unit would be more to your liking. How badly could you fuck up there.”
Granville drained the remainder of his beer and signaled the bartender for another round. Cookie said nothing. I just stared at the bottom of my glass. I had not heard an epic dressing down like that since basic and it was mortifying to watch. Part of my embarrassment was due to the fact that I knew that Cookie was taking it on the chin for me. He, in my eyes had done nothing wrong. He had just done what I had, in essence, ordered him to do. I needed to set the record straight. “Colonel, Sgt. Cook was only doing…”
“Shut the fuck up Floessel. I know exactly what Sgt. Cook did and why he did it. You are just a butterbar who does not know his ass from a hole in the ground. Yeah, you gave him an order. But it was a stupid fucking order. And he knew it. Or should have known it. He has been doing this since this war was so young it still had dew on it. He should have politely called you an idiot and suggested to you the right course of action. That is what experienced Sgts are for. To keep 90-day wonders like you from getting their ass shot off or, as is this case, getting arrested by the god damn Ruski’s. Isn’t that correct Sgt. Cook.”
“Yes, sir.” Replied Cookie with all the military gusto he could summon.
“But that doesn’t get you off the hook. Despite the fact you are still in diapers you should have known better. I can think of at least six mistakes you made in this operation. I will be impressed if you can tell me even two.”
All things considered I thought I had done pretty well. I had accomplished what I had set out to do. Find Tad in the hope that he could lead us to Anton Skoda. I had done that and had been feeling fairly good about myself…”
“Sir, sending Sgt. Cook to get our transport was a mistake. He was ordered to cover my flank and I ordered him to disregard that order which resulted in me being seized by the Russians.”
“I left mission success and familiar surroundings lull me into a sense of complacency where I neglected situation awareness.”
“God damn right. What else”
He had me. I was clueless as to the other mistakes that I had made. So I said nothing.
Granville shook his head. “Pathetic. You have known since yesterday that the Reds have been on to us yet you chose to meet with your asset, one that they will certainly be looking for now, in a public place where hostile assets could hide easily in plain view.”
Taking a breath, he added “You let your asset go. How do you know you will ever see him again? Being your boyhood friend has nothing to do with it. Nothing. He could get hit by a truck. Picked up by the Commissars. Disappear into sewars. We need him and you let him go.”
“He promised he would meet with us tomorrow.”
“That is just the point. He promised. You have not seen this guy in 6 years. Do you really think he is going to keep his promises to you?”
How do you explain to a man like Col. Granville, a professional cynic, that a friendship such as the one I have with Tad/Paul do not require cynicism? If he said he would be there, you could count on it. I said “Sir, he will be there.”
“We will see.” And then taking a breath, “Tell me what your friend said abut Herr Skoda.”
“He told me that he had not seen his Uncle in over a year. Since the Nazi’s seized control in Hungary. But that his mother had recently received word from him saying that he was fine and living in a town in Carinthia, called Portschach am Worthersee…near the Italian border. He couldn’t remember the address of the house he was living in but he thought his mother might know. He was going to retrieve it and let us know tomorrow when we are supposed to meet.”
“Where are you planning to meet?”
“I told him to come to the Sacher at 0900.”
After a pause, where Granville seemed to be considering his words, he said “What did the Russians ask you about during your visit with them.”
“They asked about Paul.”
“Who the hell is Paul?
“Sorry, Tad now goes by the name Paul. He had to change identities to avoid the Nazi’s.”
“Okay. What did they want to know about Paul. How did I know him and what we were doing in the cemetery.”
“And what did you tell them?”
“I told them a version of a truth. Paul was a friend of mine as a boy. That I had run into him unexpected at another friend’s mother’s apartment where I was paying a condolence call. And, he had volunteered to take me to our mutual friends’ grave site where we had talked about old times.”
“Did they believe you?”
“I don’t know. I think I confused them. The guy who interrogated me, Major Kudriavsky, seemed like he had done this a few times before. I got the impression he knew I was telling him the truth but that I was twisting it somehow?”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because right before he released me, he gave me a warning about Paul. He said that I did not know about him. That he was mixed up in the underground and the black market and just because someone was one thing before the war didn’t mean they would be the same now that the war was over
“Why do you think he did that?”
“I don’t know. I have been trying to puzzle it out ever since. I don’t think he was giving me the warning as a favor. One ally to another. Or to help junior officer navigate a more complicated world. The best I can figure it, he was trying to attack my confidence. Plant seeds of doubt so that I lost confidence in whatever it is that I was up to.”
