Act III – Operation Shield
Blowtorch & Corkscrew
Agent Peter McCain
June 3rd, 1945
Peter tried not to think about the mission beginning tomorrow, but his anxieties continued to bubble up to the surface and reminded him of the cost of failure. Even with all the training, all the guidance, and all the preparation, anything could go wrong.
Cornelius assured Peter, “I’ll be ready to send in the cavalry if anything happens.”
Peter added, “Assuming I can get a signal to contact you, that is.”
Cornelius asked, “You’re assuming you won’t?”
“It’s also possible it all goes off without a hitch, and you come home with the key to world peace. But are the best-case and worst-case scenarios very likely?” Pernell smiled, opening the door before them to allow Peter to walk through.
“Not very.” Peter stepped inside the building, an old French bar filled to the brim with US Marines working with the OSS.
Pernell grabbed Peter’s shoulder, “So, most likely, the mission’ll go somewhere between really good and really bad. You’ll hit a few snags along the way, but you’ll pull through. Just like San Fernando, just like Innsbruck, and just like that business in the catacombs.”
Unsatisfied with Pernell’s reasoning, but appreciative of it all the same, Peter nodded, “I guess we’ll see, then.”
The room was populated by a dozen or so men in green and a civilian bartender. Most of the men were congregated at a round table on the right side of the room, a handful of them playing cards, and the others drinking and laughing.
“Grab yourself a drink and join them, Peter,” Pernell said, “It’s on the OSS’s dime. Just remember, no talking about work. They don’t need to know all of what you know.”
Peter scanned the wall of bottles, “Who could say no to a free drink?”
He began walking towards the bar, freezing at the sight of a lone Marine with their head down. As they took a sip of their cocktail, Peter realized who the Marine was.
Peter jolted back and nearly took a swing at another Marine who wrapped his arm around Peter’s neck, “What the hell?!”
The drunk Marine began to laugh upon realizing he had frightened Peter, pointing at him as his friends laughed.
Peter was prepared to fight the older man, before he revealed who he was, “Calm down, kid! My name’s… Raine, Sergeant Raine… But, tonight, and tonight only, you can call me Johnny!”
Raine was set to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions at Peleliu, risking his life to save his team. Peter had nearly knocked out a bonafide hero.
Peter outstretched his hand, “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”
Raine accepted the handshake by clasping both palms around Peter’s hand, “S’nice to finally meet the man on the mission!”
Peter smiled, “I assume you guys aren’t celebrating the fact that you’ll be joining me.”
One of the Marines asked, “Didn’t you hear?”
“Hear what?” Peter asked.
Another Marine shouted, “The 1st Marine Division took Shuri Castle! Ooh-rah!”
The others shouted alongside him, “Ooh-rah!” They all started to chug their drinks.
Raine shrugged, “Okinawa is just a matter of time. If the Tojos have any sense, they’ll give up before we give ‘em hell right where they live!”
Peter nodded, “That’s news worth celebrating, alright.”
Raine paused, cocking his head, “You don’t seem too happy, kid.”
“It’s nothing, sir. Just pre-mission jitters.”
He smiled, patting Peter on the shoulder, “Buck up, Peter. We’re gonna win this damned war.” He finished off his pint glass, before walking past Peter towards the bar for another round.
Peter then spotted the Marine at the bar looking in his direction, before returning to his drink. He dreaded the thought of talking to this man, but he knew now would be the time to make amends.
He paced towards the bar, his mind swirling with conflicting thoughts telling him to run, to find someone else to talk to, to sit down, to yell and scream… He finally worked up the courage, taking a seat next to Dempsey at the bar.
The pair did not say anything for a few moments, staring straight ahead towards the wall of drinks. The bartender was too busy filling glasses for the celebrating Marines to take Peter’s attention away, so he had to make the first move.
Peter pointed to the orange-tinted cocktail Dempsey was sipping from, inquiring, “What kind of drink is that?”
