EMPIRE AND HONOR
by W.E.B. Griffin
& William E. Butterworth IV
[ ONE ]
South Latitude 41.205 degrees, West Longitude 65.114 degrees
In the San Matias Gulf, the Coast of Argentina
0430 6 October 1945
“Let me have a look, please,” SS-Brigadeführer Ludwig Hoffmann said to Fregattenkapitän Wilhelm von Dattenberg, captain of U-405, who was looking through the periscope.
Hoffmann’s tone suggested it was less a request than an order.
Hoffmann, a diminutive, intense forty-five-year-old, was superior in rank to von Dattenberg. If they had been in the Kriegsmarine, Hoffmann would have been a vizeadmiral.
Von Dattenberg, a slim, somewhat hawk-faced thirty-four-year-old, stepped away from the periscope eyepiece and indicated to Hoffmann that it was his.
Five months earlier, SS-Brigadeführer Hoffmann and fifteen other SS officers — two SS-standartenführers, a rank equivalent to kapitän zur see; six SS-obersturmbannführers, a rank equivalent to von Dattenberg’s; and seven SS-sturmbannführers, a rank equivalent to korvettenkapitän — had come aboard U-405 at Narvik, Denmark, with five heavy wooden crates.
And at least once a day since then, Fregattenkapitän von Dattenberg had very seriously considered how he might kill all of the Nazis, who carried orders signed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler himself.
Right now, he genuinely regretted having missed all of his opportunities to do so because each time he had come up with a plan, he realized that it would have endangered his crew. After all he’d been through with his sailors, he had no intention of doing that.
“I can’t see a goddamn thing,” Hoffmann snapped.
“The sun hasn’t come up, Herr Brigadeführer,” von Dattenberg said. “And there’s not much to see. As you know, this location was chosen because of its isolation.”
Hoffmann did not directly respond.
“But I can make out the shoreline,” he said. “Why are we so far offshore?”
“If we move any closer to the shore, Herr Brigadeführer, we would run the risk of going aground and tearing out our bottom.”
“Then how are we going to get ashore?” Hoffmann asked.
What you mean, you sonofabitch, is: “How am I going to get ashore without getting my shoes wet? Or drowning?”
Von Dattenberg resisted the temptation to reply with what popped into his mind — I don’t really give a damn how you do, just as long as you bastards get off my U-boat — and instead said, “Perhaps we’ll get lucky, Herr Brigadeführer, and the people we’re trying to establish contact with will have a boat of some kind. Otherwise, I’m afraid it will have to be in our rubber boats.”
“Don’t you mean, von Dattenberg, the people we’re going to contact?” Hoffmann asked.
“I think we have to consider, Herr Brigadeführer, the changed circumstances.”
Hoffmann took von Dattenberg’s meaning: Germany has surrendered and the war is over — there may not be anyone waiting for us to arrive.
“The people who will meet us are SS. They will comply with their orders,” Hoffmann said.
“Of course,” von Dattenberg said.
He thought: And if there is no flashing light from the shore, then what do I do? Comply with that last official order from the Kriegsmarine to hoist a black flag and proceed to the nearest enemy port and surrender?
Himmler’s order told me to ignore that Kriegsmarine order when it came and place myself at the orders of Hoffmann.
Hoffmann and the other SS swine are not going to go docilely into internment. That would carry with it the threat of being repatriated to Germany to face whatever it is the Allies have in mind for people like them.
So, what do I do? Kill them all?
I could wait until they’re in the rubber boats and then machine-gun them, “leaving no survivors,” as I was ordered to leave no survivors of the British and American merchantmen I sank and who had made it into their lifeboats.
Nice thought, Willi, but you’re pissing into the wind.
I could not order the machine-gunning of these swine in my rubber boats any more than I could order the machine-gunning of those sailors in their lifeboats.
The dichotomy here is that while Hoffmann and the other SS slime aboard deserve to be shot out of hand, I simply cannot do that. I still am an officer bound by the Code of Honor.
“So, what do we do now?” Hoffmann asked, as he put his eyes back on the periscope.
“The protocol, Herr Brigadeführer, is for us to come to periscope depth at oh-four-thirty for a period of thirty minutes, flashing the signal at sixty-second intervals during that period of time, while proceeding at dead slow speed along the coast . . .”
As you should goddamn well know, Hoffmann. You’ve nearly worn out the protocol folder reading it over and over with all the attention the Pope would pay to the original version of the Gospel according to Saint Peter.
