murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

Dragnet For A Spy


Thorne Lee

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F.B.I. Detective Stories | Oct. 1950 | Vol. 3 | No. 3

Est. Read Time: 22 mins

Enemy agents were making a shambles of Operation Topside's super secret — until a lowly lieutenant proved that an ounce of brains was worth a pound of brass.




"This so called quarrel between the Army and the Navy is a lot of hog-wash,'' the general said. "We have known for some time where the Navy is going."

In the front row Colonel Harry McLeod raised both fists, his thumbs pointing significantly downward.

The general was known to his subordinates as a man who learned Basic English in a foxhole. He spoke bluntly.

"No!" he snapped. "You're wrong, McLeod!"

The general raised his own fists, but his thumbs pointed steadfastly toward the ceiling.

"The Navy," he said, "is going the same place the Army is — up, not down! "

Central Intelligence — the Secret Service for all U. S. Military branches — was rarely surprised by General Steven Hackett, but at precisely ten o'clock on this April morning, there was a brief, hushed pause.

Among the twenty special agents of was a single girl. She had to be something special to belong with these men. She was blonde, very blonde, almost platinum. She stood out like a new silver coin among a handful of old dimes.

This poetic observation was made from the back row by Joe Pyle. Joe regarded himself as an outcast in the group. He had come up by way of Bookkeeping, with a brief stopover in Secret Files. He could feel the others' contempt for him, although they always gave him credit for trying. "Good old methodical Joe," was the way they put it.

Joe noticed that Miss Mason — Lieutenant Mason — was in the act of replying to the general. He sat up straighter and listened.

"You don't mean, sir," she said, "that the Navy is about to be — ah — swallowed by the Air Force?"

"I mean," the general replied sternly, "that the oceans of our dwindling planet are becoming of less and less strategic importance. Let us be realistic. A superbly trained body of men like the U. S. Navy cannot be used solely in defense of that portion of the world exclusively inhabited by fish and lesser mammals. At an appropriate time the Navy will be moved bodily to a new theater of operations."

The general repeated the gesture of the upright thumbs.



The general pressed the tip of a pointer on a map of the United States at a vacant space in an area known as the Great American Desert.

"Approximately here is a very large factory," he said. "It is building a special kind of ship for the Navy, gentlemen … and — er — Lieutenant Mason."

The general always referred to the lone female in his department with a twist of his lean, brown lips and a fierce lowering of one shaggy eyebrow. The lady hampered his style.

"Imagine ships, giant battleships, built and launched in the heart of a desert," the general went on. "The next war will be decided not by land, sea, or air. Space will be the element. The Navy of the future will travel on the dreadnaughts of space. We already know how to get the ships upstairs. We are now engaged in the problem of keeping 'em there. That is the military project known as Operation Topside."

The members of Central Intelligence had already caught up with the general. They leaned forward in their chairs.

Operation Topside, Joe gathered from the general's rapid explanation, was the most secret scientific undertaking of modern times. It was absolutely hush-hush. All workers at the project had signed on for five years. They were completely isolated in a self-sufficient city, surrounded by electric fences, guarded by an outer detachment of U. S. Marines. Radio detectors prevented any possible leak by short-wave from inside the plant. And yet, somehow, there was a leak.

The general's pointer had jumped from one map to another on the opposite wall.

"Counter-Intelligence reports that right here in the deepest portion of enemy territory is an exact duplicate of our own factory. Every new development in our project appears immediately in theirs. Without question at least one enemy agent is a trusted official at Operation Topside. We have even narrowed down his identity to one of five persons.

"Those five are the only men who have had access to all of the secrets which have subsequently passed into enemy hands. We know, therefore, approximately who is guilty. Our problem is not who, but how … How does this spy get his information outside of a factory which we know to be absolutely sealed?"

Joe Pyle cleared his throat.

"Sir," he said hoarsely, and then, unheard, rose to his feet, licked his lips, and repeated, "Sir!"

"Lieutenant Pyle?" the general thundered.

Heads came around idly to regard Joe like a small boy who had just asked to leave the room. Joe was aware of the sardonic smile of Colonel Barry McLeod and the friendly amusement of Lieutenant Sarah Mason. He flushed.

"Could it be, sir, that they get information out of our project the same way we get it out of theirs?"

The general regarded Joe like one who had spoken treason.

"They, Mr. Pyle, are never quite as far along as we are," he replied curtly. "The enemy has always been a step behind us — in science, in production, in counter-intelligence. We intend to keep him there."

