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 (5 page)

BOOK: The Losing Role
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“Menning, wait,” Max said, following.

The red-haired sailor came around the front of his
table. Felix kept going. The laughs turned to jeers and shouts.

They met on open floor. Felix swung at the sailor.
The sailor ducked. Yet he didn’t punch. He let Felix have another
go. Felix caught the sailor in the right jaw.

The sailor hardly flinched. Max stepped in to break
it up, but others held him back and the men gathered from all
corners of the warehouse.

Felix swung again and missed. The sailor spat,
smiled, and then undercut Felix in the stomach. Felix bent over,
his mouth shaped like an O, and a rushing sound shot from his
mouth. The sailor moved to sock Felix under his jaw, but stopped.
Felix was still bent over. The sailor pushed him back with a thumb,
and Felix stumbled back and landed on his butt. The cheers peaked.
The sailor bowed. He hollered something in Northern dialect and sat
on Felix as if pretending to ride him.

Felix tried to bite at his knuckles.

“Who’s the goat now?” the sailor said, to more
cheers.

Humiliating. And yet Felix grinned, and the cheers
rose. Men clapped. Felix loved any audience, hostile or no. It was
the way he got back at the world, Max thought, clapping along
(while for Max, it was the way he made love to the world).

“You’re all right,” the sailor said to Felix. He
dismounted and helped Felix up. The two bowed together.

“He’s coming,” someone shouted.

“Look alive.”

The clapping had stopped. The sailors sprang to
attention. SS Lieutenant Rattner was pushing his way through the
crowd. “What the hell you pulling here, boys?” he yelled, glaring
at the sailors. He had his cap clenched in his hand as if ready to
swat someone with it. No one spoke.

“Where’s Pielau?” Rattner shouted at Max. “Don’t
know, sir,” Max muttered.

Felix was gasping for breath. His uniform was a
mess. Rattner saw him and sneered. He marched over and stopped
inches from Felix’s face. Felix grinned again.

Rattner slapped Felix hard across the temple. Felix
stumbled but sneered back, defiant. Rattner slapped Felix across
the jaw, cutting his lip.

Felix, wobbling, stood at attention.

Rattner turned to face the men. All eyes met his.
“That’s for your own good,” he said to Felix. “Haven’t learned a
thing from my combat training, have you?”

Felix shook his head. Blood rolled onto his chin,
mixing with sweat. “Not yet,” he muttered, “but just you wait and
see.”

 

Four

 

Late November now. One Monday morning, Captain
Adalbert von Pielau did not return from his weekend leave. The same
day, Lieutenant Rattner assumed Pielau’s duties. On Tuesday Rattner
became an SS Captain. He roamed the Grafenwöhr compound with his
overcoat wide open, showing off his new insignia.

The stout red-haired sailor who’d scrapped with
Felix Menning led Max out behind a storage shed. The sailor’s name
was Zoock. Zoock said Captain Rattner deserved a flogging for
harassing Felix to no end. “I can’t take his swagger. Just say the
word, Mac,” he said in impressive American street English, “and me
and the boys we’ll give him the works.”

“I’m not Menning’s keeper,” Max had to say in
German, disappointed that he couldn’t think of the American way to
say this. “Why don’t you ask Felix himself?”

Zoock asked Felix, but Felix passed with heartfelt
thanks. “Things will take care of themselves, my good man,” Felix
told Zoock, patting him on his balding head.

On Thursday, after midday mess, the men were ordered
to stay in their barracks. They watched from windows as a glossy
command car and motorcycle escort rumbled through the compound. In
Max’s barrack, the men traded hopeful stories about the visitors.
Some suggested it was
Reichsmarschall
Goering, or Admiral
Doenitz, head of German intelligence. Others were certain of a
captured Allied Commander in the flesh, either that “gangster
clerk” Eisenhower or that schmuck Montgomery. Felix couldn’t stay
on his bunk. He paced the room, retelling their fantastic
hypotheses and trading them for more. He then proposed it was the
Führer himself, though many fell quiet at this prospect. Max so
wanted to tell them: It was Doktor Solar, of course.

