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 (3 page)

BOOK: The Losing Role
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A group of sappers was doing some black market
trading. Max strode over and let them jeer at his exclusive attire.
He loved it. The sappers loved it. One offered a
Jägerwurst
and three potatoes for Max’s cane, and Max commenced negotiations,
“That’s all good and well, but what a gentleman really needs, boys,
is a nice country egg—”

“What the devil are you? Mister dandy pansy?”
Someone was yelling. It came from the office at the edge of the
ground, some thirty feet away. An SS lieutenant was standing on the
office steps, his hands on his hips. Max assumed the lieutenant was
yelling at the juggler, but the juggler had stopped. He’d tucked
his longish scarf into his tunic. The lieutenant continued, “That’s
right, I’m talking to you! Speak up you!”

“Surely that little tyrant’s talking to someone
else,” Max said to his group.

The SS lieutenant marched across the ground, the
steam pulsing out his mouth. The sappers parted and stepped back.
Max’s uniform was packed in the rucksack on his shoulder. He
lowered the rucksack to his feet. The lieutenant came straight for
him.

“Excuse me, gents,” Max said and turned to the
lieutenant—

Who screamed and spat spittle: “Why aren’t you in
uniform? Speak, you. Name and rank and unit.”

Max smelled
Bockbier
and liver dumpling. What
a bore, he thought. He stood at attention and saluted, and only
then did he notice he still had on the white gloves he’d traded for
on the train. “Before I tire you with the whole story, sir,” he
began, “I should clarify that I’m a lowly army corporal, in the
infantry, just arrived from the Eastern Front and, well, my uniform
was so worn from the hard fighting, I did not want to offend
anyone.”

“Another goddamned thespian, that it? Now strip and
get your kit on.” The lieutenant kicked Max’s rucksack for emphasis
and marched off with his arms folded behind his back like a drill
instructor.

Men joked with Max as he stripped in the biting cold
and switched into his itchy old uniform. The sapper returned,
frowning, and gave Max one egg for his sore luck.

Across the ground, the SS lieutenant had stopped at
the juggler. He screamed something in the juggler’s face and the
juggler, tottering, reached in his tunic and pulled out the length
of his tucked-in orange scarf. It flopped at his belt buckle. The
lieutenant grabbed at the stretch of scarf, pulled the juggler to
his chest, drew his service knife and hacked the scarf off close to
the juggler’s neck. This got few laughs. The lieutenant laughed
anyway and sauntered back to his office, his arms swinging.

 

Their training was so secret the enlisted men could
not send mail or have outside contact. Max got a bottom bunk in a
barrack and a standup locker slapped together with cheap pinewood.
That first night he set his fine clothing in a neat pile in his
locker and dropped into his bunk, worried. He was little more than
a recruit again, it seemed. Then he lay back, his head snug in his
new pillow, and decided worrying was pointless. Almost anything was
better than where he came from.

The lone juggler got the bunk above him, and Max
suspected the SS lieutenant put them together so he could keep an
eye on them. The juggler’s name was Menning, Felix Menning. As they
stowed their gear, Max tried to chat him up, get his mind off that
asshole lieutenant, but Felix Menning gave him little. He too had
been in America, he said—for over two years, and he’d been in the
circus to boot. Then he clammed up and climbed into his bunk.

Soon after lights out, Max heard what first sounded
like sniffles. It was sobbing, but muffled as if into a pillow. It
was Felix Menning up above him. Max nudged the upper bunk with a
knee. “Buck up,
Kamerad
,” he whispered. “Change is good,
don’t you see? Even in war. One door closes, another opens.”

“Amen,” someone said a couple bunks down. “He’s
right, circus boy,” said another.

Felix Menning said nothing. Soon he was snoring.

Next morning at reveille, Max and Felix were the
last two out the barrack door. Max was groggy and slow getting his
uniform on, while Felix took his time. At the doorway, Felix waited
for him.

Felix put a flat hand to Max’s chest. “Listen,
Kaspar, you leave that shithead lieutenant to me. I know how to
handle the likes of him.” He said this with emphasis, but not
anger, as if he were counting out change.

“You can have him.” Max fought a smile. “Such the
blackguard, aren’t you? I forget, you were in the circus—”

“And Berlin. Parts you don’t even want to know
about. So I know my way around a lug like him.” Menning’s stare had
become a smile. He patted Max’s chest. “We’ll get on better that
way. Trust me.”

