28 June 1949
“Grab a smoke?” Sean nodded at the leather cigarette case.
Joe eased one onto the table and shoved it toward him, keeping his gaze fixed on the camera’s viewfinder. He produced from his trouser pocket a silver lighter; it reflected the mix of moon and streetlight, revealing long vertical stripes and various geometric shapes imprinted into its body. The paint was wearing thin, and it bore the scuffs and scratches indicative of heavy use. Without moving from the camera, he flicked it open. He held the flame below the window, ensuring it stayed invisible to potential watchers.
As Sean took a drag from the end, a warm orange glow appeared. He shuffled away and slumped on the floor with his elbows propped on his knees, shoulders against the wall. The young spies sat in silence, motionless as the occasional car engine rumbled past the window. Crisp white t-shirts and pressed slacks functioned as their uniform, and they shared the razor-sharp slicked hairstyle popular in those days. Sean’s was a touch shy of black; Joe’s golden blonde mop and pale blue eyes suggested he might have been a former Hitler youth, a fact used to their advantage in setting up his cover story.
He exhaled into the air, watching the smoke flow over the slits of yellow light pouring in through the blinds. “Thanks,” he murmured. “How’s the view?”
Through the lens Joe watched the Russian Academy of Sciences. Its imposing concrete facade glowed in the streetlights. “Quiet, as usual,” Joe replied. “Just another night in Moscow.”
“Bet you didn’t think you’d be spending your summer like this. At least the weather’s nice.”
“You’ve got funny ideas of the word nice.”
“Look at the positive: it’s not a Siberian winter. I’ll take rain over snow seven days a week.”
Joe rolled the notion around in his mind and conceded. “I guess so.”
“Buck up, your watch’s almost done. I will stare at our friends the rest of the night and you can paint the town, find some red broad. Shack up until tomorrow.”
“Not my style. I’m just tired of the waiting, that’s all.”
“Yeah, I understand. But you’ve got to remember you’re the key to this whole enterprise, Comrade.” They shared a bored sigh.
“I figure six weeks is plenty to set up cover inside the Academy. I’ve not seen a sniff that they're close to having the bomb. Why not just sneak in, steal a few filing cabinets and leave?”
“I don’t think this one’s an in-and-out job, Joe. But look at it this way: you must do promising stuff for the station chief to keep you there; if he thought you’d peaked, we’d have been extracted by now.”
Joe shrugged, finished with the topic. “How did you start with the agency, anyway?” he asked.
“You might say it’s the family business. You?”
“Born at the wrong time, I guess. I imagined myself part of the war, but I was a late bloomer: other guys lied themselves into the service; nobody would’ve bought it off me. We dropped the bomb before I hit my growth spurt. So when I turned eighteen I came knocking; only the agency opened the door.”
Joe stiffened, peering harder across the distance. A large sedan stopped outside the nondescript entrance the pair had staked out. He examined the driver and his front seat passenger, both of whom he met in the Academy’s hallways and at various lectures. They were mid-level scientists in the burgeoning Soviet Atomic program; he noted they often visited the building during the wee hours but had yet to invite him into their late-night work sessions.
Chief among the Agency’s founding goals was to disrupt Russia’s ability to develop nuclear weapons; Joe’s role was to gain entry to the Russian Academy of Sciences and report on progress, and to sabotage where able. In his short stint, he reached a first-name basis with a handful of physicists within the program, yet he remained unsure whether he truly had their trust.
From the sedan’s backseat emerged a tall, masculine woman with a chiseled scowl. Her blonde hair drew so tightly into a bun that if its metal clip snapped, any ricochet would be lethal at fifty yards. She wore a black pants suit reminiscent of an SS uniform, but stripped of its insignia. The men accompanying her each gathered leather satchels from the car’s trunk, handing a third to her.
“Hot damn, we got something!” Joe whispered, and slapping his companion’s shoulder, he beckoned him look through the eyepiece.
Sean squinted an eye and stared. “Who am I looking at?”
“Ignore the guys, I know them. Focus on the woman: she’s a German physicist known colloquially as ‘The Frau.’ The last I knew of her someone had poisoned her to death in Dresden; she should be dead.”
“Looks like it only affected her face.”
“She was the principal scientist on the Nazi atomic energy project near the end of the war. Imagine a female Dr. Einstein, but without scruples. She stayed under the radar for so long because nobody expected a woman heading the krauts’ program. Our intel showed she assisted the other scientists, but she was the mastermind. When the agency learned as much, they issued a kill order.”
