Attention to Detail cover

Attention to Detail

By Robert Edward Eckels

Appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September 1976

© 1976 by Robert Edward Eckels; reprinted by permission of the author

A now-it-can-be-told story—how in 1942 a single enemy agent invaded the United States on the most important mission of the war…

The U-boat lay low in the water, its decks almost awash, and shrouded by night fog so thick that from the conning tower even the outline of the forward gun was hazy and indistinct. But only fools lingered on the surface so close to danger, and by the time Steiner came up on deck the crew had already got the rubber raft inflated and over the side.

Steiner found himself shivering—and not from the damp. From excitement. Because less than a hundred yards beyond the fog bank lay the enemy coast—Long Island—and no one in the six months that the US had been in the war had got closer. Not yet anyway.

Arrogantly he looked up toward the conning tower where Prien and the captain were stationed and smiled sardonically. Prien was all right—a good party man. But the captain—. Still smiling, Steiner saluted them both, knowing it would infuriate the captain but that he would respond punctiliously anyway.

Beside him, one of the sailors said, “All ready.”

The “sir” was omitted deliberately, Steiner knew, but he didn’t say anything. The two sailors who would row him were already in the raft. Steiner cast one last glance at the occupants of the conning tower, then let himself be lowered into the bobbing boat. As it began to make way, one of the sailors still on deck knelt to pay out the line that would haul it and its crew back through the surf after Steiner had been safely put ashore.

Steiner sat stiffly in the rear of the raft. He was no boatman and now, as the fog closed in, the confidence he had felt back on deck ebbed fast. He was frightened by the pitching and tossing, and, worse, he knew, showing it.

Then almost before he was aware of what was happening, a wave larger than the rest shot them forward dizzyingly. Steiner opened his mouth to shout, but no sound came. Then suddenly the water was foaming back away from them and somehow, miraculously, they were ashore. In almost blind panic he scrambled out of the boat and up above the wave line.

The two sailors watched impassively, waiting until he had got control of himself again. One of them tossed him the waterproof bag with his American clothes, then both sailors dragged the boat back into the surf.

Steiner made no move to help them. They could drown for all he cared. The clods. He was the important mission, and only he could accomplish it. The Commandant himself had said as much back at the training camp.

* * *

“The reports are uniformly excellent,” Reinboldt had said. “Which in a way, of course, is only to be expected since you were well screened before you were selected. But even so, your progress in response to the training has been much faster than any of us anticipated.”

“Thank you,” Steiner said quietly. He sat at ease across from the Commandant’s desk, behavior unthinkable under any other circumstances, but insisted on here as an essential part of his “Americanization.”

“As a result,” Reinboldt went on as if uninterrupted, “the Fuhrer has decided to move your mission forward. You will leave for the United States next week. Your targets remain unchanged, of course. First Roosevelt, then Marshall.” Reinboldt paused to light a cigarette. “I don’t have to tell you the consequences of success,” he said. “Or of failure.”

Steiner smiled faintly. “I won’t fail,” he said.

“No,” Reinboldt said, “you won’t.” He took an envelope from his desk and passed it across to the other man. “Your cover has been well prepared. These are the documents you will need to start: driver’s license, draft registration—deferred status, of course—Social Security number and all the other paraphernalia Americans seem to find indispensable.”

Steiner looked at the papers accordingly. All had a slightly worn look as if they’d been carried about in a man’s wallet for some time, and included among them was a certified copy of a birth certificate indicating he had been born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 14, 1918. It was, he reflected, his real birthday.

“Your name,” Reinboldt went on, “was chosen with equal care—Frederic William Johnson. Frederic William because it’s close to your own and thus, like the birth date, easy to remember. Johnson because it’s one of the most common American names but yet not suspect like Smith or Jones. You should practice writing it until your signature flows naturally.”

“I will,” Steiner said.

“We have also arranged for you to be given $10,000 in various denominations of American currency. Used carefully it should be more than enough. One word of caution, though. For security reasons it was necessary to obtain the bills from sources solely within the Reich and the larger denominations are from a single shipment received by the Berliner Kreditanstalt in 1932. Ten years is a long time, but the serial numbers are consecutive, and it would be less than wise to assume that no record exists by which they could be traced. For safety’s sake spend or exchange them in different places and where you are not known or likely to return.”

Steiner smiled wryly. “You don’t overlook anything, do you?”

Reinboldt didn’t return the smile. “The secret of success,” he said, “is attention to detail. Remember it. It pays.”

* * *

It did indeed, Steiner thought, shivering purely from the cold now as he stripped to change from his submariner’s uniform to his American clothes. It was a pity, though, that all that careful planning hadn’t taken the American climate into account and provided some sort of heating arrangement.

Or perhaps it had been considered. Steiner smiled to himself as he pulled his trousers on. It would be just like Reinboldt to have thought of it and then discarded the idea on the theory that the cold would drive his man to work faster. And in any case Steiner did finish quickly, stuffing the discarded uniform into the bag and then carrying it down to bury it below the wave line where the lapping water would erase the last traces of digging. The small shovel—a child’s toy really—he simply discarded several yards farther down the beach where it would appear just another pieced of holiday litter.