“. . . and, in the event contact is not made, to submerge and wait until twenty-one-thirty, at which time we are to come again to periscope depth and repeat the process for another thirty-minute period.”
“Would you like to look for a signal from the shore, Herr Brigadeführer? Or . . .”
Hoffmann stepped back from the periscope.
“Schröder,” von Dattenberg said, and gestured for Korvettenkapitän Erik Schröder, U-405’s executive officer, to take the periscope.
“Maintain signaling,” von Dattenberg ordered. “Proceed dead slow at this depth for twenty-five minutes.”
“Maintain signaling. Dead slow for twenty-five minutes, aye, Kapitän,” von Dattenberg’s Number One answered.
“You have the helm, Schröder. I’ll be in my cabin.”
“I have the helm, aye, Kapitän.”
“Why are you going to your cabin?” Hoffmann demanded.
“For my daily cup of coffee,” von Dattenberg answered. “Would you care to join me, Herr Brigadeführer?”
“I’ll stay here,” Hoffmann said.
Von Dattenberg made his way through the boat to his cabin. It was crowded, but not nearly as crowded as it had been when they left Narvik, or after they had been replenished at sea from a Spanish merchantman just about in the center of the South Atlantic.
All the supplies with which they had sailed and with which they had augmented from the replenishment vessel — including fuel — were just about gone.
And the odds are that the SS men in Argentina aren’t going to be on the beach looking for a signal from a submarine. Despite Hoffmann’s pissing-in-the-wind belief that they will “comply with their orders,” they will have decided that no U-boat is coming.
What they are doing is desperately trying to hide themselves in Argentina.
So, what do I do?
Von Dattenberg pushed aside the curtain that served as the door to his cabin and stepped inside. He shared his cabin with Brigadeführer Hoffmann, which meant von Dattenberg slept on a mattress on the deck, his bunk being one of the privileges that went with Brigadeführer Hoffmann’s rank.
He saw the steward had already stowed the mattress atop the bunk.
He sat at his desk, opened a drawer, and took from it a small jar of Nescafé. Just as soon as the Swiss had developed the powdered coffee, which didn’t spoil and took up very little space, it had been enthusiastically adopted by the submarine service. That was in 1936, when von Dattenberg had been a twenty-three-year-old oberleutnant zur see in submarine training at a secret base in Russia.
Von Dattenberg unscrewed the cap and peered inside the jar. He had enough coffee left for maybe a week, at a one-cup-a-day consumption rate. He wondered why Hoffmann had not stolen his coffee, and decided that Hoffmann, not wanting to unnecessarily antagonize him, had stolen Nescafé from one or more of his brother officers.
Von Dattenberg put a scanty teaspoon of Nescafé into a china mug. As he then put water into a small electric pot and plugged it in, he decided that there was a silver lining in the black cloud that was his mission: Whatever happened, this would be the last time he would ever be off the coast of Argentina looking for a signal from shore.
He had made eleven successful similar voyages. He had even smuggled other senior SS officers into Argentina, including SS-Brigadeführer Ritter Manfred von Deitzberg, who was Himmler’s first deputy adjutant.
He was certain that that was the reason — no good deed ever goes unpunished — he had been selected to make this voyage, too. He didn’t know specifically what the swine he had aboard had done for the SS to earn themselves a place on U-405, but in addition to OPERATION PHOENIX, there was no question in his mind that it had a good deal to do with another operation — a nameless, shameful one — run by senior SS officers.
By the time he learned of this operation, von Dattenberg thought he knew all there was to know about the despicable behavior of the SS and its senior officers. He had known, for example, that before joining the SS, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s deputy, had been a naval officer whom Admiral Erich Raeder had forced to resign for unspecified “conduct unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman.”
And von Dattenberg had known all about the SS’s role in the “Final Solution” and their administration of the extermination camps. But he had been shocked to learn that for a stiff ransom, Jews outside Germany could buy their relatives and friends out of certain death in the konzentrationslager and have them sent to Argentina and Paraguay.
The only thing he didn’t know was whether Himmler himself was involved in this obscene trade or whether it had personally enriched only such high-ranking officers as Hoffmann and von Deitzberg and their immediately subordinate swine.
The water in the electric pot finally came to a boil. Von Dattenberg was carefully pouring it into his mug when a voice called through the curtain.
“Herr Kapitän, we have a signal from the shore.”