Joe sat down. Don't be too sure of that, general, he thought. Maybe sometime, somewhere, one bright little enemy will get an idea before we do …



Central Intelligence went about the problem of the master spy with its usual efficiency. Colonel Barry McLeod was assigned the meatiest job — a secret investigation of Operation Topside itself. Lieutenant Sarah Mason would be his chief assistant.

The subordinate tasks were quickly distributed by McLeod. For the dangerous assignments, Joe Pyle was completely overlooked. As a secret agent, Joe thought grimly, he was never allowed to strain anything except his eyesight.

"It seems, Lieutenant Pyle, that we have nothing for you to do," General Hackett observed. "Fit yourself in wherever you can. Perhaps someone will think of something."

By lunch time Colonel McLeod had nothing to offer Joe but advice. The two men sat in a corner booth of a little Pentagon restaurant with Sarah Mason between them.

Being the only woman on the staff, Sarah always had to be shared with someone. Joe could never remember talking to her alone. That was Central Intelligence for you — it know all the world's secrets but had no secrets of its own, not so much as a furtive whisper behind a hand.

"Tell you what, Joe," McLeod offered, "we'll let you be coordinator. We'll shoot the facts out of Topside and you can line 'em up in order."

A friendly slap on the shoulder caught Joe off guard and nearly knocked him into his coffee cup. McLeod was a fine physical specimen, a legendary figure, the superspy of World War II. He had large, visible muscles and a rather painful habit of using them.

"Colonel," Joe said, "I've been thinking."

"Hmmmm," McLeod responded doubtfully.

"You and Sarah can handle the active part of this investigation, Colonel. I'd like to take a crack at the inactive."

"Meaning what?"

"Let me go over the past records of the five suspects. Some of those boys have been planted for years, but somewhere along the line they're bound to make a slip."

"Hmmmm," the colonel considered.

"I know Joe can do it," Sarah Mason said warmly, dropping a slim left hand on his wrist. Joe felt a physical leap inside of himself that must have been visible to the naked eye. The sensation was not lasting, for she promptly placed her right hand on Barry McLeod's forearm, linking the three of them in a union which seemed to Joe slightly overcrowded.

McLeod shrugged. "Okay, Joe, you're a free agent."

"Fine. But tell me one thing," Joe said. "Just what kind of project is so much of a mystery anymore that they have to throw an electric fence and a company of Marines around it?"

McLeod pressed a finger across his lips.

"Top secret," he said, and grinned. "But there's one thing I do know. I got it by my private little grapevine. They're experimenting with some kind of radiant energy. The Marines outside the fence say the animals are going crazy."

"The animals?" Joe repeated curiously. McLeod nodded and crossed his arms wisely. "That whole desert area is No Man's Land for dogs, coyotes, or what have you. They go nuts."

"I don't get it," Joe said. "There's a lot of difference between knocking a dog off his feet and lifting a battleship sky high. I suppose the Overhead Fleet will eventually be harnessed to a team of trained atoms — but what kind of atomic energy affects a dog and not a man?"

McLeod smiled. "That is the secret … ."



"One other thing," Joe remarked later, when the lunch was over and he had torn his eyes away from the lovely, feminine profile of Lieutenant Mason. "How far outside the project are those Marines billeted?"

"They're stationed a mile away, but they work hourly shifts, patrolling a brightly lighted circle about two hundred yards outside the fence."

"Have they been screened by C. I.?" Joe asked.

"Why should they be?" McLeod snapped. "None of 'em ever gets inside the project"

"Yeah, but what if there's a team — one man inside and one on the outer guard? Could they possibly pass signals to each other?"

"That's been checked. The only contacts between outside and inside are made by the delivery trucks. The same men and trucks never stay on the job, so that could hardly be the leak. The inside workers are under constant observation. Their outdoor life is confined entirely to an enclosed playground. No one has access to the roof of the plant except the inspectors, who work in groups of three. Suppose someone was actually signaling with mirrors, for instance, in the bright sunlight. That's a cute idea, but impossible. The workers never use anything but a patch of blue sky directly overhead."

"Whew!" Joe wiped the hot dampness of his neck. "Where were they recruited, from Sing-Sing and Alcatraz?"

"It's all a matter of patriotism," McLeod said. "Plus about a thousand bucks a month, which is more than any of 'em will earn the rest of their lives."

"Well," Joe said, "if you two people once get inside that place, I hope they let you out again. That goes especially, Lieutenant, for you!"

