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The Proteus Operation
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Colonel Hans Piekenbrock, chief of Abwehr’s secret intelligence and espionage section, stared dubiously at the file lying open on his desk. He reached across the desk and took the glossy pages from an American illustrated news magazine that Lt. Col. Boeckel was proffering from the other side.

"And this is the picture?" he murmured as he examined the color photograph on the top sheet. It showed two men shaking hands in a spacious, elegantly furnished setting, while several others looked on from behind. The scene was of representatives from a couple of South American states saying farewell to U.S. officials in the entrance hall of the White House after talks following the October conference of American nations. Piekenbrock was interested not in the foreground figures, however, but in the small group of uniformed soldiers behind them that the cameraman had inadvertently captured, just inside the edge of the frame. They were standing in a loose huddle, possibly waiting their turn for an appointment. A couple of men in civilian clothes were with them, also.

Boeckel passed across an enlargement of part of the picture, which the Photographic Department had produced at his request. "If I may, sir . . ." He indicated two of the soldiers, who were standing together on one side—one tall, with a yellow mustache, caught in the act of waving a hand as he said something; and the other, darker. "Fritsch sent us the article because he says he’s certain that those two were among the gang he described in his earlier report." Boeckel picked up a further enlargement, showing very grainily, but discernably, the shoulder patches and collar insignia on the tunics. "I did a routine check to identify the unit they’re from, but the result was puzzling. There’s no record of those designations in any of the U.S. Army manuals. And if you look carefully at the uniforms themselves, you’ll notice that they differ from the standard American pattern in a number of subtle ways. Again, we have no record of anything like them."

Piekenbrock sat back in his chair, his fingers steepled below his chin. Then he got up and walked over to the window to stare down at the traffic on Bendlerstrasse. "Let’s run through this very quickly once again," Piekenbrock said at last. "First of all, this man Fritsch gets himself mixed up with American gangsters somehow and ends up at this house outside New York. But these mysterious men in masks, who walk up walls and put hoodlums in the hospital with their bare hands, appear from nowhere, seize the whole place, and hand it over to a rival gang."

"What appears to be a rival gang, anyway."

"Whatever. And Fritsch sends you a report of this affair, including an account from the New York newspapers."

"At the time, it seemed to have nothing to do with anything except American criminals," Boeckel said. "But we kept the matter under review, nevertheless."

Piekenbrock held up a hand. "You did the right thing. Anyway, it now turns out that these men are not criminals, but American soldiers. Also, they belong to a hitherto unknown unit, which might conceivably just have been formed. They appear to have undergone some extraordinary training. And now they show up at the White House . . . to meet whom? Could it be the President himself, perhaps? If so, why? Who are they?"

"I have been giving the matter some thought," Boeckel said.

"And have you come up with any ideas?"

"Well, it’s merely a speculation, you understand, sir, but it seems to me that the U.S. military has been developing a secret unit to specialize in undercover urban activities—sabotage, assassination, or other such missions. The raid on the gangster’s house could have been a practice exercise with the added benefit of having some redeeming social value—perhaps by eliminating some criminal elements that the authorities couldn’t touch legally."

Piekenbrock raised his eyebrows. "You mean the police didn’t know? Wouldn’t that be a bit risky?"

"Not as risky as the real thing and someone else’s police," Boeckel pointed out. "It would be the ultimate in training realism."

"Hmm, yes—ingenious, I’ll grant you that. Go on."

Boeckel tapped the file lying on the desk. "The warehouse that Fritsch identified in Brooklyn could be their camouflaged operations base. What I suspect is that they’ve been running an elaborate exercise to see if they can remain invisible for a protracted period in a major city while merging with the criminal fraternity and carrying out active operations, all without any cooperation from the authorities, or even any official knowledge that they exist. Having tested their methods, a visit to Washington could represent their ‘graduation,’ as it were, before becoming operational elsewhere."

"Such as?"

Boeckel shrugged. "Well, we all know that Roosevelt would like to get into the war, but Congress and the people won’t let him, openly. A good guess might be that they’re being sent over here—maybe even to Berlin."

"And assassination, you said, might be among their specialties?"

Boeckel drew a long breath. "With some obvious names as targets."

Piekenbrock nodded. Clearly, his own thinking had already led him to the same conclusion. "That could also explain why Roosevelt should be involved personally," he mused.

"Exactly, sir."

"Hmm . . . I think we should find out more about this warehouse if we can," Piekenbrock said. "Not Fritsch—he’s just an amateur. Reads too many boys’ books and takes risks. Get one of the professionals onto it—someone like Musketeer. But I don’t want anyone breaking in or doing anything reckless if they’re likely to bump into the kind of people that Fritsch described. That will be all."

"Yes, sir." Boeckel stood up and gathered the file and papers together.

"I just want to know a bit more about the place, some idea of what goes in and out," Piekenbrock said. "Low-key—know what I mean?"

"I’ll start on it right away."

"Very good. Oh, and Boeckel—about that secretary of yours. She’s an attractive woman. It’s not a good idea to flaunt it so much when Lady Luck smiles your way, you know. I’m hearing jealous noises from several directions. I know the F├╝hrer wants us to make more Germans, but he never said anything about making a public spectacle of doing so. I trust I make myself clear?"

"Oh, yes, sir. I’m sorry. I’ll be more discreet."

"Very good. I’ll say no more. Good day. Heil Hitler."

"Heil Hitler."

 
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