Well, the title of this post is a bit misleading: this isn’t just a teaser blurb, but the entire first chapter of my upcoming novel, The Black Gate. The usual caveat that the text hasn’t been touched yet by an editor applies, so try to ignore any bloopers (or just be entertained by them, as the case may be).
In any case, I hope this whets your appetite…
*** Chapter One: Without A Word ***
Peter Miller looked out the window of his cramped third floor office in the South Building of the Headquarters of the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C. The ground was covered in a fresh layer of snow and the Potomac River, which was just visible from his vantage point, was frozen over. For a few precious moments as the sun rose, the snow reflected the golden glow. It was a moment of beauty in which one could almost forget that the world was in the sixth year of the bloodiest war in history.
As the reds and oranges of the sunrise faded to the stark hues typical of winter, Peter turned away from the scene with a sigh of reluctance to face the small mountain of aerial photographs, newspaper clippings, and OSS agent reports piled on his desk. There was no rhyme or reason to how any given bit of information was arranged relative to the rest. It was an atrocious mess that ran two inches deep in some places, but Peter knew exactly where to dig for any particular item he might want. The only islands of order in the sea of chaos were his badly chipped coffee mug, perched on top of his overflowing in box, and the battered Smith Corona typewriter with which he composed the drafts of his reports on Germany’s electrical power infrastructure. While his latest report would address the topic in detail, all the bits and pieces of information on his desk boiled down to one inescapable conclusion: the end was drawing near for Hitler’s Third Reich. Of course, anyone could see that with a single glance at a map showing the advances being made by the Allied armies. You didn’t have to be a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton’s engineering program working for the OSS to see that.
But even now, with an iron noose tightening around Germany’s neck, they were still churning out guns, tanks, planes, and U-boats. Peter’s analysis of Germany’s electrical generation capabilities made up a large part of the Allied assessment of the Third Reich’s remaining industrial capacity. The Allied bombing campaign had certainly hurt the Germans in their heartland, and hurt them badly, but electricity continued to reach the industrial complex in the Ruhr valley to keep the furnaces smelting ore and the production lines moving.
After lighting his pipe and clamping it between his teeth, Peter wound a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter. Closing his eyes for a moment, he composed the opening line of the report’s summary in his head. Then, opening his eyes, he began to peck away at the keys, driving the typebars against the ink ribbon to imprint the letters on the virgin page with an energetic clack-clack-clack.
He was just starting the second paragraph, humming to himself as his index fingers hammered away, his thoughts flowing smoothly onto the paper, when the door flew open, banging against an open file cabinet that was overflowing with fat manilla folders.
“What the devil?” Peter snapped as his right index finder slammed down on the y and h keys at the same time, smearing the h on the page and jamming the two typebars together. “Doesn’t anyone around here know how to knock?”
“Sorry, Peter.” Aaron Connelly smiled as he closed the door. He was the chief of the OSS’s Europe-Africa Division, which also made him Peter’s boss.
“I don’t think you’re sorry at all,” Peter grumped as he took a puff on his pipe. With a sigh, he ripped the paper out of the typewriter and crumpled it into a ball before tossing it to join a hundred others that had overflowed the trash can beside his desk. He began to untangle the jammed typebars, then gave up after glancing up at Connelly, who wore a Cheshire Cat grin. “How am I supposed to get any work done with people rattling about all the day long? You can’t complain about this report being late to your inbox if you keep interrupting me.”
“Oh, cheer up, sourpuss.” Connelly held out a folder marked Top Secret. “I thought you might like to take a look at something juicy that just came along.”
Peter took the folder. It was so thin that he wondered for a moment if it was empty, a prelude to another of Connelly’s infamous practical jokes. Shoving aside some of the photos and other documents to clear a spot on his desk, Peter set the folder down and opened it. Inside were two sheets of paper. He felt an electric tingle as he looked at the one on top. “This came from ULTRA?”
“Yes,” Connelly said as he gingerly removed a stack of folders from one of the two chairs crammed into the room and sat down, crossing his legs. “And I don’t need to tell you how sensitive it is, but I’ll remind you anyway.”