“You may be right…” and while he paused to think I interjected. “Sir, how did you get me out?”
“Oh that.” and his grim faced returned as if reviewing an unpleasant memory. “Cookie, after he saw you being man handled by the NKVD, high tailed it back to the Sacher and told me what had happened. After I chewed his ass out and cursed your stupidity, we got back in the Jeep and drove to Russian Headquarters. You know that I have been spending the last few days there massaging them about our supposed mission in finding a HQ and I have become well acquainted with their commanding general. We have done a bit of horse trading where I give him some information that is useful to him and puts him in good stead with his bosses in exchange for him turning a bit of a blind eye to what it is that we are up too. And it was working pretty well until you two son of a bitches screwed the goddamn pooch. Anyway, I went to see him. Told him you were an idiot butterbar who was simply visiting friends and that I would consider it a personal favor if he would let you go. And that is what makes me so fucking mad. I now owe him at a time where I really needed him to owe me.”
He took a long pull on his beer and then added “Because what you two fucking idiots fail to realize is there more to us being here than looking for a bunch of keys to open a couple of crates. SHAEF, my bosses, and most of the eggheads think that the war we just finished is just a prelude to the next war where we take on the Bolsheviks. Neither of us are strong enough to do that right now. But it will happen. We are determined to win that war and do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal. No matter how personally repugnant and contrary to our values that is.”
“Do you understand what I mean Floessel?”
“Well, I don’t think you do. In fact, I am sure you do not. One of the things we have kept out of the public eyes is how far advanced in science and technology that the Nazis were. You may have read about the V2 rockets and their so called “jet” airplanes. Well, they were just the tip of the iceberg of their “Wunderwaffe.” Their miracle weapons. The Nazi’s knew that the only way they could beat us was with superior technology, so they invested in it. They built secret facilities, recruited teams, co-opted corporations and industries and then got ardent Nazi scientists to run them. The investment paid off. As we advanced through Germany, we found they had made unbelievable strides in munitions, chemical, biological and atomic weapons. Some of these munitions were on the verge of being deployed are seriously scary shit. One of them a nerve agent named Tabun was tested on concentration camp inmates. One drop on the skin killed them like ants spayed with insecticides, twitching and spasming until death followed in minutes.”
“They created artificial viruses that no one had ever seen before and only they had the vaccine. All this created a vast wealth of scientific knowledge that would give the country that possesses it a huge leg up in the war to come. In other words, we cannot let the Russians get their hands on this information. That is why the big boys created special teams to follow our troops as they pushed across Europe to root out what they could about these programs. To capture the research and the people who worked on these programs not only to advance our own programs but to keep them out of Soviet hands.”
“Then, something really scary happened. Two weeks ago, a German U-Boat, I think it was U-234, surrendered off the coast of Newfoundland. It turned out to be a “cargo” submarine. Who the fuck had ever heard of something like that. A “cargo” sub. Anyway, it turns out its mission was to take samples of the Nazi “Wunderwaffe” to Japan. They even had a team of scientists on board to explain it to the Nips. This got the big boys wondering in two directions. What if Japan gets hold of these new weapons in the Pacific? It could be catastrophic to our war efforts. Which led them to the next logical conclusion What if we used some of these wonder weapons against Japan? That would be catastrophic for them.”
Granville downed the last of beer. Putting his mug back on the table he said “In either case, the brass decided to step up its efforts to find, detain, and use the knowledge of as many Nazi scientists as we could find. To keep their knowledge and skills out of the hands of the Soviets and the Japanese. Just before I left on this mission, I get called into Kubala’s office. He has another officer who was introduced to me as Colonel Smith. He told me the Army had put together a roster of the scientist they wanted to detain, and recruit called the Ossenberg List. One of the top men on that list was a Nazi virologist Erich Traub whom they had been unable to find. However, they had received reports from assets in Vienna that his chief assistant, Dr. Heinz Pichler had found his way to Vienna and was living in hiding in Vienna. He wanted me to make contact with him and offer him the opportunity to come to the United States and “share” what they had learned with us. If I was successful in convincing him, and he accepted our offer, we were to smuggle him out of Vienna without the Russians catching wind of anything. He then told me that as much as possible compartmentalize this information. That I was only to share the second mission on a need-to-know basis.”
