Ace Egan was surprised, and somewhat disheartened, at how easy it was to feel utterly alone in a barracks crowded with men fighting for the same cause he was. Men of a dozen nationalities milled around, conversing in hushed tones, but no one spoke to those who were lying on their bunks unless the reclining man initiated the conversation. In a prison camp, a man’s bunk was his only place of solitude, and no one wanted to be seen as an intruder.
The lieutenant tried his best to get some sleep, but his mind refused to relax. Instead, he tossed and turned, agonizing thoughts of what the Nazis were planning to do with his belt and ship weighing heavy on his heart. Ace decided he had reached the lowest point of his existence. When it began to feel like his bunk was closing in on him, Ace scrambled to his feet.
A dozen seconds of silence reigned supreme, then as many questions assailed the stalag’s newest prisoner. Ace finally caught his breath when a British corporal muscled his way through the crowd to his side.
“Corporal Peter Newkirk at your service, Lieutenant,” the Englishman said.
“Um… OK,” Ace replied, confused.
“Colonel Hogan would like a word with you.”
Ace nodded. “Yeah. That sounds good.”
“Not to worry, sir,” Newkirk said, with a smile. “The colonel can help straighten things out for you.”
When the two men arrived, Ace was ushered into the colonel’s personal quarters.
“Lieutenant Egan,” Colonel Robert Hogan said.
“Colonel,” Ace said, snapping to attention.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” Hogan said. “We tend to be a little more relaxed around here.”
As the two men spoke, three more men joined them. “Lieutenant, this is Sergeant Kinchloe, Sergeant Carter, and Corporal LeBeau; you’ve already met Newkirk.”
Ace shook hands with the men. “Sir, I’m not sure I understand what’s going on.”
“Let me come to the point, Ace,” the colonel said. There was something about the way the man said his name that put the lieutenant on alert. “We know who you are.”
“Yes, sir,” Ace said. “I’m Lieutenant Frank Egan.”
“Give it up, mate,” Newkirk said. “Your secret is safe with us.”
“Golly,” Sergeant Carter said. “I can’t believe I’m this close to the Ace of Space.”
Ace’s heart sank, and his face showed it.
“Don’t worry too much about it,” Hogan told him. “You aren’t the only one in camp with secrets. All of us in this room are here by choice. We work with the Underground, as well as British Military Intelligence.”
“Our current mission,” added James “Kinch” Kinchloe, “is to get you out of here and back to England.”
“I guess my secret is really out then,” Ace said.
“Aside from us, and the few Germans that know it, the only others who know who your true identity are the commander and crew of an American sub that regularly patrols the North Sea,” the colonel said. “And none of us are planning on telling.”
“I’m not sure about the Germans, Colonel,” Ace replied, “but I guess I trust my secret is safe with the rest of you. Not that it matters now.”
“Cheer up, mon ami,” Louis LeBeau said, patting the man on the shoulder. “I’m sure Colonel Hogan is already working out a plan to reunite you and your rocket.”
“Don’t start building me up just yet, LeBeau,” Hogan said. “Right now, I have absolutely no idea how to do that. It isn’t as easy as running into Hammelburg for a beer at the Hofbrau; we’re talking about crossing the country and infiltrating a top-secret base that we know nothing about.”
Not far away, in a dilapidated barn, a lone listener rested his elbows on a table and took in everything the colonel and his men were saying. He knew that it would take some doing, but he had a feeling that some of the prisoners would soon be taking a trip.
Ace listened to the not-so-gentle snoring of the men around him as he laid in his bunk. Colonel Hogan and his men seemed like a capable group, but he had his doubts that Hogan’s heroes could pull off his escape and the return of his ship and belt. The darkness of the barracks was interrupted every few minutes by the searchlights that constantly scanned the camp. In the disturbed darkness, the lieutenant came to a grim decision — if he couldn’t retrieve his possessions, he wouldn’t be leaving Germany.
A few barracks away, Colonel Hogan laid awake on his own bunk. Over and over, he played out numerous scenarios for recovering the rocket ship in his mind. Not a single one ended up in success. Perhaps it would be worth it, ending their mission for such an important cause. He would have to clear it with London first, and he would have to clear it with his men, as well. He already knew that they would follow him to Berlin if he asked, but this was a mission from which, in all likelihood, they wouldn’t return.
In the main room of the barracks, the colonel’s men were having the same thoughts. They knew the importance of such a mission. Each man, lost in his own thoughts, had asked himself if they were willing to die for what the Ace of Space stood for. To a man, they had determined that they were. Not realizing that they weren’t the only one to come to that conclusion, they were all prepared to secretly volunteer to join the colonel on the mission they were sure he would try to undertake.