I’ll be goddamned!
“I’ll be right there,” von Dattenberg said.
After I finish my coffee . . .
The landing protocol went smoothly. Kapitän von Dattenberg was not surprised. It had been rehearsed dozens of times at sea, as much to give the men a chance to come on deck as because the relatively simple procedure needed practice to make its execution perfect.
When the cabin cruiser — it looked to von Dattenberg to be an American-made Chris-Craft — approached U-405, everything was in place. A line of his men, securely attached to a cable running from the conning tower to the saw-like anti-submarine net cutter on her bow, were prepared to carry out their roles. They had already opened the number three hatch and taken the crane from it. The crane would be used to hoist the five heavy crates and load them onto the cabin cruiser. Others had already dropped cushions over the port side to protect the hull of the Chris-Craft from that of U-405. Still others were prepared to put a ladder between the submarine and the cabin cruiser.
When von Dattenberg looked down from the conning tower, he saw his passengers, all wearing life jackets and civilian clothing, waiting to cross the ladder.
SS-Brigadeführer Hoffmann came onto the bridge.
Without asking permission, of course.
“Presumably everything is in order?” Hoffmann said.
“Yes, Herr Brigadeführer, it is. Would you prefer to transfer to the boat before or after we move the cargo?”
“I wanted a final word with you, von Dattenberg.”
Is the sonofabitch actually going to say “thank you”?
“I think you should wait twenty-four hours before you scuttle your ship.”
It’s a boat, a U-boat.
“The protocol, Herr Brigadeführer, calls for the immediate scuttling of U-boat 405 once I am satisfied that you have made it safely ashore.”
“I don’t give a damn about the protocol, von Dattenberg. I’m telling you I want you to be twenty-four hours’ sailing time away from here before you scuttle it.”
“Whatever you wish, of course, Herr Brigadeführer.”
Fuck you, Herr Brigadeführer.
Von Dattenberg looked down to the deck again.
“They are ready to move the cargo at your order, Herr Brigadeführer, and the ladder should be in place by the time you get below.”
Hoffmann offered his hand. After von Dattenberg shook it, Hoffmann then shot his arm out in the Nazi salute.
Do you really believe that, you asshole? Der Führer is dead.
“Heil Hitler,” von Dattenberg parroted as he casually returned the salute.
Hoffmann returned to the hatch and dropped through it.
Von Dattenberg picked up a megaphone.
“Commence cargo transfer,” he ordered. “Men first, then crates.”
Fregattenkapitän von Dattenberg waited until he could no longer make out faces aboard the Chris-Craft before issuing his next orders.
“Secure from off-loading procedures,” he said. “And then take us to sea.”
“This is the kapitän,” he said to the microphone, his voice filling the submarine. “We have just completed our orders to land our passengers and cargo safely and secretly in Argentina. Accordingly, we no longer are under the orders of Reichsführer-SS Himmler, and are now going to comply with our last order from the Kriegsmarine.
“We are, therefore, going to hoist a black flag and make for the nearest enemy port, where I then will surrender U-405. The nearest enemy port is the Port Belgrano Navy Base at Punta Alta near Bahía Blanca, about seven hundred kilometers south of Buenos Aires.
“On our surrender, we will of course be interrogated by our captors. After some thought, I have decided the honorable thing for me to do as an officer of the Kriegsmarine is to forget who our passengers were and what our cargo was. Because I will no longer be in command, I can only ask all of you to go along with my decision.
“As you know, Admiral Canaris was a prisoner of the Argentines in the First World War, and the crew of the Panzerschiff Graf Spee has been interned here since December of 1939. Both the admiral and the crew of the Graf Spee have stated that the Argentines are gracious captors, and that the food and women of Argentina are spectacular.”
There then came the sound of the microphone clicking, and for a long moment the speakers — and the crew — were silent. Then the mic clicked again.
“Korvettenkapitän Schröder,” von Dattenberg ordered. “Hoist a black flag. Set course for Mar del Plata. All head full.”
[ TWO ]
The Lafayette Room
The Hay-Adams Hotel
800 Sixteenth Street, N.W.
1335 6 October 1945
Cletus Marcus Howell — a tall, sharp-featured, elegantly tailored septuagenarian — walked briskly across the lobby of the hotel and into the Lafayette Room. He stopped before the headwaiter’s lectern.
“Well?” he demanded.
“Around the corner, behind a screen, Mr. Howell.”