Max never got to the quartermaster first thing. That
morning the interviews began, and Max was one of the first to be
called in. Two of the strangely mute guards escorted him to a
wooden bungalow that looked like a larger version of the standard
German garden hut. They left Max inside, alone. A chair stood in
the middle of the room before a desk. Max sat in it. The interior
was little more refined than the exterior. As in the barracks,
everything here was unpainted wood—floor, walls, ceiling, desk—all
made of pinewood planks and so raw it was furry in the light. One
could catch a sliver on any of it, he thought. Frightful. Four
metal chairs and two file cabinets completed the dreadful decor.
Only the iron wood stove in the corner helped warm this up.

The door swung open. Four officers entered—two
horse-faced SS lieutenants who looked like young doctors, the
shithead SS lieutenant who Felix Menning said he could handle, and
to Max’s great delight, Captain Adalbert von Pielau.

Max wanted to shout out the good man’s name. He
stood and gave his best salute.

Pielau did the Hitler salute, as did the others, and
they sat, Pielau at the desk facing Max’s chair and the other three
behind Max. Pielau introduced the horse-faced lieutenants. Shithead
introduced himself. His name was Rattner.

Pielau tried a curt smile. “So, we meet again,
Corporal Kaspar—or is it von Kaspar?”

Max got the picture. This Pielau had to play it
straight. “My army paybook says Kaspar, sir,” Max said.

“So it does, yes.” Pielau pulled folders from his
map case and slapped them on the desktop. He stared at some papers
as if reading, but his eyeballs weren’t moving. Behind Max, one of
the officers was trying to clear his throat, and the phlegmy
screech combined with the greasy smell of the wood stove fire made
Max’s stomach clench up and his throat constrict.

“You lived in America,” Pielau said. “Eight years.
Your family had emigrated there and got themselves to New
Hampshire. You end up in New York City. Why?”

“I’m an actor,” Max said. “We like a new challenge.”
Pielau stared, expecting more. “And a shot at success, of course,”
Max added.

Pielau pursed his lips and moved them around, as if
he had meat stuck between teeth. “Other Germans went too. They made
films. Hollywood embraced them. That traitor bitch Marlene
Dietrich. That little rat Lorre.”

“Hollywood still embraces them.”

“Lucky for them. You dabbled in American forms.”

“Forms, sir?”

One of the officers behind Max said, “Musicals—with
the Negro’s jazz.” It was Lieutenant Rattner. “And all the while
you work with Jews,” he added.

“I’m not Jewish,” Max said. “My race certificate is
in order and on file.”

Pielau was glaring at Rattner. “No one’s doubting
your racial purity, Corporal. So, why return to Germany? Why return
in ’39?”

“I’m a German. By ’39 I knew my place was here.” Max
too could play it straight. He wasn’t lying so much as
interpreting. He’d really believed something like this back
then.

“You never joined the party,” one of them said.

“You never joined the SS,” another said.

“You were lucky not to land in prison, the schemes
you’ve been up to,” Rattner said. “Refusing good German roles.
Exploiting the black market. We should have thrown your type back
to America.”

If they insisted on pecking, why sit behind him? Max
turned and glared at the three lieutenants. He wanted to say what
was really on his mind, but a modern German had to pick his
battles. His refusals had been about art, at first. The roles he
declined were melodramatic junk that not even Hollywood was doing.
As far as the black market went, Max was only one of many. These
sheltered SS clowns had no idea. Max simply had the poor fortune to
be one of many minor scapegoats. The three met Max’s glare with
dead stares, their eyes dark. Max said, “No, instead you put me in
an army uniform. Let me fight. And for that I am grateful.
Sirs.”

Rattner spat.

“Corporal, please, turn back around,” Pielau said.
“Thank you. Back in Germany, there was also a woman.”

“Liselotte. Yes.”

“Not just any woman, I should add. Frau Auermann was
an inspiration to us all.”

They had no idea of inspiration, Max thought,
simmering. Inspiration took imagination.

“She died, in an air raid,” Pielau said.

“In Hamburg. It was an American air raid, to be
exact.”

Silence behind him. They’d all lost someone close.
Max turned to them and could tell from Rattner’s looser stare that
Rattner had lost more than one. He faced Pielau again, and they
shared a knowing glance.