Now all he had to do was head inland away from the water. Here the fog—great gray billows that reduced visibility to a matter of yards at most—was a complicating factor. But he had his compass and even if he did drift slightly off course, sooner or later he was bound to hit the rail line that ran parallel to the coast for miles in both directions. Then it was just a matter of following the tracks to the next town and picking up the first train out in the morning.

All the more then was his surprise when he stumbled onto the dog halfway across the beach.

It was a shepherd dog, not yet fully grown, running free but trailing a leash. It stopped, hackles rising, where it saw Steiner and for a moment man and animal eyed each other warily. Then Steiner began to edge around it, careful to keep the distance constant and his eyes steady on the dog’s. The dog continued to bristle but didn’t move. Steiner began to breathe easier.

Then he heard the voice calling out of the fog. “Rex! Rex! Where are you, boy?”

The dog hesitated, distracted momentarily by its master’s voice, then as Steiner reached too quickly for his gun the dog launched itself straight at him.

Steiner forgot the gun and ducked down instead to grab the leaping animal’s extended forepaws and jerked them violently apart.

The dog died instantly. Steiner let it fall, then crouched beside its dead form, his hand tight on the gun again. The voice was more urgent now and coming closer.

“Rex! Rex!”

Go back, you fool, Steiner thought. Go Back!

But he came on, first the glow of his light visible through the murk, then the man himself. He was young—in his early twenties—and wearing a blue sailor’s uniform but with military leggings and web belting. As far as Steiner could see, though, he wasn’t armed, and Steiner rose slowly to face him.

“What’s going on here?” the sailor said. His flashlight picked up the dog’s limp body. “Rex?” He bent over the dog. “My God, what happened?”

Steiner struck swiftly, smashing the gun into the base of the sailor’s skull. The man dropped like a stone. Steiner hit him twice more to make sure, then felt for the carotid pulse. There was none.

Steiner knelt beside the dead sailor. He felt no remorse or regret, only annoyance that this might complicated his mission. The bodies were bound to be discovered and that would bring questions about who and why that Steiner didn’t want raised. Or maybe not. Maybe he could confuse the issue at least long enough to let him get clear, and that was all he really needed.

The trigger guard on the gun had bent slightly under the force of his blow and there was a smear of blood along the underside of the barrel. Steiner wiped it clean on the sailor’s blouse before tucking the gun back under his jacket. Then catching hold of the man’s body under the arms he dragged it down into the surf, soaking himself in the process and losing his sense of direction so that he wasted ten precious minutes searching for the dog.

But luck was still with him, and finally he found it. The dog wasn’t a heavy animal and there was no blood. He picked it up in his arms and carried it into the woods beyond the beach, hiding the animal’s body under a pile of rotting underbrush. The leash and collar he took with him to throw into a field on the other side of the railroad tracks.

By then his clothes had begun to dry and he felt more himself again. It helped too when he found a town sooner than he had expected. The train station was closed for the night, but there was a convenient patch of woods across from it. Steiner found himself a spot near the middle where he was sure he couldn’t be seen, put his back up against a tree, and closed his eyes…

* * *

He awoke to find it full light, the sun already high enough to have burned off the last traces of the night’s fog. That confused him, because even exhausted as he’d ben, the noise and clatter of trains arriving and leaving should have awakened him. Even more confusing, though, was the station itself. It should have been crowded with commuters headed for the city, but in fact it looked as deserted now as it had the night before.

Steiner watched the station quietly for several more minutes, then got up cautiously and went over to investigate. It was deserted. The door was locked and the ticket window shuttered, but there tacked up on the wall beside it was the schedule: 5:18, 5:45, 6:14, 6:40, and so on up to 8:13, then every hour thereafter.

Steiner looked down at his watch: 8:05. And that was the right local time—he’d set it himself on the U-boat from a New York radio station they had monitored. But 8:05 became 8:30 and then 8:35 and still no train appeared. Steiner began to sweat. What had gone wrong? A breakdown on the line? Or something worse? Something that had to do with a body on the beach—and with him?

He was still trying to make up his mind when he heard someone approaching up the path from the town, whistling as he came. Steiner hesitated, then stepped back carefully against the wall in case the whistling wasn’t as innocent as it sounded.

Moments later a tall thin-shouldered man with a bony young-old face came around the corner of the building. The man stopped whistling when he saw Steiner but otherwise went on about his business, pulling out a large key and unlocking the door.

Steiner tried to follow him in, but the man shook his head. “Station’s closed. Buy your tickets on the train!”

It hadn’t been covered in his training, but Steiner reacted the way he thought an American would. “What the hell happened to the 8:13?” he demanded.

The stationmaster looked at him impassively, then tapped the tacked up schedule. “Memorial Day, mister,” he said. “Same schedule as Sundays.” He went on inside, closing the door after him.

