Without knocking, George burst through Butler’s door, panting as if he had run. “The guys in the woods. They’re gone.”
Butler scowled. “Gone?”
George nodded, gasping to catch his breath. “Russians took out our guys and hauled `em away.”
Dropped into the vacant chair speaking between breaths. “Used the delivery as a cover. The Major said there must have been a dozen of `em.”
“I thought you said they took out our guys.”
“Used tranquilizer darts. Knocked out our guys for a couple of hours, by the time both came around it was all over.”
“How did the Major know they were Russian?”
“He heard `em talkin’ to each other before they put him out.”
Butler leaned back, drummed his fingers on the desk, scowled. “Get Mundt.”
“He’s not here.”
George leaped to his feet. Rushed out without closing the door behind. Butler snatched up his desk phone. He must clean up the mess at the Constabulary now before everything unraveled.
“Hal? Butler here. We got a situation.” He listened.
“George, already informed you? Good. Take `em out to the safe house. I want `em on ice till we get things settled.”
He paused once more. “No, not yet. I need to clear it with the General.”
Werner’s fingers tapped on the steering wheel as the transport plane taxied up to the truck. Parked beside them, the side door opened while Leonov’s men lugged the stretchers to the waiting plane.
“If you are taking them to a new home, why sedate them?”
Leonov shrugged. “They might not cooperate right away. We will need time to get them settled.”
“Yes, the carrot and the stick.”
“A reward if they cooperate and a smack on the rump if they do not.”
“There are many pleasant abodes for useful people. Useful people also rate better everything. They might even want their families to join them.” He nudged Werner. “Who would not want their family by their side to enjoy their good fortune, eh, comrade?”
Werner nodded. “But the stick?”
“The Gulag is never full. And after a brief sabbatical there, many attain reformation.”
As they passed each stretcher up to the men inside, Leonov handed Werner an envelope stuffed with currency.
Werner’s jaw dropped. “I do not require this.”
Leonov cocked an eyebrow. “No?”
“I am a loyal party member. I do this for them.”
“You haven’t surrendered completely to the decadence of capitalism?”
Leonov continued holding out the money, grinned.
“Of course not.”
“You accepted their money.”
“I must feed my family, that’s business. But this is for my beliefs.”
“Like a church offering?”
Werner shrugged. “I suppose you could view it that way.”
“Then here take the money, but be careful how you spend it.”
“It’s counterfeit. Used wisely, it also will help the party.”
After handing the money to Werner, Leonov waved over his shoulder as he marched to the waiting aircraft.
Where had they taken him? Mundt wondered as the shooting pains in his shoulder cried out for relief. Whoever bound him to the chair had not intended comfort. The sack over his head not only blocked his vision but trapped his foul breath. How long had it been? Minutes, hours. It seemed an eternity.
His bladder, full, threatened to release its contents despite his best efforts to control it. Unable to hold it any longer, he wet himself. The warm dampness spreading. Did they intend this humiliation?
Who captured him? Why? He recognized none of his captors’ faces as they bound his hands, put the bag over his head before shoving him into a car.
They said nothing more to him. Spoke to each other in whispers in a language he didn’t recognize. One had called out to an Ari. Had that been a name or a code word? A door hinge’s creaking interrupted his thoughts. Again, the soft whispers. A chuckle. Probably about the urine puddle on the floor. A few words in German before they ripped the bag from his head.
The light in his eyes forced him to glance away. Painful in its intensity. He blinked in the glare. The light in his face shrouded his surroundings. A voice in German. “Is that the man?”
A woman answered. “Yes.”
Once more, they shoved the bag over his head.
“What will you do with him?” The woman asked.
“It depends on them.”
The sound of voices in the corridor roused Ross. Confused at first, he sat up. The bars surrounding him reminded him about last night. Willi, pacing in his cell across the hall, stepped up to the bars. Peered in the sound’s direction. Ross stretched as he swung his legs over the bunk’s side as Captain Jackson appeared with a man wearing a trench coat. His black fedora pulled low failed to conceal a face that spent time either in the boxing ring or a meat grinder. His sneer had thug written all over it. Ross could almost picture the brass knuckles the man clenched in his pocketed fist. He recognized the type from his time as a New York cop. The guy they used for asking the tough questions. Truth or lies, he always got something from his sessions. Would today be his turn?
Jackson turned to the man. “This is the man claiming to be Major Ross.”
Ross leaped to his feet. “I am Major Ross. Look, my promotion came through yesterday. Call General Taylor, he’ll vouch for me.”
The thug’s eyes narrowed. “No problem. We’ll take care a that.” He turned to Jackson. “What about the others?”
“I’m familiar with the Sergeant over there.” He nodded toward Willi, and the thug turned. “The German came in with them.”
