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Chapter 17: "Semper Fi"
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC, United States of America
July 16th, 1942
At the dawn of a new day, the sun low, peeking over the horizon, Peter forced his aching, tired body out of the government limousine into the chilly morning air. He wore his most formal outfit, with a bright blue tie, a grey jacket, and grey dress pants. His right arm rested in a cast at his chest, nearly completely healed from the near-impossible landing in the Philippines. He had sent a letter to Hilario as soon as he was able to write while in the hospital, and to his surprise the surly mechanic sent a heart-felt response with an image of him and his brother, Isko, as boys. Hilario hoped to continue writing back even as he is being sent back to the front to assist Filipino forces. Peter, on the other hand, had been dealt an entirely different proposition.
He was greeted with a sweaty handshake by a man in all-black business attire, a collection of files in a manila folder under his other arm.
“We're glad to have you, Mr. McCain.”
Behind him was the majestic and revered White House, residence of the President of the United States. Peter paid little attention to the neurotic man before him as he looked out on the lush, green lawn and intricate stone pathway leading up the the building. It was just as grand a piece of architecture as he had seen in pictures, perhaps even greater.
The man guided him up the path leading up to the front doors.
“A beautiful morning, isn't it, Mr. McCain?”
“Yeah, yeah, you could say that. Seems pretty early to have a meeting for a guy like me, though.”
“Hm, apologies. Director Donovan and the rest of the OSS could only book the meeting room for this time. They've been quite busy.”
“Director... Oh! I thought you were Donovan. See, I was being real quiet and smooth, 'cause I thought you were the Director. Who are you?”
“I am Cornellius Pernell. I will be your handler once you begin training. I thought he had mentioned that in the letter... “
“Ah, yeah, he probably did. Sorry. I've been focused on spending time with my little girl. We've been watching those cartoon pictures at the theater. You guys need to keep payin' those guys making the ones with the bunny. She loves those.”
“That isn't quite our department, that would be the concern of the Office of War Information. You'd have to talk to one of them, assuming you are not joking.”
“Only a little. Bugs is a riot.”
Willfully ignoring McCain, Pernell opened the doorway leading into the reception room and then central hallway. The floors were shining, freshly cleaned, and an intricate chandelier hung from the ceiling, tying together the various works of art and plants lining the walls. A wide, red carpet sat in the middle, leading them on the path to the West Wing. Looking upon the old-fashioned marble work, Peter whistled in awe at the sheer size and majesty of it all. It was everything his home was not: massive, regal, fit for a king and his queen, and completely spotless. Since he was no longer living with his ex-wife, the importance of what she had done for him had now become readily apparent. For all that he had said and done, she was happy to see him alive again when he came to pick up little Mary.
Again the duo passed through another set of doors into the West Wing's lobby area, the architecture slightly more modern with an entirely different color scheme and atmosphere. In the center of the room were several men in military uniform talking, before glancing at Peter as he entered the room.
“Shit, they are looking- I shouldn't have worn the blue tie. It was too much, wasn't it?”
“Look, they're all wearing striped grey ties.”
In a hushed tone, Cornellius exclaimed, taking Peter's shoulder, “Peter!”
“Just... stay calm, I'm stressed too... don't worry about what they think of you, they know you're good at what you do. Just look at that cast, it says it all. But me? I'm new to all this bureaucracy. If they're looking at anyone, it's me... it's probably me. When we get inside, just sit down. Be humble.”
With his hand firmly on Peter's shoulder, Cornellius guided them left into another hallway, and then immediately right into a wide room with a table in the center, covered in papers. Sat at the table was a man with posture that commanded the room. He was most definitely Director of the OSS, William Donovan. At his right was a young lady with a typewriter, now smoking a cigarette, and to his left several more men in military uniform listening in to him. At one end of the table was an image projector, turned off on a rolling cart. At the other, a portable, white screen stood near the opposite doorway.
Noting their arrival, Donovan stood up from his seat, leaning over and outstretching his hand to Pernell who shook his hand.
“Director! This is Private Peter McCain.”
“A private no longer, Cornellius. It's great to have you Agent McCain.”
Unlike Pernell's clammy, unrefined grasp, Donovan's was firm and daunting. Peter was at a loss for words, already being referred to as an agent of the OSS before training had even begun.