Joe leaned impulsively forward and kissed the lieutenant on her soft, round cheek. It was, he thought afterward, the most surprising thing he had ever done — and the best. …

The five suspects were named Gonzales, Goldberg, Duganne, McKrosky, and Jones — a strangely American assortment of names. By the end of a week Joe Pyle had accumulated enough material on them to fill a whole shelf of biographical novels. They were all American-born. They had been, variously, fined for drunken driving, divorced, jailed for income tax evasion, bankrupt, and sued for libel, but these were typical American failings.

Joe plunged deeper. Some wise old spy back in World War II had once told Joe that he could read a man's life like a fortune teller if he only had access to the man's bank account. Joe recalled the advice and played it as a hunch. He requested and got the complete financial records of all five men. For another week he worked tirelessly, vainly, and then at last when his eyes were popping from the strain, and his brain reeling with fatigue, he found something. …

"General Hackett, sir," Joe said on the phone, "can you give me the approximate date that Operation Topside first began to take shape?''

"Yes. January, 1947.''

"Great," Joe said. "I may have a lead."

"Who is it?"

"Man by the name of Duganne."


The general swore with the vocabulary of a top sergeant.

"He's our own nun, Joe. He was planted at Topside to prevent the very thing you're accusing him of."

"I'm not accusing him, sir, but it's reasonable enough. If we can plant our men in the enemy's secret service, why couldn't they plant a few men in our — "

"Lieutenant Pyle!" the General roared. "Let me hear no more of your comparisons between our Intelligence and the enemy's. If it must be Duganne, let it be; but you bad damn well better have proof!"

"Well, sir, in January, 1947, Duganne's bank account took a jump of two thousand dollars. Then a few days later it was back to normal."

"You may have something at that, Pyle."

The general hung up.

Joe sighed and went hack to work on the record of Will Duganne, all the way back to his original application for secret service. There the precise and intricate pattern of Joe's memory came to his rescue. He found a discrepancy between Duganne's first medical report and his latest examination, just previous to entering Operation Topside. There was one tiny difference under the heading of Physical Defects.



Joe now had the makings of a case.

He began to talk to people — a girl in the front office who had kept luncheon dates with Duganne, a landlady in Baltimore, a telephone operator, an airline hostess. The evidence all took the same shape: Duganne had spent a week in New York City in January of '47.

Joe flew to New York. He lay on a bed in his hotel room with a classified directory in his lap and called numbers. His phone bill had run to ten dollars by the time he got the right answer.

"Dr. Sheldrake?"

"Yuh," replied a thick, dispirited voice. "Did you have a patient back in 1947 named Will Duganne?"

"Wouldn't remember. Lots of patients, all sizes, sexes, names — "

"This man was from Washington, D.C."

"Washington? Let me see, now. I don't get many from there."

"It was a two-thousand-dollar job."

"Oh, yes! Remember that one, largest fee I ever charged."

"I'll be right over," Joe said eagerly.

Dr. Sheldrake was a thin, bald, harassed-looking man.

"Secret Service, huh?" he grunted. "I admit that two thousand dollars was an exorbitant fee, but I didn't think there was a Federal law — "

Joe grinned. "I'm not after you, Doctor. Duganne's my man. I want to know the nature of a job which cost two thousand bucks."

"Well, it was a downright sin. I could have refused to do it, of course. Instead I quoted an outrageous price, thinking to scare him off. The crazy fool accepted my price!"

"Exactly what," Joe asked the dentist, "was this outrageous job?"

"Why, I tell you the man had a perfect set of natural teeth — perfect, mind you — and he wanted me to yank every one of them out!"

Dr. Sheldrake took a drink from the perpetual fountain beside his dental chair and spat savagely into the bowl.

"He wanted two sets of false teeth. Joked with me about it. Getting a bargain, he said. Two new sets for one old one … !"

It couldn't be happening to Joe Pyle. Joe privately pinched himself. Yes, he was definitely awake and here he was inside Operation Topside in a small, windowless room addressing a group which included Barry McLeod, Sarah Mason, and even General Hackett. Among them was a small, tight-lipped man with coalblack eyes and dark, shiny skin. His name was Will Duganne.

"I have evidence that messages are being relayed from inside this project to a man in the outer guard," Joe said.

It was Duganne himself who replied. His voice was dry and thin. "We have interception crews on both sides of the walls."

"This is not short-wave, not radar, nothing like that," Joe snapped. "The transmitter and receiver are so tiny as to be easily concealed on the human body. I want a complete physical examination of every person — "

"Joe!" Colonel Barry McLeod was on his feet. His handsome bronze face mastered a trace of scorn and he smiled at Joe, condescendingly. "We understand your affection for small detail, Lieutenant Pyle, but do you realize that there are five thousand persons inside these walls? It would take weeks."

Joe reddened slightly, but swallowed his anger. Barry had given him a nice opening for his own plan.