Dempsey stopped sipping, staring blankly at the wall before responding, “It’s a… a Blowtorch.”
Peter nodded slowly, as if anticipating a further explanation. “... What’s a, uh, a Blowtorch?”
Dempsey cracked a smile, taking another drink, before replying with the ingredients, “It’s a mix of vodka, lemon juice, and orange juice with ice.”
Peter nodded once, “Ah… sounds good.”
After a moment, Dempsey turned to Peter, “It actually has a pretty interesting story behind it… Wanna hear it?”
Dempsey motioned to the bartender, saying with his best French accent, “Encore une.” The bartender began preparing the drink, as Dempsey turned his body to face Peter.
“So there’s this explorer, Admiral Richard Byrd, who wants to take a crew out to Antarctica for some kind of expedition. Why anyone would waste their time exploring that frozen hell-hole, I don’t know. But he was dead-set on doing it. He had everything he needed: Ships, some trained sailors and doctors, and a big fucking coat. But, there’s one crucial thing he didn’t have that any sailor who’s travelling thousands of miles across the ocean is going to need: Booze.”
Peter interjected, pulling the now-assembled cocktail towards himself, “Obviously.”
“Problem is, though, it’s 1928. The Eighteenth Amendment says he can’t bring any alcohol for his crew. Yet, he manages to get literally thousands of gallons of booze onto his ship by claiming it was for ‘medicinal purposes.’ He says it is all locked up in storage, and the only guy with the key is their medical officer. So they let him sail, and sail he did. They passed through Panama, then to Tahiti, then New Zealand… ”
Peter added, enjoying the sweet taste of the cocktail, “Sounds more like a vacation than an expedition.”
Dempsey said, “Exactly! Finally, they get to the Antarctic, and it’s like a non-stop party for months. All these egghead types are getting hammered and bouncing off the walls. They, of course, snap some pictures of the ice along the way and make some maps; You know, explorer stuff. Back home, people believed Admiral Byrd’s crew had been sober for the entire trip, but it was all bullshit. Anyway, the medical officer, I don’t really remember his name, but the guy who held the keys to all this booze had a bright idea for a new drink. He mixed some grain alcohol with lemon powder, orange juice, and ice. They called it ‘The Blowtorch.’ With this new invention, they drank long into the night, forgetting just how miserably cold they were. And now, we must honor their genius.”
Dempsey raised his glass, and Peter promptly raised his. Peter cheered, “To Byrd and his crew!”
The two downed most of their drinks, Peter shivering as the cold concoction chilled his body. He felt a rush of adrenaline upon realizing he had conquered his fear by speaking to Dempsey, but he did not have much else to say. His mind began to wander, and his anxieties returned. “I’m thinking I might need another one of these… “ He finished off the glass, nodding to the bartender to make another.
Dempsey took notice of Peter’s mood, one he recognized from their past. “You’re not celebrating like those jokers. Something’s up.”
Peter stared at a set of photos on the wall, all of them of civilians holding weapons they used to liberate France from Nazi rule. “Have you heard the story that got me this job? In the Philippines?”
Dempsey scoffed, rolling his eyes, “Only about eight… thousand times.”
“That’s all these guys really know about me, huh… Yeah, well, when I escaped I told my squad I’d be coming back for them. I said that the intel I had would end the war in a matter of weeks.”
Dempsey nodded, “That was three years ago.”
“You always were the math wiz… Anyway, I was good friends with a guy in that squad. Private Wesley Johnson. Corporal hated our guts, but we were as thick as thieves. One thing leads to another, and we’re marching without food and water for days. Marching to our deaths. Wesley’s a scrawny guy; He needs water, badly. I kept pushing the Japanese to let us stop with some success, but Wesley just wanted to give up and die. I kept telling him he couldn’t. I pestered him to march on every time I saw him shut his eyes for even a second. When I left at the train station, he promised me he would keep fighting. I promised I’d come back for them.”
