I believe that my American Spy Trilogy is unique in genre fiction in one respect. It’s about character more than plot. It’s the coming-of-age story of one Hal Schroeder, disaffected and cynical former OSS agent who was a behind-German-lines spy during WWII.
The following are three passages, one from each book, that give you an idea how Hal grows from boy to man over a span of three short years.
In this scene from book one, A Pure Double Cross, Hal meets with The Schooler, a honcho with Cleveland’s Fulton Road Mob, and Jimmy, his chief arm-breaker. It’s December, 1945.
People are so depressingly predictable. The guy from the gambling club, the scowling guy with the downsloped mug, yanked his nickel-plated .45 from his armpit holster when I mentioned that I was working for the FBI.
The barrel felt warm against my temple. I sniffed and made a face. “Your gun smells like BO.”
He cocked the hammer.
“Jimmy,” said The Schooler. The gun got holstered.
“Why should we trust you?” said The Schooler in his soft voice. A voice that didn’t need to push or shout, a voice that was accustomed to being heeded.
“You shouldn’t. You should trust the results. The feds are gee’d up to nab the head of your operation and they’ve ponied up a fat wad of bait money to do it.”
“And how does that work?”
“On the installment plan. Down payment, the C notes I gave to Jimmy. Second payment, an armored car job courtesy of the FBI. Final payment, a six figure factory payroll heist where they plan to drop the hammer and spring the trap.”
“And your proposal?”
“A pure double cross.”
The Schooler chuckled in a mirthless way. Heh heh heh. Heh heh heh.
He shined his flashlight at the ceiling. A rusted eyehook hung from a rolling track. I got the message and realized my mistake. I hadn’t properly introduced myself. People care more about who you are than what you say.
“I’m not a G-man. The feds recruited me because I was a spy for the OSS.”
“And why would a clean cut agent from the Office of Strategic Services want to turn to a life of crime?” said The Schooler, hiking his eyebrows.
I hiked mine back. “If I’m going to risk my life again I’d like to get paid what it’s worth.”
No response. My wit and charm weren’t having their customary effect.
“The money’s for real,” I said. “The richer the prize, the higher the stake. It’s the cardinal rule of undercover work. Mr. Big’s a rich prize. To win his trust the feds have ponied up a huge fund of bait money.”
Repeating myself, The Schooler inspecting that hook again and Jimmy’s ragged hungry breath on the back of my neck. Not good, not good at all.
“Perhaps you’re wondering how I plan to get away with this.”
The Schooler’s stolid face flickered to life for half a second. I gathered myself, weight on the balls of my feet. If this didn’t work it was time to go.
“The Bureau won’t try too terribly hard to find me,” I said, breezily, hopefully. “J. Edgar’s not going to want the world to know that a former OSS agent, and the Fulton Road Mob, played America’s Bulwark of Freedom for suckers.”
The Schooler liked that. What crook worth his salt doesn’t want to put one over on the Bulldog?
“Let’s take a walk.”
He led me to a small room off the factory floor, a foreman’s office. Jimmy stayed put and lit a cigarette against the darkness. There was a battered metal desk in the little room. The Schooler parked a haunch on a desk corner and set the flashlight upright like a candle. Mice scurried underfoot.
The Schooler examined me for a good ten seconds. “I find you an interesting young man.”
What was I supposed to say to that? And I find you an attractive older gentleman?
“It’s an interesting proposition, what you suggest. Before I take it upstairs I want to set you straight on something. Even if everything you say checks out you’ll still have to pay your dues.”
The Schooler shrugged. “You’ll have to make the rounds, prove your loyalty.”
This wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I had already proved my loyalty, already made my rounds. Basel to Freiburg to Ulm to Karlsruhe. Spies do that, double agents don’t have to. Double agents have superior knowledge.
“The Krauts inserted dozens of spies into England during the war,” I said. “The Brits turned every one. But that’s not the point, their…”
“How did the Brits turn them?”
“Uh, most were turned by capture, a few gave themselves up. And some just plain liked to play the game.”
“What game is that?”
“The double cross game,” I said. “But their Kraut spy-masters in Berlin never sniffed it out. They kept believing the horseshit troop movement and industrial production reports their agents sent back. Kept believing them right up to VE Day.”
The Schooler ran the back of his index finger across his cheek. “You said there was a point.”
“Yeah. Loyalty is for saps.”
There was a grimy window in the little room. The Schooler turned to look through it. Jimmy was playing with his lighter. His jagged profile lit up and went dark, lit up and went dark.
“Then fake it,” said The Schooler.
“Loyalty. I’m riding herd on an itchy group of young men. They start thinking they can freelance and all hell breaks loose. Can you do that?”
Me? Pretend to be something I’m not? “Sure.”
The Schooler didn’t budge from his desk corner. He had something more to say. I watched Jimmy firing his lighter through the grimy window, the tongue of flame throwing lurid shadows on his face, making him look like Bela Lugosi. Or Lucifer.
“Which type are you?” said The Schooler. “The type who likes to play the game?”
“No sir, I’m a post-war double agent. I’m just looking for a payday.”
May, 1946. In this scene from book two, A Despicable Profession, Hal meets with his wartime Case Officer Victor Jacobson in a Berlin bierstube. Hal has been recruited by General Wild Bill Donovan, who led the OSS during the war, to work for Global Commerce, a private company Hal suspects is a front for espionage.