The thug gave Ross a measuring look. “Thanks, we’ll take it from here.”
After Jackson left, two others, cut from the same mold as the first, joined the first thug in the hall. As he unlocked Ross’s cell, he smirked. “Get dressed, sweetheart. You guys are comin’ with us. Come along easy, or come along hard. Either way, we can oblige.”
The gray-haired man steepled his fingers before his face as Butler described the operation. As Butler spoke, he hoped the outcome would please this aristocratic gentleman, a hero in every American conflict since the turn of the Century. General Donovan himself. They called him Wild Bill. He denied being pleased with the nickname, but the Donovan’s wife confided to Butler one evening over cocktails that the General secretly enjoyed this moniker. When Butler finished, Donovan nodded. “So, not the outcome we hoped for.”
“And this other Russian network horned in on the whole thing.”
“That’s what we believe.”
Donovan scowled. “These agents. You have them in custody now?”
“Yes, sir. We moved them to a secure location. We’ll let `em cool their heels for a while before we, uh, debrief them.”
“Give them time to contemplate their transgressions before we commence. Good. Anxiety is sometimes the best torture. The mind conjures up more hells than can be delivered.”
“They’re brave men. Might be tough to crack.”
“I’ve seen their records. Imagine going through what they did, just to get in our good graces.” Donovan shook his head. “Must be fanatics.”
“What about the German?”
“We’re not savages. After we get what we want from `em, ship `em back to the Russians. They don’t take kindly to failure.”
“I guess we can take consolation in that.”
“The Russians grabbed the men in the woods without paying.”
Butler nodded. “The deadline for that was today.”
“And instead, they came in and snatched them.” Donovan shook his head. “Right from under our noses. Neither McNarney nor Ike will be pleased.”
“Heads will roll.”
Donovan shrugged. “A war is brewing. Our people need to accept that. Now is not the time to let down our guard.”
“At least we accomplished the main goal.”
“We’ve gotta get better than that. Both sides are new at this. Russians have more practice than us and have fewer morals.” Donovan shrugged. “We’ll all make mistakes. What we did might slow `em down a mite, plus with the rest of Paperclip moving according to plan we might get some momentum.”
“Will they disband the service?”
“Hard to say, Colonel. The public is tired. We fought one hell of a war.”
“But surely the President understands.”
“He’s a politician. This new guy has his own ideas. Took a long time grooming Roosevelt. He’s gone. Now there’s a new menace looming. Not to mention that asshole Hoover thinks he needs to have everything his way. He sent a memo to Truman callin’ us the new Gestapo. Asshole.”
“No, just tidy up those loose ends you mentioned. Milk `em dry, then toss `em back into the pond. Who knows? We might flush out more creeping in under the door.”
Ross’s knees trembled. Handcuffed to an overhead pipe, unable to relieve the fatigue in his legs, he groaned. The cold from the damp basement seeped into his core. The humiliating strip search, bad enough. After probing his anus for weapons, they claimed, they hosed him down.
In an adjacent room, Willi screamed, as the thugs who had interrogated Ross plied Willi with questions.
After removing them from the Constabulary cells, they had shoved them into a covered truck’s cargo bed. Placed sacks over their heads, then drove them here.
Where? He had no idea. The trip seemed to take over an hour, but without vision, his captors could have taken a long route to confuse them. They might be next door to the Constabulary. The only certainty. They held them in a cold, damp, dark shit hole.
The screams and questioning stopped. What next? Ross relaxed his knees. Allowed his arms to take the weight. The pipe above flexed. Would his added weight break it? It held, but his shoulders bore the burden. Perhaps he might switch back and forth between taking weight on his feet, then relieving the load with his arms.
Now the cold. His teeth chattered. Last winter, the cold descended upon them before they received winter gear. One trick he used at the time involved imagining a desert. Images of cactus, sand, the sun beating down from above. A rat’s squeak jarred him back to the moment. Red eyes studied him from a dark corner. Something furry rubbed against his ankle. He kicked at it. With a shrill squeak, it scampered away, but the movement sent pain shooting through his shoulders. His feet slipped on the damp concrete floor. The handcuffs dug into his wrists as he struggled to regain his footing. Finally, his feet found traction, relieving the strain on his arms.
Water dripping somewhere nearby, the only sound in the darkness. His eyes strained to make out the shadows surrounding him. What did his captors have in mind? They made no threats. Merely barraged him with questions about the Russians. Accusing him of spying.
What the fuck had they done? Their patriotic duty? Hadn’t the war been enough? Ross cursed. He had done this. Led Harrison and Willi into this mess, all because of his cop’s nosiness. And now because of his meddling, these two men faced what?
Would they kill Willi as they tried before? But what about him and Harrison? Nobodies in the system. Perhaps an unfortunate accident.