Outside, boots crunched on the pathway pebbles.
Lieutenants came and called selected men out, one at a time. In
Max’s barrack these were mostly the sailors. Zoock got the call.
They returned smiling and grinning, holding their caps at their
waists like wedding bouquets. They fended off all inquiries. “I
can’t tell what it’s all about but just you wait and see,” Zoock
said, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

At evening mess cases of beer were set out and each
barrack got enough for three bottles a man. They hauled off the
cases, and back in the barrack, they settled down to long card
games and talk of busty pinup girls. Max sipped from his second
bottle, holed up in the darkness of his lower bunk. He was certain
he’d get the call. Could it be his association with Pielau? Or his
looks? Perhaps he was too handsome for the role.

An hour before lights out, the door flew open and
Captain Rattner filled the doorway, his hands on his hips and his
cap set at a jaunty angle. “Kaspar! Come with!”

About time, Max thought. Then his heart started
knocking at his ribs and his legs went weak. The men helped him.
They cheered and clapped as he passed, the cigarettes hanging from
their mouths. Felix stomped his feet and hollered. At the door, Max
gave them a merry bow. Hadn’t he been in this spot many times—the
last act on?

Outside, the wind pulled the door out of his hand
and slammed it shut. The gusts stung his cheeks. All was dark.
“Ready?” Captain Rattner said. He stood against the wall, slouched
in a manner Max had never seen. It was almost, well, American.

“Certainly, sir.” Max saluted.

Rattner only tapped his heels together, as Pielau
used to do. “Time to meet Doktor Solar,” he said and strode
off.

Was it a test? Max blocked out the response. He
started walking. Waited a beat. “Who, sir?”

Rattner pivoted and faced Max, waiting for him to
catch up. He pulled two cigarettes and lit them in his mouth. “A
crack answer,” he said, and inserted a cigarette between Max’s
lips. “Just the sort of acting talent we’ll need in the days to
come.”

 

In a corner of camp, deep in a small wood, stood a
stout villa with large ornate wrought-iron lamps and gate. Parked
outside were the shiny command car and motorcycles. Max heard the
crunching feet of guards but couldn’t see them.

Rattner led Max through to the front steps. “On your
own—for now,” he said and patted Max on the back.

The front door opened. An SS adjutant in a white
coat and gray gloves led Max through a marble foyer and down
carpeted hallways with floral wallpaper and polished wainscoting.
The adjutant left Max in a den lined with dark wood bookshelves. A
fire crackled in a broad stone fireplace and deep, wide leather
chairs sat before it. A standup antique globe in the corner.
Orchids stood on a buffet and Max could smell them. He walked over
and breathed them in.

Footsteps. In the hall someone said, “Kaspar.” Max
stepped away from the flowers.

An SS officer—a lieutenant colonel—strode in and
they shared a quick salute. “Evening, Corporal Kaspar,” the
lieutenant colonel said and, to Max’s surprise, shook Max’s hand
with both hands. He was well over six feet tall and Max had to look
up to meet his eyes. His rugged face had a deep scar down one
cheek, a line that ran from ear to mouth to chin. This was his
Schmiss
—his dueling scar. He could only be SS Lieutenant
Colonel Otto Skorzeny, the crack commando who’d freed Hitler’s
Italian ally Mussolini from a mountaintop prison. In Germany, now,
men like this were the real stars.

Skorzeny beamed at Max as if reading his thoughts.
“Please, sit,” he said and they took the leather chairs by the
fire. The dueling scars glistened orange as the fire’s warmth
worked its way through Max’s crusty, coarse uniform. Only his fine
clothes would really do here, he regretted. At least no women were
here to see him like this.

“So. Captain Pielau is out of the picture,” Skorzeny
said.

He’d said it like a producer announcing a casting
change. It could mean anything. “Out?” Max said.

“Dead. Yes. He’s dead.”

Dead? The flames were warming Max’s cheeks,
stretching them tight. He felt weary. He couldn’t think.

“Went on leave, died in an air raid,” Skorzeny added
plainly as if ordering a salad with his entrée.

Max shook his head. He liked Pielau. Truly. And in
the long run, Pielau might have made things easier. He might even
have gotten Max out of this altogether, if things got too hot.
“That’s t-t-terrible,” Max stammered, “Why, Captain Pielau,
he—”

“You mean ‘von Pielau’? Isn’t that what you mean?
Eh,
Herr
Maximilian von Kaspar?” Skorzeny chuckled.

Before Max could answer Skorzeny barked, “Arno! Make
it two.” Skorzeny grinned for Max. “I do hope you like cognac.”

“What? Oh, yes, naturally.”