“How long has he been there?”
“About ten minutes.”
Howell reached in his pocket and came out with a thick wad of cash secured by a gold money clip shaped like an oil well drilling rig.
“I said to tell me within five minutes, but that’s close enough,” he said, extracting a one-hundred-dollar bill from the clip. He handed it to the headwaiter.
“Thank you, sir.”
Howell marched into the dining room, found the screen, and stepped behind it. A well-tailored, barrel-chested, bald-headed fifty-year-old with a pencil-line mustache was sitting alone at a table.
“Well, if it isn’t my old friend Alejandro Graham. What a pleasant surprise!”
The man looked up from his menu.
“Marcus, I knew damned well if I came in here, you would show up and ruin my lunch.”
Howell pulled out the chair opposite Graham and began sliding into it.
“Yes, thank you, I will join you. Very kind of you.”
A waiter appeared almost immediately with a tray holding a pinch bottle of Haig & Haig scotch whisky, glasses, a bowl of ice, and a pitcher of water. Howell for years had maintained an apartment in the exclusive hotel across from the White House and delivering his tray was a ritual approaching a sacred custom.
“Put his lunch on my tab, Charles,” Howell said. “I always try to assist the unemployed in our midst however I can.”
Graham shook his head resignedly.
“Been across the street, have you, Alejandro?” Howell said, nodding toward the White House. “Seeking employment?”
The waiter prepared the drinks — hefty doses of whisky, equal amount of water, two ice cubes. Graham was no stranger to the Lafayette Room.
They tapped glasses and took a swallow.
“Well?” the old man asked.
“Actually, I was talking about Howard Hughes,” Graham said.
“Don’t change the subject, Alex.”
“I must have missed something. What subject was that?”
“You know goddamn well! The subject is my grandson: When do I get Cletus back?”
“Well, actually, we were talking about Howard and Clete.”
“I think you’re trying to weasel out of answering me, but go ahead.”
“The President wanted to know the story behind the Constellations. In other words, how come, in the middle of a war, Howard got away with selling thirteen of the fastest transport airplanes in the world to Argentina.”
“He didn’t sell them to Argentina. He sold them to Clete, who is not only an American, but a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel with the Navy Cross.”
“Really?” Graham said sarcastically. “I never knew that.”
“I’m not surprised,” the old man said. “But the story I got was that Howard was just about ordered to sell — at least strongly encouraged to sell — them to Clete.”
“Because Franklin Roosevelt thought he had been crossed by Juan Trippe and wanted to pay him back,” Graham said. “Harry Truman hadn’t heard that story.”
“And you’re surprised? Roosevelt never told his Vice President about the atomic bomb either. How did the subject come up?”
“Just before Truman went to Berlin, Howard offered him one, a specially configured VIP version intended for some general. The general suddenly remembered that Truman had made his reputation as a senator going after the brass taking care of themselves at taxpayers’ expense. So he canceled the order. There being virtually no market for a VIP-configured Constellation — Truman told me the inside of this one looks like a flying brothel — and wanting his money, Howard talked Admiral Souers into taking it.”
“Rear Admiral Sidney W. Souers. He’s a reservist, and Harry’s buddy. Good man. We went to the Naval War College in 1938 together. Anyway, he’s close to the President, duties a little vague. Truman flew to Berlin in the Sacred Cow and Sid, after picking up Clete, by the way, in New Orleans, flew there in the Constellation.”
“Stop there and tell me about ‘picking up Clete in New Orleans.’”
“Clete had business with the President.”
“What kind of business?”
“I can’t tell you, Marcus. Sorry.”
“I’m not accepting that, but go on about Berlin.”
Graham took a sip of his scotch, then said, “When Sid got to Berlin, he bubbled over with enthusiasm for the Constellation, which is really a much better airplane than the Sacred Cow, which is a converted Douglas C-54. Truman heard that Clete was flying back to Buenos Aires in an SAA Connie. He had other things on his mind — this was the day he told George Marshall to immediately shut off all aid to Russia — and he didn’t say anything. But he didn’t forget either. So today he asked me about SAA having Connies, and I told him what I knew.”
“Tell me what you know about Clete and Truman.”
Graham ignored the question.
“Truman made Sid give the Flying Brothel back to Howard. You could probably buy it cheap, if you’re interested.”
“Tell me what you know about Clete and Truman,” the old man repeated.
“Marcus, I really can’t.”