He paused as the bartender finished assembling his drink, and he took a sip before continuing, “I kept asking about the prisoners at Camp O'Donnell, and they kept saying a rescue operation would take place. Three years, like you said. My handler, Cornelius, told me these things take time. He kept up the positive, motivational act he always puts on, but he knew the reality of it. Anyways, in January they liberated the camp… and found Wesley’s body. Cause of death was malnutrition. He kept his promise… “
The two men stared into their drinks for a few moments, sharing the brunt of the pain. Dempsey finally spoke up, “Losing people’s a part of the job description… I know that doesn’t help much. You just need to push that pain back to where you can’t feel it anymore. Where no one can see it.”
Dempsey finished his drink speaking some vague words resembling French to the bartender, who gave him a pint of beer.
Peter smirked, “No more Blowtorches, eh?”
“Yeah,” he scoffed, “I usually only have one just for special occasions. Gotta keep an image of manliness for my squad, and fruity drinks don’t help much with that.”
“I heard… that you’ve got a new nickname.”
Dempsey put his hand to his forehead, hanging his head in embarrassment, “Yeah, I guess I do.”
Peter nudged him, “Come on, say it.”
“You’re just going to make fun of me. Besides, you already know it.”
“Making fun of a Corporal? Me? You know, I’ve grown up some in the past few years.”
“Okay, Special Agent… They call me ‘Tank’.”
“I knew you’d-”
“No, no, no, it’s pretty badass.”
“Of course. How’d you get it?”
“Ah, I get it. What happens in Peleliu, stays in Peleliu.”
Dempsey took a sip from his beer, “Unless you’re John Raine.”
Peter placed his fingers on his chin, sarcastically interested, “You’ve got gripes with the Sergeant? Who would’ve guessed?”
Dempsey placed his mug on the counter, muttering under his breath, “He’s a Grade-A Asshole. He keeps bragging about this medal he’s gonna get for holding down a position while his squad escaped, but I mean, hey, he made it out. Couldn’t have been that brave… “
“Oh, please. Were you there?”
“No, but neither were you.”
“I’m just saying, they don’t give that medal out to just anyone.”
Dempsey raised an eyebrow, returning to his drink, “I guess. Still don’t like him.”
“Do you think your guys like you?”
“Hell no. But that’s just how it works. That’s called chain of command. The guy above you is always the bigger asshole.”
Peter raised his glass, “I’ll drink to that.”
The two Marines felt a sense of camaraderie they once thought was lost. Peter had so many stories he wanted to tell his re-acquainted friend.
“You want to know about my last big mission?”
Dempsey asked, “Did you file a really big stack of paperwork?”
Peter pointed at him sarcastically, “For your information, paperwork is only 75% of the job. Anyway, I was with two French freedom fighters-”
Dempsey cut him off, “Wait a minute, should you be telling me this?”
Peter shrugged, “Who cares? We won’t remember this in the morning. Anyhow, we had to pass through the catacombs to meet with a spy who had infiltrated Group 935.”
“The fucking catacombs?! Aren’t you afraid of the dark?”
“I was when I was twelve. But, listen, we pass through the tunnels for a long, long fucking time. We finally arrive at the rally point, and I get what I need from the spy. His name was, uh… I think Pablo, or something.”
Dempsey set down his drink, cutting Peter off, “Wait, wait...”
“Why?” Peter said, “I’m not even at the best part.”
“What did this Pablo guy look like?”
Peter paused, thinking, “I, uh… I dunno, he had a beard. Black hair, fair skin. A fairly young guy with a Mexican accent. What, do you know him?”
Dempsey nodded, “Yeah, I loved that guy! The OSS sent him to our camp in ‘42 to train us with some of their gadgets. The guy loved to talk, that’s for sure. I even had a few drinks with him. Poor bastard threw up in his beer… “
“Huh. Small world. I heard he stopped contacting his handler. He might be compromised… No telling what Group 935 would do to him.”