“Of course, of course.” Peter waved away Connelly’s admonition, his eyes darting over the brief report. ULTRA was based on intercepts of German ENIGMA cipher traffic, decoded and translated into English at Bletchley Park in England. It had proven to be the greatest weapon in the Allied arsenal against the Germans, far more powerful than a dozen divisions of troops or an entire fleet of ships. It was also among the most closely guarded secrets kept by Great Britain and the United States, for the revelation that the two powers were reading German coded signals could prove disastrous, even this late in the war. Few were cleared to read ULTRA reports, even in the OSS. Peter’s clearance for the material stemmed not from his work with the OSS, but from the work he had done at Bletchley Park, helping to build one of the bombes, or computational machines, used to break the ENIGMA cipher. That had been before events in his personal life had forced him to return to the States, where Connelly, a fellow graduate from Princeton, had recruited him to come work for OSS.
Taking a long drag on his Pipe, Peter carefully read the first page. It contained all of four sentences of military prose, directing the Wehrmacht, the German Army, to provide transport for a company of Waffen-SS troops to the town of Arnsberg in Germany, which sat astride the Ruhr River in the state of Westphalia. Peter had studied the town in detail because of its central location among the hydroelectric dams on the Ruhr River. From all outward appearances it had little strategic value except for the railway line linking the Ruhr industrial region with Kassel, which was home to the Henschel factories that produced aircraft and tanks. The rail line were carried on a massive viaduct over the Ruhr River, then through the town. Peter frowned as he reached the last line, which caught his full attention: Schwarze Tor. Utmost priority as per orders of Reichsführer-SS H. Himmler.
After he’d read the text for the third time, Peter looked up at Connelly. “My God,” he breathed. “You found another reference to Schwarze Tor, the Black Gate, with the orders undersigned by Himmler himself, for God’s sake.” Throwing a suspicious look at Connelly, he added, “You’re not pulling my leg, are you?”
“No, old boy, I’m afraid not. You do have a file on this Black Gate business, don’t you?”
“Yes, yes.” Shoving his chair back from his desk, Peter limped to the overwhelmed filing cabinet. He pursed his lips in concentration as his eyes moved between each of the five drawers. “Ah.” Bending down, he yanked open the second drawer from the bottom and rummaged around, finally emerging with a battered manila folder that was barely thicker than the one Connelly had given him. “Here we are.”
Making his way back to his desk, he sat down and opened the folder to peruse its contents. “Yes, it’s just as I thought. Schwarze Tor first appeared in an agent report in July of 1941, with a total of six references in agent reporting and three ULTRA intercepts through May of ’43, when the RAF destroyed the Möhne Dam in that brilliant Dambusters raid. The resulting flood wiped out much of Arnsberg that wasn’t on high ground, and we haven’t seen a single mention of the Black Gate since then, even though the dam was repaired four months after the attack.”
“Do you have any idea what the project is about?”
His face scrunching into an unhappy pucker, Peter shook his head. “Not a blasted clue, except that it was using a tremendous amount of electrical power.” He pulled out his summary sheet and glanced over it before handing it to Connelly. “If the reporting was accurate, or even close, at least a third and as much as half of the total hydroelectric output of the Ruhr dams was being used by the Black Gate. Not continuously, mind you, but for brief intervals, like a huge light bulb being switched on and off again.”
Connelly raised his eyebrows and whistled in disbelief as he looked over the paper Peter had given him. “That’s a bit disconcerting,” he said. “And now maybe you should read the other bit in the folder I handed you, before it gets lost in that mountain of chaos on your desk.”
“Oh, right!” Peter set his file folder aside to again expose the one containing the most recent information. Flipping over the page with the ULTRA report, he found a slightly longer agent report. “Assistant scientist of Black Gate project killed,” he read aloud as he scanned the text. “Project Director P. v. Falkenstein seeking replacement. Background in high energy physics and electrical engineering required, familiarity with occult subjects highly desirable. Project in final test phase. Full operation to commence in three weeks. Urgent priority.” Peter looked over at Connelly, his face turning down in a scowl. “You know, you keep telling me this isn’t a joke, but I’m finding that harder and harder to believe. Give up on the joke now and I won’t tell anyone it was a flop.”