The old man then sipped his scotch and said, “I understand. The war’s over. Hitler and Hirohito are gone, but Uncle Joe Stalin’s still around. And I’m a well-known Communist sympathizer and obviously can’t be trusted. Right?”
Graham didn’t answer.
“Consider this, Alex. All it would have taken when you were recruiting Clete for the OSS so that he could go to Argentina and make a Christian out of his goddamn father was a telephone call to Clete from me. Following which, he would have told you to go piss up a rope.”
Graham met Howell’s eyes for a moment. He shrugged.
“Okay, Marcus. A moment ago, you said Stalin’s still around. That situation is going from bad to worse. What Clete is doing—”
“Goddamn it, Alex! Wouldn’t you say he’s done enough already? Get someone else to do what you think has to be done.”
Graham didn’t reply.
“I need him, Alex. My son Jim’s gone. I’m seventy-seven goddamn years old. Someone has to take over Howell Petroleum, take over the family.”
“Marcus, if I could send Clete home, if I could even tell you what he’s doing, I would. I just can’t. I just can’t.”
“Fuck you, Alex!” the old man said, furiously.
He stood, looked down at Graham for a moment, and then walked out of the Lafayette Room.
In the lobby, he looked at the doorman and mimed steering a car. The doorman gave him a thumbs-up gesture and signaled his car was outside.
Howell started for the door, and then changed his mind.
He walked to the bank of elevators and took one to his penthouse apartment. There, he sat down angrily in a red leather armchair and picked up the telephone.
“Person-to-person, Mr. Howard Hughes, the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Los Angeles, California.”
There was a response, to which he responded: “If I had the goddamned number, I would have given it to you. I’m old but not completely senile.”
He slammed the receiver into its cradle and looked out the window that provided a marvelous view across Pennsylvania Avenue of the White House. Ninety seconds later, the telephone rang. He picked it up before it could ring a second time.
“Howard?” he said. “In which movie star’s boudoir did they find you?”
“How are you, Mr. Howell?” Howard Hughes said sincerely.
“A fat Mexican half-breed of our mutual acquaintance just told me you have a flying brothel for sale, cheap. True?”
“I understand that’s what Truman called it,” Hughes chuckled.
“Yes or no?”
“Yeah. You’re interested?”
“That depends on how much you want for this piece of fire sale merchandise.”
Hughes told him.
“Is that your best price, Howard? Or are you trying to take advantage of someone in his dotage?”
“For you — God, I think you’re serious. What the hell would you do with it?”
“What does anyone do with a flying brothel? Take fifty thousand off that price and you’ve got a deal. I’ll need somebody to fly it. I presume you can handle that?”
“Mr. Howell, I have to tell you, if you’re thinking of Clete and SAA, so was Juan Trippe. He got to his senator, and all Constellations are embargoed from sale outside the U.S.”
“That sonofabitch strikes again. But not a problem. How soon can you paint ‘Howell Petroleum’ on it and deliver it to Washington? No. New Orleans. I’m getting out of this goddamn town this afternoon.”
“Three days, tops. I’ll bring it myself. But I’ll want the crew I bring with it back as soon as you can get your own.”
“I don’t care what all those people are saying about you, Howard, I really don’t think you’re an unmitigated bastard.”
Hughes laughed and hung up.
Cletus Marcus Howell reached for a humidor, selected a long, thin, brown cigar, and went carefully through a ritual of rolling it between his fingers, cutting the end of it, and lighting it with a wooden match.
Then he went to a cabinet, opened it, and took out a bottle of Collier and McKeel Tennessee sour mash whiskey. He poured an inch and a half of it into a squat glass. Chimes announced that someone was at his door.
When he opened it, three men were standing there. Two were tall, muscular, and young. The third, who stood in front, was shorter, trim, and in his fifties.
“I understand you don’t talk to Democrats,” the older man said, “but I was hoping you’d make an exception for me.”
“Please come in, Mr. President,” Howell said.
“You fellows wait out here, please,” Harry S Truman said. “I know Mr. Howell doesn’t like me, but I don’t think he’ll try to kill me.”
The President walked into the suite and closed the hall door behind him. The two men looked at each other without speaking. Finally, Howell raised his glass.
“May I offer you —”
“If that came out of that Collier and McKeel bottle, you certainly may,” Truman said.
“How do you take it?”
“The same way you do, straight.”
Howell poured the whiskey and handed Truman the glass.