“The problem with Pielau was the man was too naive.
You mustn’t be too hopeful in life, even in your most private
dreams. Mustn’t even be optimistic. You’ll start believing your own
bullshit. You see?”

“Yes. Yes,” Max said, stalling for the right
line.

“One must be rational. Work things out. Wait and
see. Give nothing away. And shut his trap, for God’s sake.”
Skorzeny’s lips tightened as if he wanted to spit. His big hands
met and folded into each other and he held them there, like a
priest considering a misbehaved acolyte. “The most perplexing
problem with Pielau was he wanted others to believe his own
bullshit.”

“One should keep one’s own bullshit to one’s self,”
Max said.

“Precisely. It’s a personal matter. Spiritual, if
you like.”

Max nodded, shifting in the warm leather. When was
that cognac coming? Perhaps this was the famed Skorzeny’s unique
brand of torture—offer a thirsty man a fine drink and then watch
him suffer when it never comes. Max’s thoughts were piling up fast,
colliding. Pielau was probably put up to a firing squad, if he
weren’t in some Gestapo prison. Skorzeny himself had probably
ordered it. Though you could never tell from the way the lieutenant
colonel was entertaining Max in this bourgeois villa. His nasally
Vienna accent didn’t fit his brutal physique in the least. His eyes
sparkled as he spoke. A definite charmer. Yet so was the Marquis de
Sade. “Spiritual,” Max added. The fire seemed to grow hotter. The
sweat itched under his hair.

“Feel free to unbutton your tunic, Corporal.”

“Right. Thank you.” The unbuttoning helped. Max also
took his cap off and hung it on a chair to warm—that would come in
handy in the cold barrack. Good thinking. He was coming around.

Skorzeny continued, “We cannot—will not—tolerate
leaks or dissension from within the unit. Traitors could be
anywhere. Turncoats. American spies. The mission must be protected.
Certain types, they resort to their own ways, and ends. Think they
know better.”

The adjutant was standing over Max, offering him a
cognac. The glass was oversized and warmed. Max drank from it. It
went down as fine as he imagined, all fumes and caramels. He wiped
the sweat from his forehead.

“Let’s get you away from this fire,” Skorzeny said
and stood. Max followed him across the room cradling his glass.
Skorzeny opened wall-to-floor red curtains, revealing French doors.
They looked out at the black night full of twinkles from snow
falling. “Most men here, they volunteered,” Skorzeny said. “But
you? They say you can act and sing in English. You did just that in
America. So you see we had to send for you, find you at all costs.
You’re our German Chevalier, what?”

“Ah, if only . . . Let’s call me our German Kaspar
for now.” Max fought a blush. “In any case—had I seen the order for
volunteers, sir, I certainly would have—”

“You’re one of the few who didn’t see it.” Skorzeny
slapped at the door glass, his face hard and his eyes black with
rage. “An uncoded order goes out to all German units, on all
fronts, soliciting English speakers? What were those twits
thinking? Surely Allied intelligence saw it. Might as well have put
an ad in
The New Yorker Time
.”


New York Times
,” Max blurted in English.
“—Sir,” he added in German.

“Certainly. Now here’s the thing, Kaspar—I’m putting
together a special unit culled from the troops here. Cast, if you
will, with the best American speakers. Sort of a spearhead force.
Most of the sailors are in. Get the picture? Just the production
for you. Sort of a, shall we say, a touring show. Ha ha. You’re in,
of course?”

It wasn’t really a question, of course. How could it
be? Max was the one who’d auditioned, yet he didn’t even know the
script. A special unit, Skorzeny said. It was already top secret.
If Max said no, he could very well end up like Pielau—on leave and
caught in the next air raid. Still, he had to admit it couldn’t
hurt the plan he had in his head, the one he’d been developing in
the dim obscurity of his lower bunk. It had him sliding through on
just enough ability, and then? Perhaps, somehow, he could get far
enough behind the US front lines. Get to New York if the role had
any legs at all. That was where he belonged. Hadn’t he told himself
that so many times? Germany had fooled him. The Fatherland was a
trickster. Promised success and a grand life but delivered the Grim
Reaper and a
Götterdämmerung
. He could go AWOL. Defect.
Hopefully he wouldn’t have to fire a shot. It was to be the
greatest role in his life. It was indeed true what the masters said
of the best performances—they had to be lived.

Max’s eyes had filled with wet heat. He glared off
toward the fire.

BOOK: The Losing Role
7.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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