Granville paused and looked at both Cookie and myself and then added “This was not going to be easy even in the best of circumstances but now because of your clusterfuck today you have put that mission at serious risk. You see, this morning I received word through a third party that Dr. Pichler is willing to talk with us but he will only do so in a public place and if he is feels it is safe. This information was being provided on a need-to-know basis and only if he feels comfortable that there is no surveillance. Because of you two we are all going to be under surveillance. It is a no-win situation. We make the meeting, and the Dr. sees the Russian surveillance and he bolts. Just as bad, if he doesn’t spot Russian surveillance and the meeting is held we all may get picked by the Russians and we get fucked twice. They get the scientist, and we do not get the keys for the crown.
He gave us the stink eye for a few more seconds and then added “Any suggestions, geniuses.” There was an awkward silence where I spent my time giving a thoroughly inspecting the bottom of my glass and doing my best to avoid eye contact with either Cookie or Granville. As the junior member of this team I thought it best to keep my lips zipped. Besides these guys have experience in this sort of a thing and anything I could think up they probably had considered anyway.
From the corner of my eye, I glanced over at Cookie. He would not meet my glance. I returned my gaze to the bottom of my glass and several moments no one said anything. The silence became oppressive. It got to the point where I figured that saying something no matter how stupid, was better than stewing in the silence. I cleared my throat and said, “Why don’t we try some Ju Jitsu?”
Granville looked at me as if he had just heard the stupidest comment he had ever heard and was about to chew my ass off but he hesitated. No doubt figuring he could torture me a little more if he drew me a little more. He spit out “What the hell do you mean by that.”
“Its probably a stupid idea sir but why don’t we use the concept of Ju Jitsu on them…you know where you do the weight of the enemy to do all the work. You know the enemy charges at you and instead of stopping them you use their momentum to throw them.” Granville still looked confused at my suggestion and I was thinking that my original idea of keeping my mouth shut was the right course of action when he said “Go on.”
“Well sir, we know that the Russians are going to be all over us like white on rice. We can use that to our advantage. We make them think that our meeting with Tad is the important meeting. That it is where they should focus their attention. You know like the misdirection a magician uses. While you are paying attention over here, something else is going they do not see because they are focused on something. They focus on Tad and me while you keep the meeting with Pichler.”
Granville had a shocked look on his face. The type of expression you might imagine a new father having when he heard his child saying their first words “How would you do that.”
“I told Tad that I wanted him to meet you and arranged to have him meet us at the Hotel Sacher tomorrow morning. . It seems pretty obvious that the Soviets have informants if not spies there. Let’s give them something to report about. From what I learned from Major Kudarinsky they are plenty interested in Tad. What we need to do is give them reason to spend even more attention to Tad. At least for a couple of hours. If they throw their weight behind trying to figure out what is going on with Tad it should should at the very least give you a better opportunity to meet with Pichler.”
Granville looked thoughtful and then asked “Cookie, you have been remarkably quiet about this idea. What do you think?”
“I don’t know, sir. I guess it could work. But it seems to me that there are two failure points. First, what can we do to make them focus on Lt. Floessel’ s friend so much that they lose a little focus on you and allow you to slip away. The second challenge is how do you make it believable. Undersell it and they will never lose focus on you. Over sell it and they will think something is wrong and also not fall for the misdirection.”
Granville returned his attention to me. “Your friend Tad…
“Sir, he goes by Paul now.”
“Yeah fine whatever. You can explain that to me later. What I want to know is how quick on the uptake is he.”
I had a quick flashback of all the days that Tad and I had found ourselves in situations where we were forced to improvise. Make up stories on the spots with each following each other leads. I could not think of a single time where he had dropped the ball. But we weren’t 13 anymore and it had been years since we had pulled our “Frick and Frack” routine. Could I place trust into his pickup on things quickly after so many years. I thought I could but unlike when we were kids this time our lives would actually depend on it. I had absolutely nothing to go on to make that decision except the faith that the bond of friendship and understanding had managed to outlast the war.
“When we were growing up sir there was no one quicker with story than him. He could invent them out of thin air and sell them no matter how absurd. I have to believe 6 years of being a Uboater has only improved those skills.”
“According to Paul it is what the people who lived underground in Vienna called themselves.”
“Funny. I love the Viennese dark humor. But you are right. His experience living underground may be very useful.”