“Thank... th- thank you, Director. Uh... is the President anywhere around here too, or... because I don't know if I'm ready-”
Pernell nudged him above his ribs behind the cast, urging him to silence. Donovan responded promptly, “Mr. President will not be joining us as he has other matters to attend to, but I know for a fact he would love to meet you in person. For now, we should begin the meeting. Deandra?”
The young blonde woman put out her cigarette, insuring her typewriter was ready before nodding to the Director, now seated alongside the others. Pernell and McCain sat down at the opposite side of the ovular table, Peter meeting eyes with the assistant before passing a flirtatious wink. This did not seem to faze her as she prepared to write the transcript of the meeting.
Donovan looked over the paper before him, reciting it to the room.
“Gentleman, just three days ago the President issued an order to establish the Office of Strategic Services. Our agenda is to perform special operations and intelligence work for the United States military. You are all the first members of this historic organization, and have been hand-selected for your skill-sets, expertise, and technical prowess. In particular, the purpose of today's meeting will be to introduce our first field agent, Mr. McCain, to his upcoming operations. Mr. Cornellius Pernell will be his handler for all upcoming operations, and Mr. Hampton will be the Chief Operations Coordinator.”
Peter leaned over, nudging Pernell and whispering to him, “Which one is Hampton?”
Pernell promptly motioned with his index finger towards the stout older man behind Donovan's chair.
“With time, we will have more new recruits for Operation Torch in North Africa, but Mr. McCain, your training will concern intelligence far greater in importance for the future of the United States. George, the lights?”
Near the doorway, a suited man dimmed the lights of the room, as another activated the projector, beaming a light onto the white screen. Peter squirmed in his chair, dying to ask questions but afraid to do so at this time.
The first image that came onto the screen was that of an older, bald, and bearded man in a lab coat sitting at a desk.
“This is Doctor Ludvig Maxis. In 1931, he founded Group 935, a scientific research organization headquartered outside of Breslau at a location known as The Giant, or in German, Der Riese. The world's most prestigious scientists were invited to join the group by Doctor Maxis, and it has since expanded across the globe. Group 935 is an extremely exclusive and secretive organization sharing next to none of its research publicly. Their research primary revolves around a rare, new element known as 115, and The Giant is smack dab on top of one of the largest depositories of 115. Group 935 concerns us because of Maxis' dealings with the Nazi Party.”
The slide changed to a blurry photo of two figures shaking hands, one apparently Doctor Maxis, and the other in German military fatigues.
“We have confirmation from numerous operatives previously watching over Group 935 that Maxis has formed a deal with the Nazi's to support their military in exchange for future funding. What this support has garnered for them, we are not entirely certain yet. British operatives discovered spent shell casings that seem to have been forged partially with 115. Now Group 935 has expanded its influence into Austria, Sibera, and Japan. They also have two facilities in Berlin that are unknown to even some members of Group 935, and the Reichstag believes the Allies know nothing about them. Your ultimate goal, Agent McCain, will be discovering the purpose of these two facilities. Their secrecy to all but Maxis' most trusted inner circle is concerning and could turn the tides of the war for the worse.”
Now on the screen was a map of the world with red dots scattered across the eastern hemisphere denoting known Group 935 locations. Peter grew more anxious thinking of being sent to Europe.
“Because of your actions in the Philippines, you grabbed our attention, and according to your records you excelled in every training regiment, with... minimal complaints from your superiors. You exceeded in medical training, and apparently speak fluent German?”
He looked to Peter expectantly, who nodded his head nervously as he spoke. “Germ- yeah, I learned it in High School, then... yeah, ja.”
Donovan nodded, assured, returning to his prepared words.
“For these reasons you have been chosen for this operation, henceforth known as Operation Firebrand. At the moment Group 935 is closed off from allowing non-German citizens into its ranks, but you will still be performing missions in Germany to find out more about Group 935's movements and just what the Hell they are doing in Berlin. Major Sawyer, here, has top men forging a medical license and research to be published under your name. If Group 935 will ever allow Americans into the organization again, you will need the proper scientific authority to join. Once you are ready and your body is healed, we can begin espionage training and a further debriefing on your upcoming mission. Mr. Pernell will be handling all of that and more. He will be your direct connection to the OSS in the field and will provide you with everything you need.”
Pernell adjusted himself in his seat, nervous at the very mention of his name.
“While you are preparing for field work, Agent McCain, you will need to conduct research of your own on Group 935's top players. Doctor Maxis, Doctor Edward Richtofen, Hermann Porter, Josef Weber... any known associates: Doctor Friedrich Steiner, Doctor Kosuke Okitsu... Study their books, their discoveries, anything you can find. Mr. Pernell can assist you in finding any information we have available and a list of known Group 935 members. Do you have any questions, Agent McCain?”