Dempsey shook his head, “Fucking Germans.”
Peter asked, “How much do you know about Group 935?”
“It’s like you said before, the world would be better off with their whole operation dead and buried. Nobody with any good bone in their body sides with the Nazis. Good thing our boys in Europe took care of them… It’s fucking crazy to think this war is almost over. We actually beat the Nazis.”
Peter finished his glass, taking a break from drinking for the moment, “With Group 935 still around, I know the fight isn’t over yet. You heard what one of their figureheads said about the German surrender?”
Dempsey asked, “What?”
“‘The Nazi Party sent our fatherland into a war we firmly detested. Though we accepted their funding, Group 935’s goals are not, and were never aligned with the Nazi Party. We will continue to operate independently, wholly separate from any world government.’”
“Right?” Peter nodded, “I can’t wait to stick it to those bastards.”
Peter glanced around the room, noting the Marines now playing a board game at the table, and Pernell sat at another table near the door, chatting with a pasty-faced, young Marine.
Dempsey leaned over, “Sorry for cutting you off. You said something about getting intel from Pablo in the catacombs?”
“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, he let me know some big demonstration was supposed to take place at one of 935’s facilities in front of the Nazi Party. He handed me some documents, and we made our escape back the way we came. We ran into some rogue Nazis before we made it out, though. There was no way we could take them one on one, so I baited them into a crumbling section of the catacombs, and this girl, Sylvie, tossed a grenade, caving in the tunnel on top of them.”
“Sounds like she was the real hero of that story. You were just the bait.”
“Who do you think trained her?”
Dempsey replied, slyly, “Someone who could make the baseball team, probably.”
“Still holding that ‘solitary arm-training regiment’ over my head, huh?”
“What can I say, I’m the best at what I do, and what I do-”
A drunk, red-faced Marine stumbled between the two of them, holding onto the bar to keep from falling, “Tank! We need one more for Charades, come join us!”
Dempsey frustratedly replied, “Smokey, I’m in the middle of a conversation here. Maybe later.”
Smokey glanced at Peter, eyebrows raised. He spoke with slurred words, “Who… who’s this?”
Dempsey said flatly, “That’s Peter McCain. The guy we’re escorting tomorrow night...”
Nearly falling over, Smokey let out weakly, “Oh… ”
Dempsey snapped his fingers, calling Smokey’s attention, “A better question, Private, is why didn’t you recognize him?”
Smokey straightened out, “Well, I, uh, I was in the bathroom when he got here, so… ”
Dempsey stood up, now looking down on Smokey, “His face was all over the dossier. I’m starting to suspect you didn’t look over it as thoroughly as you were supposed to.”
“So I suggest you sober up, and instead of playing games, you become better acquainted with the mission ahead of us. Is that a fine suggestion, Private?”
Smokey stumbled away towards the bathroom at a quick pace, nearly knocking over a bar stool as he did so.
Dempsey returned to his seat, as Peter offered him a smile, and a long, drawn out whistle. “Wow. That’s new.”
Dempsey chuckled, “He’s gonna be out cold before he can even read the dossier tonight. Sometimes, you just need to look like you’re laying down the law.”
Dempsey paused, before asking, “You said earlier something about a big Group 935-Nazi demonstration. I know it’s above my paygrade, but… how’d that turn out?”
“You’re right, it is above your paygrade. And I’d have to kill you if I told you.”
The pair stared each other down for a few seconds, neither willing to blink. Peter’s eyes became tense, before he finally blinked, and the two shared a hearty laugh.
Peter continued, “It went poorly, to say the least. So poorly, the Nazi Party actually did cut ties with Group 935 before the war ended… officially.”
“Officially? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Peter glanced around to Cornelius, noting he was still occupied with another Marine. He spoke softly to Dempsey, “Pernell says I’m crazy… but I get this sneaking suspicion that there are still Nazis out there funding Group 935.”
Dempsey inquired, “Why’s that?”