Truman raised it, touched it to Howell’s, and said, “The United States of America.”
“The United States of America,” Howell parroted.
The two sipped the whiskey.
“You ever hear, Mr. President,” Howell then asked, “that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel?”
“In this case, it’s my last refuge to . . . how do I say this? . . . turn you off.”
“Is that so?”
“I just spoke with our mutual friend Colonel Graham,” the President said.
“He told me.”
“I mean he called me after you talked to him,” Truman said. “He said he thought he should tell me you were entirely capable of buying that flying brothel Howard Hughes built and flying down to Buenos Aires in it.”
“I’m a little old for brothels, flying or otherwise, but yes, I just spoke to Howard. I told him to paint Howell Petroleum on that airplane and deliver it to me in New Orleans.”
“And then you’re going to fly to Buenos Aires in it? You do move fast, don’t you?”
“I’ve learned that’s the way you stay ahead of the pack,” Howell said. “And I’ve learned over the years that there are some men who don’t take orders, or even suggestions, from anyone.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Truman said. “And that puts me on the spot. I realize I can’t keep you from going down there to see your grandson.”
“No, you can’t.”
“So I have no choice but to tell you something — what your grandson is doing down there — that is absolutely none of your business, and then rely on your good judgment — and, okay, your patriotism — that what you do with that information won’t hurt the United States and a good number of other people.”
“You can tell me, or not tell me, anything you want, Mr. President. But if it’s your intention to tell me something and then imply that I am now silenced by patriotism, that, I’m sorry, just won’t work. The war is over.”
“No, Mr. Howell, the war just started.”
“Is that so?”
“That’s so. And Cletus is right now up to his ears in that war.”
“I’m listening, Mr. President. As long as you understand what I just said.”
“I understand. Cletus was in Berlin the day I told Joe Stalin we had the atom bomb, and the day I told George Marshall I wanted all aid to the Soviet Union shut off immediately. Were you aware of that?”
“Do you know why he was there?”
Howell shook his head and said, “No.”
“Shortly before the Germans surrendered, a German general named Gehlen, who was in charge of German intelligence vis-à-vis the Soviets, met and struck a deal with Allen Dulles, the OSS man in charge of Europe . . .”
[ THREE ]
Avenida Paseo Colón
Buenos Aires, Argentina
0900 6 October 1945
There were two armed soldiers in field uniforms virtually indistinguishable from that of the defeated Wehrmacht — their helmets and leather accoutrements were German, and their rifles Mausers from the Waffenfabrik in Berlin — standing at what an American soldier would call Parade Rest before the heavy iron gate at the Edificio Libertador when the Mercedes-Benz turned off Avenida Paseo Colón.
The soldiers popped to Present Arms as the Mercedes approached and then was passed inside the gate.
The Mercedes was an Ejército Argentino vehicle, a convertible sedan painted olive drab. A sergeant was driving and a corporal sat beside him. In the rear seat was General de Brigada (Brigadier General) Eduardo Ramos, commandant of Campo de Mayo, the huge army base and site of the Military Academy north of Buenos Aires. Ramos was a tall, trim, and erect officer with a full, neatly trimmed mustache beneath a rather prominent nose. Beside Ramos was his aide-de-camp, Capitán Ricardo Montenegro, who looked like a younger version of General Ramos.
The Mercedes rolled up to the main entrance and stopped. The corporal in the front seat jumped out and opened the rear door, and then stood at attention as General Ramos and Capitán Montenegro got out. The two officers climbed a wide, shallow flight of stairs to the huge double doors to the building.
Two more soldiers stood on either side of the doors. They were dressed in uniforms of the late eighteenth century, closely patterned on those of Hungarian Hussars, except for their headgear, silk top hats with a large black plume rising from them. They were members of the Húsares de Pueyrredón, Argentina’s oldest and most prestigious regiment.
When the British occupied Buenos Aires in 1810, Juan Martín de Pueyrredón, a large estancia owner, recruited a cavalry force from the gauchos — cowboys — on his estancia and marched on Buenos Aires.
They had no uniforms. Pueyrredón seized a British merchantman in the harbor, found in its cargo a large supply of silk top hats, and issued them to his men, whom he then somewhat immodestly decreed to be the Húsares de Pueyrredón.
The Húsares saluted with their drawn sabers as Ramos and Montenegro passed them and entered the long, wide, high-ceilinged foyer and marched toward the bank of elevators.