Peter mumbled to himself, slumped in his chair, searching for a proper question as the entire room looked directly into him. “Yeah, yes. Until we can fully commit to Operation Firebrand, what will you have me doing in Europe?”
“We are currently gathering intelligence on vulnerable communications outposts across German territory that may be communicating with one of the top secret Berlin facilities. Once we have a target, you'll be needed to infiltrate the outpost and recover what you can. You've proven yourself very capable of espionage given that you are alive here today.”
Peter looked to the window, blinds blocking in any sunlight before returning his gaze to Donovan. “And uh... when will I be coming back home?”
Donovan nodded thoughtfully, closing the folder before him before motioning the man near the door to turn the lights back on. “You'll be coming home periodically to debrief and train for upcoming missions safely. Of course, during that time you are free to visit family and friends before you are needed again.”
Peter stared blankly at the table for a moment, then to the young lady at the typewriter. She raised her eyebrow before looking to Donovan. Donovan broke the silence, “Any more questions, Agent McCain?”
Peter caught himself staring, before regaining his composure and replying, “No sir, no more. Thank you!”
Donovan nodded, smiling, and outstretched his hand to him, “Thank you, Agent McCain, I'm sure you'll do us proud.”
Peter shook his firm hand before standing up and heading towards the door, Pernell behind him. Pernell looked back to the Director, stating, “You can count on us sir. I'm sure Agent McCain will not let us down.”
The pair had no exited into the lobby of the West Wing, Peter stopping as the door shut behind them to backhand Pernell in the chest, who exclaimed, confused, “Hey!”
“Hey you, Cornellius. I won't let you down? What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means I have confidence in you, Peter.”
“I said be humble, not that humble.”
“I don't think I can do this. This is all so crazy.”
Peter was now leaned against the wall near a window looking out on the lush, green lawn of the White House. Pernell joined him at the opposite side.
“I don't know if you are aware of this Peter, but that stunt you pulled to get the battle plans to Corregidor... that was crazy. No weapons, no air support, that took brains and most of all, that took guts.”
“It wasn't all me. Isko-”
“I've read the dossier. There were three of you, and you certainly couldn't do it alone. But without you they would have gotten nowhere. Neither of them knew how to get there, what to look out for. It was a team effort. Think of me like one of them.”
“You? Like Isko? Or Hilario?”
“Okay maybe not like them, but I've got your back. I know you can do this, Peter. What you did that day may have saved the lives of your entire platoon and more.”
“'May have' being the key phrase there. Since then I haven't seen Anton, or Stanford, or, Hell, Corporal Little-”
“These things take time. Now, I don't know you yet, not really. But I know you've got the skills to make a difference around here. To maybe save some lives, kick some ass. First, I want to learn a little more about you, Pete.”
“Don't call me Pete.”
“Noted. Won't make the same mistake again.”
Peter paused for a moment, looking back onto the lawn before continuing to walk towards the doors he came in through, Pernell in tow.
“If you want to know something about me: I don't like change. Not one bit. In terms of a career, pencil-pushing and pretending to be a scientist on the weekends is a pretty big change from failed field medic turned grunt. I'm gonna need some time to get acquainted with all of... that we saw back there. I hadn't even heard of Group 935 before all of this.”
“Very few have. And for the record. Everything you saw in there was completely confidential.”
“Oh please, who would I tell? Have all the information on Element 115 you can find sent to my flat. Also everything on Doctor Maxis; I'm gonna need to get inside his head.”
Peter and Cornellius were now out of the front doors of the White House, walking down the path towards a different limousine from the one before.
“I'll get right on that. You take care.”
As Peter prepared to lower himself into the vehicle, he stood back up, speaking to Pernell.
“Also, send me an English-to-German dictionary too. Maybe some lessons for kids or somethin'. I'm a bit rusty on the language. No sprechen ze Deutsch sehr gut!”
Pernell said nothing in response, choosing instead to offer a thumb's up and reassuring expression as he closed the door of the vehicle, waving to the driver to take Peter home. As the limousine drove away from the White House lawn, Peter looked out the window back towards Pernell, who tripped and fell as made his way up the steps, scattering the contents of his briefcase as another suited man in a wheelchair came outside and tried to assist him.
“I guess that's why I'm the field guy... ”