“And as I keep telling you, Peter, it’s not a joke at all. I wish it were. Do you know who this von Falkenstein fellow is?”
“Yes, he’s a German physicist, a contemporary of Werner Heisenberg, who himself is their leading nuclear physicist. Heisenberg is, oh, roughly the German equivalent of Robert Oppenheimer. Very capable and well-respected. Von Falkenstein…” Peter shrugged. “Well, he’s something altogether different. Before the war, some compared his brilliance to that of Albert Einstein, but he had what you might call morally questionable views that didn’t make him any friends among his more ethics-bound peers, and he was a very active member of the Nazi party. Positively rabid, in fact. I don’t keep up on those things as much as I used to, but I followed information on von Falkenstein fairly religiously before the war, and even attended one of his lectures in Berlin back in 1938 while I was on exchange to Heidelberg University. In fact, that lecture led directly to his being ostracized from the mainstream scientific community, not just in Germany, but everywhere. He became a pariah overnight.”
“Why is that?”
Peter laughed. “Well, the man was trying to make the scientific case that Heaven and Hell are real, not just in a spiritual sense, but as coherent regions in space-time. He theorized that we can actually visit them, and return, through an Einstein-Rosen Bridge.”
Connelly cocked his head. “A what?”
“An Einstein-Rosen Bridge. It’s a theory that Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen came up with at Princeton,” Peter explained. “In a nutshell, an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, which some have also called a wormhole, would allow you to travel from one location in space-time to another. You could travel next door, I suppose, or to the other end of the universe. You might even be able to travel to another universe altogether, all in the blink of an eye, without using a rocket or any other sort of craft.” He smiled. “In theory, of course.” He drew on his pipe, then blew a smoke ring. “Don’t get me wrong. Von Falkenstein was a fascinating man, quite possibly as brilliant as some made him out to be, but he was nuttier than a fruitcake, well beyond the eccentricity often expected from brilliant academics. After the 1938 lecture he was publicly humiliated by his peers and fell out of public view. Until now.” He looked over the two pages of information Connelly had given him, and his smile began to fade.
Connolly sat quietly for a moment, staring at the open folders on Peter’s desk. “The Black Gate. The name has a bit of an ominous ring to it in light of what you just said, don’t you think?”
“They could have just as easily called it Project Petunia. The name might have a connotation, but more likely doesn’t because you wouldn’t want the name to give the game away. You know that.” He shrugged. “Given the Nazi penchant for melodrama, they probably gave it that name simply because it sounds, well, melodramatic.”
“Well, let’s set the fruitcake business aside for now and look at what we have in hand,” Connelly told him, ticking items off on his fingers. “We have a project under the auspices of the SS that appears to be of personal interest to the Chicken Farmer himself. The show is being run by a physicist who might be as brilliant as Einstein, but who fully embraces Nazi doctrine. Whatever the project is, or whatever it does, requires a tremendous amount of electricity when it’s switched on. And the project is moving from the test to the operational phase in three weeks.”
“That about covers it,” Peter said, growing uncomfortable under Connelly’s gaze. “That does all sound a bit ominous, I suppose.”
“Ominous enough that in two hours it will be briefed to the president. Several men with lots of stars on their shoulders are already worried about this, and soon FDR will be, too.”
Peter shot to his feet. “What?”
“You heard me. I came here straight from General Donovan’s office. He’s been in touch with the brass in the Pentagon, who are up in arms about what this thing might be. Peter, just think: what if the Germans take whatever they’re coming up with at Arnsberg and stick it on top of a V-2 rocket? London is being hit by dozens of those damnable things every month. Unlike the V-1s, which can be intercepted by fighters, V-2s are impossible to stop until our troops can capture their launch sites. The explosive warheads are bad enough, but what happens if they arm their rockets with something even more dreadful? The bottom line is that Donovan sees an opportunity here for the OSS to take the lead, and he means to take it.”
“But…” Peter paused. “But that means you already knew everything that I just told you!”