Joe resumed his post, snapping a burst of photographs. The traveling group in his camera’s focus shuffled through the steel entryway and disappeared. Sean meandered around the vacant office, cracking his knuckles; he took a deep drag and blew a cloud skyward. He heard Joe behind him, pulling on another shirt and tucking it into his trousers.
“You don’t seriously expect to follow them inside, do you?” he asked, spinning on his heels.
Joe nodded. “That’s the intent.”
“Slow down, Joe. Let’s involve the station chief first.”
“No—this is big. Her presence here says we know bupkis about the Russian atomic program.”
“A perfect reason to tread quietly, stay under cover and learn what we can.”
“No thanks. This changes the mission completely; she’s our best shot at extracting high value information. That woman’s closer to getting the bomb by herself than all the Russians I’ve met. She disappears, and the intel leaves, too. Either you come or you don’t, makes no difference.”
Sean compulsively ran his hands through his hair, sucking harder on his cigarette. He closed and rubbed his eyes, pushing away fatigue.
“Fine, I’m coming. But it’s your ass if this goes pear-shaped.” He shuddered when Joe flashed a wild-eyed grin his way.
A mist hung in the air and threatened to become a dense fog before dawn; it draped itself over them, producing a chill as they marched. Their footsteps echoed off the alley’s concrete walls. Both men scanned The Frau’s sedan as they passed, seeking any intelligence of value. It provided a convenient cover from the street, and Joe crouched there. Sean approached the door, leaning in and removing a small stethoscope from his pocket. He held it against the steel: hearing nothing, he motioned all was clear.
Joe stepped up the landing, produced a set of thin blades, and worked them into the lock. The stethoscope registered each tumbler’s falling into place, eliciting a series of affirming nods. Once the mechanism released, they slinked into the corridor, squinting from the bright fluorescence. Neither breathed as they listened for others in the area; the building appeared empty.
A finger raised to Joe’s lips as he motioned his partner to follow. His nostrils stung from the astringent metallic scent of the laboratory. Every inch of the building’s interior felt sterile, with the only splash of color coming from the turquoise tiles covering the lower half of each wall; the overall effect was suffocating. The pair tiptoed past a dozen identical entryways until they reached the end of the corridor. Joe placed his ear in the gap between the double doors and heard voices. “Her,” he mouthed. He peered through, then silently pushed one open and slipped into the next corridor.
The Atomic Sciences wing comprised a block of offices surrounding a central lab. That space was home to transient scientists from across Russia while the outer ring housed the fellows and their politburo handlers. Joe had learned the names and faces of their owners despite never being invited inside them. As the two inched closer, the voices grew clearer. Suddenly the group burst from an office, chattering to each other in German.
Sean grabbed a fistful of Joe’s collar and dove into the nearest open door, nearly knocking him from his feet. He scrambled under the desk in the dim light, curling as tightly as possible and trying not to breathe. Joe pressed his body into a corner behind the coat rack, his fright tempered by sense he would appear silly if discovered. The Frau entered, barking at her two traveling companions. She unbuttoned her overcoat and absently tossed it at the rack where Joe held his breath to avoid flinching; the garment caught the lowest rung, slid, and then stuck fast, just concealing him.
With a huff, the unpleasant German dropped her leather briefcase into a chair and left. Her handlers followed, pointing down the hallway as she walked. Both young operatives fought to control their respective sighs. Joe, still in shock, stood mouth agape. Sean peered out from under the desk, and seeing no Russians, gave a reassuring nod and rose.
“Bathroom,” he whispered. “We only have a few minutes.”
The Americans descended on the chair and unclasped the satchel, revealing a trove of paper. They divided the stack and began rifling through it.
“You know Russian, read these,” Sean said.
“Looks like requisitions for parts: radar components, fuses, steel. That sort of thing.”
“What do you make of it?”
“You don’t need these for theoretical experiments; this is stuff you use to build a full-scale weapon. Everything I’ve seen says they shouldn’t be anywhere near this far along yet.”
Sean slanted his head. “This one’s in English,” he said, pulling a report from the bag.
“Holy shit,” Joe replied. The report’s second page was a photograph displaying a schematic. Both men recognized the football-shaped body and square fins. At the top of the paper read the words “Mark III,” which confirmed that they were holding a picture of Fat Man’s final design drawing.