Victor Jacobson nipped at his stein. “Bill Donovan recruited me a few months after the OSS was dissolved. He saw what was coming, the gutting of US postwar intelligence.”
“What do you and Bill Donovan plan to do about it?”
“What little we can.”
“How black, how wet? What are we talking about?”
Jacobson took another pull. “We’re talking about keeping the Red Army from rolling tank divisions across the Elbe and seizing all of Germany while we have our backs turned.”
Huh? The papers were full of heartwarming stories about Yanks, Brits and Reds working together to rebuild Germany.
“You think our Soviet allies are planning an invasion?”
“Some of our White Russian émigrés think so,” said Jacobson. “I only know one thing for certain.”
“If Stalin is planning to seize Germany he couldn’t pick a better time.”
This got my attention. A serious mission.
“Who does Global Commerce work for? Who’s their customer?”
“The President of the United States.”
“Donovan has a back channel.”
“What’s the chain of command?”
“You would report to me.”
“And if I needed to take it upstairs?”
“You talk to Bill Donovan.”
“And if I’m captured?”
“We never heard of you.”
I grinned, or grimaced. Just like old times. “And my first assignment would be?”
Jacobson leaned in. “Track down Klaus Hilde.”
“A former Abwehr General with encyclopedic knowledge of Soviet orders of battle. He reached out to us before war’s end. Word is he tried again recently but OMGUS screwed up.”
“Office of the Military Government of Germany, US.”
“Where’s Hilde now?”
“Headed south most likely, down the Rat Line to Lisbon and South America. Find him before the Russians do. Take this.”
My former Case Officer was acting like my future Case Officer. He handed me a small leather purse with a drawstring. It was heavy. “What’s in it?”
I fondled the purse. There had to be a dozen half-dollar-sized coins in there. A king’s ransom. Jacobson had my motor running I will admit. A chance to be a hero, an opportunity to atone for my sins. And a bag of loot to pave the way.
“I said why.”
“We’re shorthanded. And you’re a lifer.”
Me? A lifer? No way, no how. I said so.
“Settled down in a cozy cottage with a doting wife are you?”
“And yours as well.”
I giggled. I was dingy with travel and surprise and too much information. And so parched I could’ve licked the beer rings off the table.
“Say I run this Nazi to ground, dangle these sovereigns under his nose and he still says no?”
“You’re a very creative young man.”
I was at that, good at one thing. Backing myself into a corner and then improvising my way out.
“Sir, my special kind of cunning is real simple,” I said, leaning in. “I was doing a decent job in Freiburg and Ulm and Karlsruhe logging troop movements and transmitting weather reports for bomber runs. I figured if I was dead my effectiveness might suffer. And why get croaked carrying out suicide missions dictated by some asshole Case Officer who was snug as a bug in Bern drinking Allen Dulles’ wine cellar dry?”
“I wasn’t,” said Jacobson, “but please continue.”
Please continue? Christ, they were shorthanded.
“I have only one job requirement sir. Survival.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Jacobson, drier than my swollen tongue.
October, 1948, Transylvania, Romania. In The Proxy Assassin Hal has reluctantly agreed to parachute into the remote Carpathian Mountains to liaise with Captain Sorin Dragomir, an anti-Communist leader that the new CIA covert ops chief, Frank Wisner, knew during WWII.
Hal is captured by pro-Communist partisans shortly thereafter. (The Securitate are the Romanian secret police.)
I had a decision to make. They had tossed me in the barn stall unconstrained. No cuffs. I didn’t have any illusions about escaping the compound. Guards were afoot and I had nowhere to go. And I wasn’t keen on starring in the Punch and Judy show every day and twice on Sundays, not when I was dead meat at the end of the run.
The only way to win was to beat them to it. Every barn has a few tools scattered about. A rusty saw I could use to cut my wrists. A length of rope.
I was going to get my woebegone carcass off this straw and rummage around the barn for a suicide weapon while there was still sunlight leaking under the eaves. Any minute now. As soon as I convinced myself not to be a hero.
The real heroes, the ones who did what they didn’t have to do, were all dead. That I was about to cross the Stygian Ferry didn’t make me a hero. I got caught.
What might make me a minor league hero would be to absorb enough abuse so that my tormentors might believe my elaborately fabricated version of Captain Dragomir’s nefarious plot, so that they and the Securitate goons they reported to would waste time and troops on a wild goose chase.
Elaborate fabrication. That would require ten dollars’ worth of concentration at a time I didn’t have a dime in the bank. But I’m a good bouncer-back. I could probably muster it after a couple hours sleep.
The question I had to answer was straightforward. Was I willing to get thumped like a bass drum in the St. Paddy’s Day Parade to advance the cause of freedom and democracy?
No, I was not.
Would I suffer abuse to help decent and courageous men like Sorin Dragomir and Frank Wisner fulfill their admirable if farfetched schemes?
Yes, I believe I would.
Shuteye, Schroeder, you need sleep. You’re talking crazy talk.
I got my ragged breathing smoothed out and drifted off in the scratchy hay.
Causes John Knoerle Supports
Paralyzed Veterans of America
St. Labre Indian School