By the time morning roll call had been called, Colonel Hogan had already been approached by his entire team. The support was exactly what he had expected, but he was still no closer to a plan. Regardless, he decided to let the lieutenant know that they were going to try something.
Throughout the day, a steady parade of staff cars passed through the front gates of the camp. Each time a car would arrive, Sgt. Hans Schultz or one of the other guards would appear and take Ace to the commandant’s office to be put on display for the visitors. Once they would leave, Ace would be returned to his barracks. It was just before evening roll call that Corporal Newkirk appeared and escorted Ace to Colonel Hogan’s quarters.
“The krauts have kept you busy today,” Hogan said as the two men entered.
“Nothing I can do about it,” Ace replied, apparently distressed by the whole deal.
“Well, I’ve got something that might cheer you up,” the colonel said. “We are going to try to get you out of here.”
The lieutenant was overcome with emotion and almost passed out. Newkirk and Kinch grabbed the man before he had sagged too far and helped him to Hogan’s bunk. Once he was seated, Ace seemed to recover at least part of his composure.
“We’ve been stationed in this camp since shortly after the war began, and have built up a network of contacts,” Hogan began, “but we’ve decided that the good we could do getting you out of here and getting you your ship back would be greater than anything we could do from here on out.”
“Won’t this get you in trouble with your superiors?” Ace asked, now realizing what these men were willing to face for his sake.
“I plan on informing the sub commander of our plans, and then let them contact Washington directly,” the colonel said. “I believe that they will back us up.”
Ace looked at Newkirk, and then at LeBeau. “What about you two? Since you aren’t Americans, won’t you get in trouble with your superiors for this?
LeBeau spoke first. “C’est la vie. There are times when principles are more important than orders.”
“He’s right, mate,” Newkirk added. “The damage you inflicted on the Germans is more than we could ever do. Besides, we wouldn’t want the colonel to have all the jolly fun.”
“I don’t know,” Ace said, suddenly unwilling to let these men risk their careers and their lives for him. “Perhaps it would be better if you just helped me escape and let me try it on my own.”
Hogan shook his head. “The minute you disappear, Hochstetter’s men would tear this place apart, and our operation would be discovered. We’d be lucky if there was a man left alive in this camp if that happened. I’ll have Kinch contact the Underground and let them know what we are planning. They might be able to buy us some time before London finds out what we’ve done.”
“I… I don’t know what to say,” Ace confessed.
“Don’t say anything,” Hogan said. “Just sit tight until I can figure out what our first move will be.”
Ace managed a grateful smile. “Yes, sir.”
An underground bunker in London:
The radio operator removed her headphones and looked around for a superior officer. Not seeing one in the immediate area, she picked up the headphones and held an earpiece to her ear. With her free hand, she touched the button on the microphone and held it in.
“I need to locate my superior,” the young woman said. “Could you please hold a moment?”
With consent, the radio operator put the headphones back down and went in search of the officer in charge. She met Major Ian Butler, a portly man whose appearance made him seem like an unlikely member of MI6. His ceramic teacup and saucer slipped from his fingers and shattered on the concrete steps as the young woman repeated the message she had just received.
With a speed and level of grace that was not readily apparent in his appearance, the major ran to the operator’s station. He grabbed the microphone and began to speak even as he lifted the headphones to his ear.
“Belgium, this is Poppa Bear,” the major said. “Please repeat your message.”
“We received a message from an operative that says, and I am reading from it directly, ‘Goldilocks is preparing to leave the cottage. I will do what I can to ensure a safe return.'”
The major was shocked but appreciated the information. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” the man said, “and thank your operative for us.”
“That’s the thing, Poppa Bear,” the Belgium operator said. “The operative is not one of ours.”
“Whose operative is it, then?” the major asked, somewhat confused.
There was a moment of silence before the Belgian spoke. “According to the operative, he is one of yours.”
“One of… ours?”
“What codename did he give?” the major asked.
Major Ian Butler ignored the now long-cold tin cup of tea that had been brought to him as a replacement for the cup he had dropped earlier. Instead, he refilled the bowl of his Meerschaum pipe, then turned another page in the list of known operatives.
“Nothing,” he said, to no one in particular.
The man looked up and saw a colonel standing at the corner of his desk. He started to rise, but the officer motioned for him to remain seated.
“You should be going off-duty,” the colonel said.
The major looked at his watch, then shrugged.