“What are you looking for?” Joe asked as his accomplice leafed through every sheet in the report.
“A contact, the person who gave them this. You keep reading.” He shoved the papers into Joe’s chest and crept away, seeking a better view of the returning contingent.
Suddenly a familiar smell wafted into his nostrils. His head whipped around to see the documents alight, falling into a waste bin near the desk. Speechless, he gaped in horror at a widely grinning Joe.
“What the hell do you mean, what? Why did you do that?”
“I figured we already had that stuff, so no point in stealing it; and the agency put me here to sabotage, so I’m sabotaging.”
“You idiot, you’ll get us killed!”
“Relax; Nobody will know if we slip out quietly. No cover blown, and we’re heroes.”
Sean rolled his eyes and rushed into the hallway, with Joe a single step behind. He led them toward the entry to the atomic sciences wing, hoping to retrace their earlier steps. When they reached the double doors, he spied the Russian scientists building an impressive collection of cigarette ash on the floor while waiting for the Frau.
“That way’s no good,” he said. “Is there another exit?”
“Well, that’s the one I usually use, so I don’t really know. Can we distract them?”
“Probably not without being made.”
In the distance behind them, a faint orange glow flickered across the hall. Above it, black plumes rose from the office doorway; he glanced backward, blinked, stared, and finally hung his head. Joe rushed back to the office door, sliding to a stop as he reached it.
“Shit! Curtains!” he gasped.
Both men thrust their hands over their ears as an alarm suddenly split the surrounding air.
“Now what?” Sean called.
They barricaded themselves in the burning room using the chair to block the entrance. Joe slid open the fire-framed window as the silhouette of Russians appeared behind the closed blinds, and a heavy boot pounded the door. He climbed through the opening and stumbled onto the pavement. The pursuers plowed into the office, stumbling as they did. Sean spun around and saw the Frau’s imposing figure lunging at him. He thrust his head out the building and shouted, “Run!”
Joe slowed at the sound and watched the Frau pull his partner by the collar back into the spreading blaze. Then he obeyed the order, his footsteps ringing off the rain soaked pavement. The alley emptied into the courtyard and he paused; yards away the Frau’s sedan sat waiting. He considered for a moment the possibility of hot-wiring it. He gazed across the distance at his still uncompromised perch. If he burst the tires, they might assume a getaway car had been ready for him and thus not pursue him. Frantic, he searched his pockets for anything he could use to throw off his pursuers. Only his lighter met his searching fingers. He clinched his fists, pacing, hesitant. Finally, he approached the sedan, kicked in the driver’s side window, flicked open the lighter, and tossed it into the floorboard.
The lateness of the hour allowed him to escape through the courtyard undetected, and he reached the pair’s base of operations out of breath but otherwise unharmed. He slid into his chair behind the camera and focused the lens on the entrance, hoping to learn something of his colleague. The two Russians were stamping flames out of the sedan’s front seat, but Joe spied no one else. He slumped into the chair, still staring through the viewfinder; his hope waned with each passing moment and he cursed himself for his impulsivity.
A meaty hand dropped onto his shoulder, and Joe spun away from it, launching his fist in defense. Sean threw his head back to avoid it and shouted, “Shit, man! Watch out.” Joe’s momentum knocked him off balance, and he tumbled to the floor.
“What happened to the Frau? How’d you get here so fast?”
“Don’t worry yourself, I took care of her. What of her two friends?” He offered a begrudged hand.
“Still putting out the Frau’s ride. That’ll keep them occupied long enough to pack everything. Rotten luck, though, I lost my lighter. It was my old man’s; he carried it through the war.”
“You left the lighter in the car?”
“Yeah—I didn’t have time to sit there and wait for it to burn, I needed a diversion.”
“You realize that blows your cover, right? These people are trained to notice details, Joe. You’ve offered a light to every Tom, Dick, and Chekov in the academy; somebody’s bound to recognize it’s yours." He sighed. "You’re compromised, Joe.”
Joe slumped into his chair again. “Ah, hell. What are we gonna tell Station?”
“We aren’t telling him anything; I started by saying it’s your ass. You’re telling him. Now let’s get out before they search these buildings.”
The two officers packed up their surveillance gear in silence, occasionally throwing a bag or slamming a case harder than necessary. Neither looked at the other. Sean drew the blinds closed, cutting off all but the sharpest slits of light from outside, and followed Joe into the darkness.