“Yes and no. The Secret Intelligence Branch already put together some pieces of the puzzle, but I’ll tell you right now that they didn’t do half as good a job as you just did, and none of them knew anything about von Falkenstein other than he was a physicist and a fervent Nazi.”
“But if you already knew, then why bother me with it?” Connelly just stared at him. Then Peter recalled what Connelly had said about Major General William J. Donovan, the Director of the OSS. Donovan sees an opportunity here to take the lead, and he means to take it. “Oh, no. You seriously can’t be thinking what I think you’re thinking.”
One corner of Connelly’s mouth turned up in a half-grin. “I didn’t exactly volunteer you, but I might have accidentally mentioned you when Donovan called me in.” He leaned forward slightly. “Peter, you’re the perfect man for the job.”
“What, as a replacement for the project assistant who was killed? Are you insane?”
“Come on, Peter,” Connelly told him. “Give yourself some credit. Your parents are German immigrants, and you not only speak German like a native but you know the culture, having traveled there a number of times before the war. While you’re not quite the right size for an Aryan super-soldier, with that strong jaw combined with your blue eyes and blond hair you’d look right at home on an SS recruiting poster. You’ve got a background in physics and electrical engineering, and I know that half your library at home is on occult topics.” Peter opened his mouth, but Connelly waved him to silence. “Don’t even try to deny that last bit, because I saw them with my own eyes when you had me over for dinner that time, remember?” He paused, his eyes fixed on Peter’s. “Be honest: who else would have a better chance of getting inside and assessing the threat than you?”
“Even if that’s all true, I think you’re forgetting something.” Peter lifted his right foot up onto the desk. A metal brace that helped support his leg was attached to the shoe, disappearing up his pant leg to where it was strapped onto his calf and thigh. “I’m hardly a candidate for field work!”
“I don’t mean to rub salt in the wound, but that leg of yours might actually be an advantage. Given your other aforementioned talents, no one would ever suspect we would send in an agent with a gimp. In fact, it could easily be passed off as a war wound which,” he added rather hastily, “it is, after a fashion.”
Peter grabbed his leg and hauled it off the desk, letting his foot thump back down to the floor. “So you’d drop a cripple into Germany by parachute to spy on a highly classified project run by the bloody SS?” He snorted. “You’re as loony as von Falkenstein. And what about my work at Bletchley Park? Did Donovan take that into account? What if I’m captured and the Germans torture me for what I know about ULTRA?”
“Frankly, that was Donovan’s biggest concern. But the bottom line as he sees it is that the Germans are going to lose. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some time in the next few months the Third Reich is going to be tossed onto the ash heap of history. So if they learn that we’ve been reading their mail, it won’t be the disaster that it might have been even a year ago. Donovan is more concerned about the Germans pulling some sort of ace out of their sleeve that no one saw coming, some sort of wonder weapon that will prolong the war.” Leaning closer, Connelly said, “What you’ve done for the war effort has been extremely valuable, Peter. Your work here has been exemplary, and while I don’t know all the details, I know your work at Bletchley Park was highly regarded before you returned home to help care for your brother. But I also know you’ve always wanted to do more, to go in harm’s way and not just sit behind a desk. I wouldn’t want to see you come to grief, you know that. But this is the one chance you’ll ever have to get out of this broom closet and head into the field before the war in Europe is over, and I can guarantee you that you’ll never be sent on a mission to the Pacific. More than that, if there’s really anything to this Black Gate business, if it poses a genuine threat, then this mission could be one of the most, if not the most, important that we’ve ever carried out. Donovan told me that himself.”
Looking around the room, Peter knew that what Connelly had said was true. He had tried to contribute as best he could, but there was no real satisfaction at the end of each day in pushing paper when other men were fighting and dying on the front lines. Peter wasn’t fool enough to think there was any glory in war, but at least once in his life he wanted to do something unequivocal, where he had to put his life on the line for a noble cause, and you just couldn’t do that from behind a desk.
On the other hand, while Connelly had done an exemplary job selling the mission, he hadn’t mentioned anything about one tiny little detail: extraction. Even if Peter could slip into Germany, getting out would take nothing short of a miracle on a scale that he doubted even the OSS could manage.