“I understand you have a bit of a mystery on your hands,” the colonel said. “Are you any closer to solving it?”
“No, sir,” Major Butler said. “I’m not Sherlock-bloody-Holmes, sir, and I’m running out of ideas.”
“Then, perhaps I can help,” the colonel said with a smile. “When the young woman who received the call briefed me on what had happened, I did a little checking on my own.”
The colonel reached into an inner pocket and pulled out a small notebook. He handed it to the major, then relit his own pipe. While the major began to read through the yellowed pages, the colonel began to relate what he had discovered.
“Shortly after the Great War ended, certain members of this office thought it would be a good idea to place sleeper agents in the nations of our defeated enemies. For the most part, these agents were deactivated in the 1930s, thanks, in part, to the previous P.M.
“It appears, however, that one of our sleepers has managed to keep an eye open. Although why he has waited until now to make his appearance known is beyond me.”
The major looked up from the notebook. “There’s no list of the agents’ true identities.”
“No,” the colonel replied, “there isn’t. All we know is that there was a code word that was to be used to activate our agents. Our sleeper in Germany was to be activated with the word doppelgänger, the name the agent gave us.”
Major Butler closed the notebook. “Given the circumstances, do we trust this Doppelgänger?”
The colonel looked at him and took another puff on his pipe. “Given the circumstances,” he replied, “dare we not?”
Colonel Hogan looked over a map provided to him by Ace of the area where he had last seen his rocket. The lieutenant was surprised at how much detail he was able to remember.
“I’ve narrowed the location of the hidden base to somewhere in this area,” Hogan said, tracing a circle on the map with his finger. “Now, all we have to do is figure out how to get there.”
Andrew Carter, Peter Newkirk, Louis LeBeau, and even Ace Egan began to offer suggestions, but Hogan’s analytical mind quickly dissected the ideas and pointed out the flaws. Taking bits and pieces of the suggestions, however, the colonel was in the process of devising a plan of his own. Before he could follow his train of thought to its conclusion, the door opened, and Kinch stuck his head in.
“Colonel,” he said, his worry written in the lines of his forehead, “London says they know what’s going on, and they want to talk to you.”
For a moment, no one spoke; everyone just looked at each other. There was a feeling of despair quickly filling the tiny room. It was Newkirk who broke the silence.
“Sir,” he said, solemnly, “regardless of what London says, we’re with you until the end.”
Colonel Hogan looked around the room, making eye contact with each man. He gave them a sly, little smile. “Let’s go see what London has to say.”
When Hogan lifted the microphone up and pushed the button in a few moments later, he was prepared to receive a severe dressing down. “This is Goldilocks.”
“We know what you are planning, Goldilocks,” the English voice said.
Here it comes, Hogan thought.
“And, apparently, we have an agent in the area that is planning on assisting you.”
Colonel Hogan was momentarily speechless. He didn’t know which surprised him more; the fact that London knew what they were planning, or that an unknown agent was apparently spying on them.
“Who is this agent?” Kinch asked during Hogan’s silence.
Now, it was London’s turn to remain silent.
“Again, London, who is the agent?” Kinch asked.
After a moment more of silence on the other end, the voluntary POWs heard London’s reply.
“We… don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Hogan asked. “You don’t know?! The security of my men and this mission has been severely compromised, and you don’t know by whom?”
“You are very close to insubordination as it is, Goldilocks,” London said. “Watch your tone.”
Hogan fell silent, but he did not apologize for his outburst.
“As far as we are able to ascertain, this agent was put into place shortly after the Great War,” the Englishman said. “Believe me, we have discussed, at great lengths, whether or not we should trust this forgotten agent.”
“What did you decide?” Hogan asked.
“We’ve decided to trust your judgment,” the man said. “If you feel this mission of yours is important enough to throw away everything we’ve done for the war effort, then we have decided to let you make this decision as well.”
“Regardless of what I decide,” Hogan said, “we still need to figure out how this agent knows what we are doing.”
“We can tell you one thing, Goldilocks.”
“Yes?” Hogan replied.
“The agent goes by the name of Doppelgänger.”
The colonel repeated the name. “Based on the name, the agent could be anyone.”
“Whatever you decide,” the English voice said, “best of luck to you.”
“Yeah,” Hogan said, “thanks. We’re going to need it.”
After the transmission was ended, Carter looked at the colonel. “What are we going to do?”
“We are going to see if we can’t arrange a meeting with Doppelgänger,” Hogan said. “But first, we are going to see if we can find out a little more about him… or her.”