A flag officer of the Argentine navy, trailed by his aide, came down the foyer toward the door.
“Hola, Eduardo,” Vicealmirante Guillermo Crater called cheerfully, putting out his hand. “Up early this morning, are you?”
“Admiral,” Ramos replied curtly, and kept walking without taking the outstretched hand.
Ramos had not forgiven Vice Admiral Crater for what had happened outside a downtown motion picture theater five days after the Japanese capitulation. They were standing on the sidewalk, waiting for their cars after watching newsreels of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay. That sequence had begun with an aerial view of the U.S. Pacific fleet at anchor, which was what was on Crater’s mind.
“Well, Eduardo, we were lucky, weren’t we?” Crater had begun the conversation.
“To be on the right side,” Crater had said. “I would really have hated to see all those ships, even half of all those battleships and aircraft carriers, sitting out there” — he had gestured toward the River Plate — “and thinking of us as the enemy. Wouldn’t you?”
You sonofabitch! General Ramos had thought. You’ve been cheering for the goddamn Americans all along!
He had not responded. Instead, he had given Crater a cold smile and turned his back on him.
At the elevator bank, a teniente (lieutenant) sat at a small desk beside the last elevator door. A sergeant, a Schmeisser submachine gun slung in front of him, stood beside him. The lieutenant got to his feet as Ramos and Montenegro approached.
“Mi General?” he asked politely.
“The general is here to see el Colonel Perón,” Montenegro answered for Ramos.
The lieutenant consulted a list, and then politely announced, “Mi General, you’re not on the minister of War’s schedule.”
“I know,” Ramos snapped. “Now open the damned door!”
As a general rule of thumb, lieutenants did not challenge generals. And, in this case, the lieutenant knew that General Ramos was both a member of the clique at the top of the Ejército Argentino and one of Perón’s oldest and closest friends.
The bronze elevator door whooshed open, and Ramos and Montenegro got on. The elevator rose quickly and smoothly to the twentieth floor, where the doors opened onto the foyer of the offices of the minister for War of the Argentine Republic. Ramos marched to the minister’s outer office.
A major, seeing Ramos, rose to his feet behind a large, ornately carved desk.
“Be so good as to tell el Coronel Perón that I am here,” Ramos ordered, and then, as if anticipating the question, added, “He does not expect me.”
The major walked quickly to ceiling-high bronze double doors, opened the left one, and entered. The door closed automatically behind him.
Fifteen seconds later, he reappeared, now holding the door open.
“Mi General, the minister will see you.”
Ramos announced, “Capitán Montenegro will see that we are not disturbed. You will see that the telephone doesn’t ring unless General Farrell is calling.”
He then walked into Perón’s office.
General Edelmiro Julián Farrell had been the dictator — or, more kindly, the de facto president — of Argentina since February 24, 1944. He had made no secret of his sympathies for the Axis during the war, but most people believed they were rooted in the ancestral hate of the Irish for all things British rather than admiration for the Nazis and Adolf Hitler.
The vice president, secretary of War, and secretary of Labor and Welfare of the Argentine Republic, el Coronel Juan Domingo Perón, was a tall, olive-skinned man with a luxurious head of black hair. He came out from behind his enormous desk to greet General Ramos. He opened his arms to Ramos, and they patted one another’s back.
“And to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure, Eduardo?” Perón asked.
“Unexpected, to be sure. But pleasure? I don’t think you’re going to take much pleasure in my being here when you learn why.”
“That sounds ominous,” Perón said.
“How long have we known each other, Juan Domingo? Been friends?”
Perón considered the question for a moment as he waved Ramos into one of the chairs facing his desk.
“From our first day at the academy, I would say,” Perón said. “When they lined us up — me, then Jorge, then you — according to size.” He made a gesture with his hands. “Just before they started screaming at us.”
“I thought of Jorge on my way over here,” Ramos said. “If he were still here, I think he’d agree with my coming to say what I have to say.”
“If Jorge was still here, he’d be over there.” Perón gestured out the windows, which looked down on the Casa Rosada and the Plaza de Mayo.
“He would have made a good, even a great, president.”
“Yes, he would have. Are you finished beating around the bush, Eduardo?”
“There is a plot to assassinate you, Juan Domingo,” he said.
From EMPIRE AND HONOR— Book
VII in the best-selling HONOR BOUND series.
Published 31 December 2012.
Order copies here.
©2012 W.E.B. GRIFFIN. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.