That, however, did not alter the inevitability of his decision. He wanted to be angry with Connelly, because the man had planned out every word he’d said to Peter before he’d stepped into the room, and had known exactly how Peter would react. But instead of anger, he felt a rising sense of excitement. “How much time do I have before I leave?”
“None, unfortunately. Donovan’s already kicked the people in the Special Operations Branch into high gear on this one. Our friend von Falkenstein has a tight schedule for his replacement, and we have to get you to the church on time. I’ll take care of wrapping all this up. Grab your coat and get going. There’s a car waiting for you downstairs.” Connelly reached out and shook Peter’s hand. “Good luck.”
Stepping outside into the cold morning air, Peter looked at his watch and saw that it was only eight thirty. His entire world had been turned upside down and inside out in little more than half an hour.
As promised, a staff car was there, waiting for him, a cloud of exhaust rising from the tailpipe. A burly man proportioned much like an oversized fire hydrant said, “Good morning, sir,” as he opened the rear passenger door.
“Is it?” Peter said as he slid onto the seat. “I’m not entirely sure.”
The man grinned but said nothing as he closed the door and came around to get into the driver’s seat.
As they pulled out of the OSS headquarters complex, Peter asked, “Where are we going?”
“Heading south to Area A, sir.” Area A was located at the Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area near Quantico, Virginia, and was one of the main training facilities for OSS agents.
“I’d like to head home, first, if you don’t mind.”
“Sorry, sir, but I’m to take you straight to Area A. The general told me himself.”
Peter leaned forward and said, “I’m going to at least tell my wife goodbye before I leave.”
“But the general said…”
“What’s your name?” Peter cut him off, but he suddenly wondered who this man was that General Donovan had given him personal instructions on what to do with Peter.
“You can call me Bob, sir,” he said in a heavy Boston Irish accent.
“Listen, Bob. She’s pregnant with our first child, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to disappear on her without a word. So you can just take me home, please.”
In the reflection of the rear view mirror, he could see Bob’s mouth tighten. “I’m sorry, sir, but the general said that if we deviate so much as an inch from the plan this morning, the op is off. The operational security on this one is tight as a drum, tighter than I can ever recall seeing, and you can’t have any contact with the outside world from here on in. Informing your wife will be taken care of, though, sir. You needn’t worry about that.”
But what the devil will they tell her? Sitting back, Peter uttered a venomous curse. Should he go on with this insane mission without holding his wife one last time, or say to hell with the whole thing and just go home? And home, he knew, is where he would stay. If he gave up on this, his career, such as it was, at OSS would be finished, and he’d likely wind up on the street. He could imagine the looks the others, especially Connelly, would give him if he gave up before he even started. Coward, he could imagine them thinking. Or The poor cripple just couldn’t handle it. He wasn’t sure which would be worse.
He slowly twirled the wedding band on his finger in a longtime nervous habit, trying to imagine what Elena would think, how she would react to the news that her husband had departed on the whim of the OSS. They couldn’t tell her where he was going, what he would be doing, or when — or even if — he would return. All they could tell her was that he was gone. Even if their little speech included a platitude about how much he loved her, how could she not wonder if he truly did after he disappeared without a word? All she would have was questions and no answers, and all this right before the baby was due, when she needed him most, and when he wanted more than anything to be with her.
“I know it’s a hard thing, sir,” Bob said. “Been through it myself.”
“And how did your wife take it?”
Bob shook his head. “Not well, you might say. I was always disappearing on one crazy op or another, and one day when I came home, it was her turn to disappear.”
“That’s not very comforting,” Peter told him.
Bob shrugged. “Yours is a bit of a different cup of tea, sir. It’ll be hard on her, sure, but a once-around mystery adventure for you will just make her that much happier when you come home.” He grinned. “After your firstborn is out, she’ll have another bun in the oven in no time. Just wait and see if it isn’t true.”
Assuming I make it home at all, Peter thought grimly.
Eyeing him in the rearview mirror, Bob said, “So, sir, what’s it to be? Take you to your darling wife or get on with the mission?”
With one last look at the gold band, his heart aching in his chest as he thought of Elena, Peter told him, “Let’s get on with the mission. May God help me.”