"How many men in the outer guard?" he asked.

"A few hundred, at a guess," General Hackett replied.

"Well, then, let's start outside and grab the accomplice first," Joe said. "Under pressure he may help us to identify his partner."

The general was willing. He had heard part of Joe's fantastic theory, but he wanted proof.

"We'd better take somebody along from inside," Joe suggested. "Can you come with us, Duganne?"


Joe had not expected that answer. He felt himself growing tongue-tied, and wished he had some of Barry McLeod's poise in a tight situation. A glance at Sarah Mason, leaning forward in her chair, lips slightly parted, brought back his confidence.

"You know the project better than we do," he told Duganne. "If we nab the right man, you should be the one to question him."

Duganne licked his thin lips and nodded.

The general, with a few magic words, was able to get the Secret Service party outside of that vast prison. He was probably the only man in the country who could have accomplished such a quick, miraculous passage through the walls.



They rode in a jeep, four men and a girl. Duganne drove with the general beside him. In the rear seat Joe and Barry McLeod had Lieutenant Mason between them, tossed joltingly from man to man.

For miles around stretched a blistering, misty plain of sand and scrawny cactus. Behind them was the shapeless, windowless pile of Operation Topside, a tremendous monument to man's ingenuity — or his stupidity.

They raced straight to headquarters of the guard encampment and General Hackett spoke a few words with a Marine captain. Five minutes later the entire company of Marines was standing in full dress on the parade ground.

"All right, what's the next move, Lieutenant Pyle?" demanded the General. His lean face, accustomed to Washington air-conditioning, was sunburned to a raw, red flame.

Joe was saved the necessity of replying by the sudden appearance of a lieutenant to report that a single man was missing from his platoon, a Sergeant Thomas Cunningham.

Joe, in turn, saved the Marine captain a stroke of apoplexy by shouting: "That must be our spy! My guess, sir, is that Cunningham has been warned from inside the walls. He's skipped out on us."

"How could he be warned?" blustered Duganne.

General Hackett was reasonably calm. "Let's get after him."

Colonel McLeod took command, standing in the jeep, barking questions: "How did he escape, by machine or afoot?"

"Foot," the Marine lieutenant said. "All equipment is accounted for."

"Where would a man logically seek cover?"

"East," said the Marine, pointing. "There's a dry river. It gets deep and rugged, with a lot of caves, and runs south toward the nearest town."

"Duganne, let's go," McLeod snapped. The jeep took off with a jerk. A lesser man would have been thrown out on his head, but McLeod stayed upright gracefully as a bareback circus rider, shouting over his shoulder, "Organize a manhunt and follow us!"

The jeep bounded across country like a startled gazelle. Joe found Lieutenant Sarah Mason in his lap. Before he could appreciate the situation, a flying bump reversed them and he was sitting on the girl's knees.

Nothing like this, he thought, had ever happened in the filing department!

Sarah was thinking of duty, not of Joe.

"Whoever warned Cunningham so quickly must have known that Secret Service was investigating Topside."

"Yeah. What's the answer to that, Duganne?" Barry McLeod asked the driver, who only shook his dark head, gritted his teeth, and drove on.

The jeep shot up a slope and a great gasp went out of their combined lungs at the awful gap which broke suddenly before them. Duganne kicked at the brake, pulled the wheel, and they churned sideward in a blinding shower of sand.

Blinking away the dust, they saw a crooked chasm of tumbling, frozen lava, brilliantly colored in the angled sunlight. Colonel McLeod leaped to the ground, running down-canyon.

"Fan out!" he called back.

The others moved after him. All but Joe.

"Hey! Wait a minute!"

General Hackett turned about, eyes narrowed against the smart of the sun. Sarah Mason hesitated, halfway down the rough slope. Duganne broke his stride with visible reluctance.

Joe jerked a shoulder the other way, up-canyon.

"The enemy," he said, "never does the thing we expect him to."

The twist of General Hackett's mouth vaguely resembled a smile. "Lead away, Joe."

"What about Barry?" Sarah said.

"If Cunningham went that way, Barry will catch him," Joe said generously. "Barry's a one-man army."

He was back in command again now and it felt good. Directing the others to form a broadtoothed comb, he led them up the canyon.



The general and Duganne moved on the outer flanks. Joe and Sarah were down in the deep confinement of the river bed. They almost came together as the rocks constricted. Joe kept his eyes with difficulty on the trail whenever the lieutenant hiked her skirts and leaped, trim-legged as a deer, from rock to rock.

As they progressed, the dry lava bed slowly flattened into a vast field of black monoliths, gloomy as a cemetery at twilight.