Peter pondered for a moment how much he could reveal, but for an old friend, he could share the details of his conspiracy theory, “The thing is… word has trickled down from our scientist on the inside, Doctor Yena, you remember him?”
“He says experiments on the undead are still ongoing, even now. He also has not noticed any significant budget cuts since they cut ties with Germany. The OSS thinks the undead experiments are purely for medical purposes now… but I think there’s still someone out there pulling the strings, ready for Germany to rise again.”
Dempsey shook his head, “Pernell’s right. You are crazy.”
Peter smirked, “I’ll bet I’m right.”
“I don’t take bets, not after that last time.”
“Fifty hard-boiled eggs didn’t sound that bad at the time.”
“Hindsight’s a bitch, ain’t it?”
Peter nodded, “Sure is, old buddy.”
Out of the bathroom stumbled Smokey, who then leaned up against the bar muttering to the bartender, “Water… water… ” He soon took the hint.
Peter gestured to Smokey, “So he’s one of yours? Where’s the rest of your squad?”
Dempsey turned in his chair, nodding towards the Marine talking to Pernell, “That’s Private Ridge. He thinks he’s too cool for bars. Seems like your handler’s the same?”
Peter shrugged, “I guess he has a stick up his ass sometimes.”
Dempsey returned to facing the wall, “You’ve met Smokey of course. Then there’s John ‘Banana,’ who’s a teetotaler.”
Peter muttered, “John… ”
“You guys and your nicknames.”
Dempsey shook his head, “For the love of God, if you meet him, don’t ask him what it means.”
“I won’t. I’m asking you.”
Dempsey locked eyes with Peter, expectantly. “You know… ”
“I do. I just want to hear you say it.”
Dempsey motioned to the bartender for another pint. He cut Peter a glance, “So, uh, about those ‘Zombies’… You ever seen one up close?”
“Nope. And I hope I never do.”
Dempsey took a sip of his beer, “I dunno… aren’t you a little curious about how they put up a fight?”
Peter leaned in, “Considering the Germans wanted to make an army of the things, I have a pretty good idea.”
“Just sayin’. Could be interesting. Maybe even a little fun.”
“Nothing about this mission is going to be fun… ‘Tank.’”
“I don’t exactly envy it… having to act like you admire those evil bastards. But hey, if you ever lose your cover and need some help, my squad’ll be there…”
“Oh yeah. I’ve got you and John ‘Banana’.”
Dempsey chuckled, “My guys are good, trust me. We’ve got your back.”
Peter nodded, “I don’t doubt it. They’ve got a good leader.”
The two men sat in silence, sipping their drinks, the air filled with the jubilation of the drunk Marines sitting nearby. Peter felt something creeping up in the pit of his stomach, a memory which had haunted him for some time, convincing him that he and Dempsey would never talk again. Rather than confront it, Peter pushed this memory away, rising to his feet.
“I’m about to head out, maybe try to get some sleep.”
Dempsey nodded, “Probably a wise idea. But I’m stuck babysitting these numb-skulls.”
“I can see that.” Peter scanned the room, as if looking for the right words to quell the rising anxiety in his body. Instead, he said, simply, “It’s been great catching up. I hope I won’t need your help on the mission, but I’m hoping we can catch up like this again soon.”
Dempsey raised his glass, “Likewise, buddy.”
Peter turned away, feeling instant regret as he failed to say what needed to be said. He approached Cornelius, “I’m about to head out, get some sleep maybe. You staying?”
Pernell scooted his chair back, rising to his feet, “I should do the same, really. Big day tomorrow. It was great to meet you, Paxton.” He outstretched his hand to the Marine at the table.
“Likewise, Cornelius. And good luck to you, Agent McCain.”
Peter waved, “Thanks, brother.”
Peter and Cornelius headed out the door into the dark, damp streets of Paris.
Cornelius asked, “So, how’d it go, Pete?”
“It was alright. I think I’m ready for the mission now, Cornelius.”