“Perhaps we leave loved ones out of it,” Pielau
said.

“In New York you changed your name, called yourself
a noble,” Rattner said to Max.

“My agent’s idea,” Max said. The name change was
Max’s doing. His agent thought it too corny yet hokum only seemed
to help in America, Max had argued.

“And you let him,” Rattner said. “
Amis
say
jump you say how high, is that it?”

Max shrugged. In German, the word “
Ami
” was
slang for an American. He thought it boorish and never used it. Now
he’d use whatever it took. “Not exactly,” he said. “The
Amis
are persistent, to be sure, but not in that way. Especially in New
York. They won’t listen to reason. They follow their own paths, I
suppose. But the longer you’re there, the less you know . . . ”

A moment of silence crept in. They all knew less
these days.

“You mentioned success,” Pielau said. “Did you find
it?”

“Let’s just say I’m still looking,” Max said.
Stalling. Thinking. They were offering him some kind of opening,
and he sure as hell would take it. Yet to come up with a plan, he
would have to survive first. He knew what he had to do, for now.
He’d pull out all the stops. The Nazis liked a show. Bombast was
their milieu.

“Gentlemen, if I may say something?” Max said.

“Go on.”

Max stood and met the eyes of all, fists at his
sides. He let one knee wobble, in anger. “I hate America,” he said.
“I despise her. It. It knows no culture. It breeds contempt for
others. It’s a bourgeois wasteland of fat cats and unruly sheep.
This all threatens the National Socialist ideal. The only threat
worse is Communism. May the two rot in hell. So if I can help make
that happen faster, I stand ready.” The lieutenants nodded. Max
turned to Pielau, clicked his heels, gave the Hitler salute and
practically threw his arm out doing so.

Pielau gave a half-salute. “Fine, admirable. I’m
sure you’ll have your chance. Our intrepid commander—code name,
Doktor Solar—will need such enthusiasm from all of us on this
mission. We’re all a part of this now.”

So Pielau was jumping on the bandwagon. Smart man,
the captain. Anka should have been this smart. “So, you speak
English too,” Max added in English.

Pielau stared. He nodded, and then began to shake
his head—


Ach
, but of course, you do,” Max blurted in
German, helping the poor soul out. He turned to Rattner. “And you
too, I suppose,” he continued in English—

Rattner snorted a laugh. “Speaking of tongues, I bet
you’d like to know about the guards here?” he said in German,
changing the subject with as much skill as a rhino diving into a
creek. “They’re Ukrainian SS. Don’t speak German well enough to
know what’s what. You see? We don’t want our guards knowing a
thing, going into town, getting too full of beers or brandy and
spilling the beans. Now do we?”

“You don’t trust your own men, sir?” Max said.

“That we will soon find out.” As Lieutenant Rattner
spoke, Max glanced at Pielau. The way Pielau’s flabby jowl had
tightened up, it was clear whom the lieutenant was addressing.

 

That evening, Captain Pielau sent for Max. Pielau met
him outside on the parade ground alone. Max saluted and the captain
clicked his heels. Pielau was smiling, his teeth glowing in the
moonlight. He lit cigarettes for them. He handed one to Max.

“Let me tell you the greatest secret. Doktor Solar?
Our commander? He is none other than SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto
Skorzeny. You have heard of him, yes?”

“Of course. The man is a legend.” Max didn’t want to
know. Surely, this was top secret.

“So I must warn you. What you said to me about
fleeing to the Western Front? You must never say it to anyone
again. Especially not here.”

What about divulging top secrets to enlisted men?
How did that fit in? Max shuddered, but it wasn’t from the cold. He
grimaced and hoped it was a smile.

“I mean it, Kaspar. Less astute SS officers would
have had you shot for less.”

“Rattner, for example. So I should thank you.” Max
clicked his heels.

Pielau stomped. “This is no joke. The war can change
now. I can see how it can.” He grasped at Max’s wrist, his voice
rising. “There are new weapons. The grandest plans. And we, here,
are a part of that. We can win this. I tell you we can. When will
you understand it?”

Max pried Pielau’s hand from his wrist and stood
back, locking eyes with the captain. “Oh, I understand, dear
Pielau. I understand all too well.” His cigarette hung from his
lips, a cold dead stem. It had already gone out.

BOOK: The Losing Role
7.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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