Steiner almost laughed with relief. There was nothing wrong after all. It was just a holiday. It would be a good joke to share with Reinboldt when it was all over—assuming Reinboldt was ever in a joking mood. In any case, his good humor restored, he turned back to the schedule, this time noting the smaller one at the bottom, the one for Sundays and holidays.

The train was at 10:23—less than two hours. Too long just to hang around the station, though, and to kill the time he strolled casually down into the town itself.

It was a pleasant little place, especially in the quiet of a holiday morning, and Steiner decided he might like to come back sometime—on vacation after the war perhaps—when he would have the leisure to really enjoy it. Now, however he was content to stroll about, until the sight of an open restaurant reminded him he hadn’t eaten since the day before. Suddenly ravenously hungry, he went in.

It wasn’t crowded and he had no difficulty picking a booth near the rear where he could watch the entrance without being seen himself. The varied bill of fare astounded him, and he ordered heavily: hot cakes, eggs, sausages, and coffee—real coffee. It was almost as if there were no war. They’d learn differently quickly enough, but for the moment, Steiner reflected, the plentiful food was there to enjoy, and he ate with gusto, remembering, at the last minute to cut with his right hand and then transfer the fork to eat. That, strangely enough, pleased him more than anything else.

The good feeling died quickly, though, when a policeman came in and headed toward him. He was a big man in his mid-fifties with a lined weather-beaten face and a heavy gun worn butt forward on his right hip. Automatically Steiner’s own hand slide under the table to close over the gun beneath his jacket. But then the other man pulled out a chair and sat down at a table across the aisle, refusing the menu the waitress proffered.

“Just coffee, Sal.”

Steiner took his hand off his gun.

“I guess that was some excitement down at the beach this morning,” the waitress said.

The policeman looked up wryly. “Well, now, word sure does get around fast, doesn’t it?” he said.

The waitress shrugged. “Well, you know,” she said, “small town and all that. One of the Coast Guard boys, wasn’t it?”

Steiner stiffened. So the tide hadn’t taken the body out after all. He cursed himself for a fool for having wasted the night. If he’d kept on, even hiking, he’d have been well clear by now instead of sitting here possibly trapped and, being obviously a stranger, suspect.

“Got himself killed, didn’t he?” the waitress said

“Something like that,” the policeman said. He picked up his cup, then, leaning back in his chair, looked around casually, stopping as his eye caught Steiner’s. “New around here, aren’t you?” he said.

Steiner’s hand started to slide back toward the gun.

“Come up for the fishing?” the policeman said.

Steiner’s hand stopped. “Yes,” he said, picking up the cue easily. “Yes, of course.”

The policeman nodded slowly. “Seems half of New York comes out these days,” he said. “Don’t know where they get the gas. Still you’ve got a nice day for it.”

“Yes,” Steiner said. “A very nice day.” He turned back to his food. Half of New York! An exaggeration, of course. But still it meant a crowd of strangers among whom he could safely lose himself.

Deliberately he finished the last of his breakfast, then signaled the waitress for his check. The policeman, Steiner noted with satisfaction, had lost all interest in him—had in fact taken his coffee forward and was chatting earnestly with the cashier, presumably about those Indianheads.

American fashion, the waitress left his check face down on the table. It came to $1.70, and feeling generous Steiner tossed two of Reinboldt’s one dollar bills on the table to cover the amount plus tip, then sauntered out.

He was halfway down the street when he heard someone calling after him.

“You! Hey, you!”

He paused and looked back. The policeman had followed him out and was striding toward him now, holding something in his hand.

Fear rose like a hot flood in Steiner’s throat. Because even at this distance he could recognize what it was—the two bills he’d left. Without really thinking what he was doing he began to run.

He heard the shout behind him, full of surprise, then the pounding footsteps, and ran faster. Then as suddenly as he had begun he stopped and swung around, pulling the gun out smoothly and dropping down onto one knee to steady his aim.

Caught off guard, the policeman threw himself desperately to one side, clawing—much too late—for his own gun. Steiner tracked him expertly. His finger tightened on the trigger.

It moved a fraction of an inch, then jammed, and the last thing Steiner remembered before the policeman’s bullet smashed all thought in him forever was the bent trigger guard and Reinboldt saying, “Attention to detail…”

* * *

“Who was he actually?” the reporter said.

“No way to tell for sure,” the policeman said. It was much later, as they sat together over coffee in that same small restaurant. “The address on his driver’s license was a phony, and none of his other papers checked out either. The Coast Guard thinks he might have come in off a U-boat because of that murdered beach-pounder, but there’s no way to prove it.”

The policeman’s weather-beaten face looked even more leathery than usual. “Funny thing, though, all I really wanted to do was ask him about the money. Money’s my hobby, you know.”

“Mine too,” the reporter said grinning.

“No, I mean seriously. Old coins, old bills—that sort of thing. And here was somebody paying a restaurant check with two practically mint condition greenbacks. Of course,” he added ruefully, “anybody would have spotted it. Hell, those old big bills have been out of circulation for close to eight or nine years now—ever since Roosevelt took us off the old Standard in ‘33.”