Wherever the rock was broken by crevices or caves which might have hidden a man, one of the searchers would kneel for a closer look. At his far left Joe saw Will Duganne vanish into one of the caves and immediately come out again, scrambling hastily ahead without a kickward glance.


They all scowled back at Joe in the dying red of the sun. He pointed to the left where the lava formed a ragged, toothlike rim to the valley.

"Get up higher, Duganne," he called. "He might try to circle back on us."

While Duganne ran in that direction, Joe darted to his own left, flung himself flat on the rock long enough to peer into a shallow hole which ended in a deep, wary blackness. He was up again, striding forward, beckoning to Sarah and the general.

They came together on a pocked, tortured slope of grey pumice.

"Duganne, come back!"

The dark little man was climbing on all fours. He turned about in a startled, catlike spring.

Joe climbed to a point within reach of Duganne's ankles.

"You're under arrest," Joe said.

Duganne was marvelously swift. His face did not even change expression. His hand simply slid under his jacket and out again, palming a flat, black pistol.

"I would not advise enforcement of that order, Lieutenant," he said.

"General Hackett." Joe flung words hack ward without turning. "Duganne has been signaling his partner as we went along. He sent Cunningham up-canyon instead of down. He even guided him into a hiding place. You can verify that by looking into that cave which Duganne reported as empty. Either there's a man inside it or somebody threw away a nice, new pair of shoes."

Duganne spoke quietly, his teeth flashing with pearly whiteness.

"Intelligence cannot afford to expend your life, General Hackett, even for two foreign agents. I have six shots in this gun — and the situation requires only three."

Joe had once taken a course in disarming a man, but he could not at the moment recall the first lesson. He might have dived for the legs but that would only bring Sarah Mason into a wild, dangerous melee. He wished that Colonel McLeod had stayed with them. McLeod would know what to do.

His wish was miraculously granted when a chunk of lava came hurtling over the rim of the valley and struck Duganne squarely in the back.

Duganne stumbled to his knees, whirled with a snarling sound, and Joe threw out a blow which caught the man sideward on the chin, accomplishing the last thing Joe had expected. Out of Duganne's distorted mouth flew a shiny white crescent. It struck the ground with a snap and foiled away in a wet clot of dust.

Joe quickly stepped on the thing and faced the gunman challengingly. Duganne wiped the sinister vacantness of his mouth and suddenly dashed away, dodging and weaving. He was over the rim before anyone could draw a gun.

Barry McLeod leaped into sight, firing two quick shots which ricochetted harmlessly.

Joe waved. "I've got the evidence, Barry!"

McLeod shrugged and strode nimbly downward.

"Couldn't shoot at first," he grumbled. "You were all in the line of fire. I had to throw a blasted rock!"



Joe was dusting off his prize.

"Look, false teeth," he said. "Duganne had two sets of 'em made, one to pass the physical exam and another which he doctored up for his own purposes and clapped into his mouth just before he came into Topside. See these little slits between the teeth? Sound comes out there — like a pipe-organ."

"Sound?" the general muttered.

"Wrong word, I guess," Joe admitted. "Ultra-sound. I got the idea from Barry, when he told me the dogs were going crazy. I knew science had been dabbling in supersonics — that is sound which is pitched too high for the human ear to hear. Dogs can hear it, though, and it makes 'em jump."

He pointed to the false teeth.

"Here — see this little row of holes in the back of the gums ? Duganne whistled Morse Code super-sonic signals into that, like a kid with a mouth organ. Cunningham caught 'em and translated. Photographic mind, probably. Let's go back and haul Cunningham out of that hole. We'll probably find the receiver imbedded in his inner ear."

General Hackett swore, glanced aside at Sarah Mason, Hushed, and then swore again.

"A miniature broadcasting set, built right into the man's teeth!"

Joe found himself being pounded warmly by Colonel McLeod.

"Nice work, Pyle. Couldn't have done better myself."

The general wrapped the teeth in a clean handkerchief. He regarded Joe with dusty, red-rimmed eyes that seemed to peel the imaginary silver bar right off his shoulders.

"Well, Captain Pyle, how do you propose to capture the body which belongs to these teeth?"

Joe laughed, with a boldness he had never felt before.

"Let Duganne go back to his own country and report his failure, sir. That's a sure way to end his career."

"I'm glad you're a captain, Joe," Sarah added. "Now I can look up to you."

She stood below him on the rough slant of the black shale, eyes slanting prettily in the red dusk, and there was something special in her voice, something beyond the ken of ordinary men — something that only Joe Pyle could hear.