Puppets

The story features possibly the most useless zombie ever. I submitted this story to an open call for authors for an anthology. The editor liked the story, but said the tone was too humorous for the volume (what can I say, I don’t usually write in this genre). Some interesting news came out after I wrote this. More below the story (spoiler avoidance).

We’d driven up from London. The colonel’s hand-delivered summons had procured us an old beat-up Ford and nominally sufficient fuel rations in short order. The army depot had offered us a driver as well, but I didn’t have much opportunity to get behind the wheel, and had therefore declined the favour. The drive had been uneventful, thankfully, despite Charlies’ known predilection for practical jokes.

The facility sat on the edge of a small, rustic village, and had clearly been intended to appear as unobtrusive from the air as possible. There was a small gatehouse at the end of a long drive, situated under the canopy of an oak tree, and then further camouflaged with netting.

We were dressed in mufti, so the guards at the gate made us exit the vehicle and searched both us and the car thoroughly, before calling the building using a bakelite hand-cranked field-phone, to check our bona fides.

The building itself appeared to be a beautiful old pile from the outside, its facade covered with ivy that almost completely obscured the blacked-out windows.

They’d done a marvellous job of institutionalizing the inside though. Bland beige-painted walls, cheap linoleum floors, metal lighting sconces high on the walls–barely shedding sufficient light to make up for the painted and cardboard-covered windows. The entire place fairly reeked of cleanser, with an added unpleasant bouquet of formaldehyde over top.
A heavily made-up, middle-aged receptionist sat at a grand old wooden desk, before a manual telephone switchboard that Old Man Bell could have built himself. We showed her our paperwork and identification cards, and then she patched in a line and spoke a few words quietly to somebody. A few minutes later, a uniformed aide-de-camp hustled down to escort us in.

There were heavy metal fire-doors every dozen feet, some of them locked. The aide carried a large ring of keys on his belt. The colonel’s office was three flights of well-worn marble stairs up. It had evidently been ostentatiously done-up at one point in its history. The wood-panelling remained, although the bookshelves behind the desk were now empty and rather dusty. The imposing desk was still in place–probably too heavy to be moved easily–but it wore its battle-scars with pride. There were several unpadded metal folding chairs scattered around the room.

The colonel had evidently been pacing about, since he was standing facing away from us when we entered. He had always been thin, but he looked almost frail, his grey hair thinning noticeably since I’d last met him several months previously. The burden of duty.
“Ian,” he said, extending his hand. “How is your brother?”
“Sir, he is busy as always, but doing splendidly. This is Charlie.”
“I heard that you did good work on Operation Mincemeat,” the colonel said, shaking Charles’ hand. “Before we continue,” he said, “I’m going to need the two of you to sign this.”

He handed each of us a sheaf of paper. I glanced down at mine, then lightly grabbed Charlies’ arm and took a quick gander at his. Uh oh.
“Sir, this is a rather serious document,” I said. The bottom half of the page was densely packed text, detailing the inevitable penalties for not keeping the official secrets that were about to be revealed. I had actually had a hand in drafting the document. Our team had been rather creative.
“Yes, it is. You will see the reason for that in about two minutes,” he replied, handing me his pen. The colonel nodded at his aide, who had not been introduced to us. The aide merely said, “Chaps, if you’ll follow me.”

The four of us exited the office, headed down a flight of stairs, and then perambulated along a corridor lined with metal doors. There were small glass windows with metal bars inset in them. We stopped before one of the doors. The aide seemed somehow hesitant, but said nothing.

Charlie peered through the window. “There’s a Nazi in there,” he stated.
“Don’t worry,” said the aide, “he’s dead.”
“I could have sworn I just saw him move,” Charlie responded.
“Why don’t you go and have a chat with him,” said the colonel.
I gave him a funny look.
“Is he dangerous,” asked Charlie.
“Unfortunately not,” responded the aide.
Only one way to find out what this was about. I opened the door, and Charlie followed me in.
“Hello, old chap,” said the Nazi, properly.

He sat ramrod-straight in a hard wooden chair, his black uniform neatly starched, his boots burnished, a row of ribbons pinned on his chest. There was something odd about him though, quite aside from his evident lack of an accent. I couldn’t put my finger on it. His scars, possibly. He’d obviously been seriously injured at some point. I gave Charlie a puzzled look.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” asked the Nazi, not looking at us. Then, in a complete non-sequitor, he added, “Fabulous cricket match that was. Haven’t seen bowling like that in years.”

I turned sharply on my heels and walked out. “Sir, He’s absolutely daft,” I said to the colonel, who had been waiting outside.
“Yes, indeed he is.”
“I’m clearly missing something, sir. What is this all about?”
“Let’s go back to my office, if you don’t mind.”

#

We ensconced ourselves in the less than comfortable folding chairs. The colonel sat behind his desk for almost a full minute, thinking. Finally, he leaned forward and said, “How well do you think Operation Mincemeat went down?”

Mincemeat had been a disinformation plan to fool the Nazis about our intent to invade Sicily. We had floated a corpse–supposedly of one of our officers–ashore in Spain, carrying incriminating documents with him.

“They swallowed it, hook, line and sinker,” said Charlie.
“Right. Only now they don’t believe any of our misinformation. They are even ignoring real documents that they uncover. We need to step things up a notch.”
“Hence the idiot we spoke to?” I asked. “Not my idea of a super spy, sir.”
“Ian, imagine if we could turn a real top-level Nazi,” the colonel said.
“Bribery often does the trick,” said Charlie.
“What if the fellow didn’t even know he’d been turned?”
“What do the Americans call it? Brain washing? It doesn’t work very well in practice,” said Charlie. “I’ve tried.”
“One of our contacts with De Gaulle’s people told us about something he’d come across in Haiti once.”
“I think I’ve read this story,” said Charlie. “One of those cheap penny fiction rags.”
“Tetrodotoxin,” said the aide suddenly from the corner of the room, where he’d been standing. I’d forgotten he was still there. “Its a rather nasty toxin. Comes from a kind of fish.”
“The Haitian voudun mix it with some other odds and ends into something they call ‘coup de poudre’.” added the colonel.
“Powder strike?” Charlie asked.
“Right. That’s the first stage. The second stage involves neurotropic drugs that induce psychosis,” he said. “I’m going to remind you again about the contract you both signed. This next part isn’t a pleasant tale at all. We don’t want it leaking.”
I nodded.
“A few days ago, our troops overran a German gun encampment. They killed a dozen Jerries, including the chappy in that room.”
“Killed?” I asked.
“Yes. We had vague orders out to bring bodies of officers back.”
“I’m sorry, this still isn’t making any sense.”
“We reanimated him. Powder strike. Undead, what?”
“Are you putting us on?” said Charlie, sounding annoyed.
“No. We switched his brain though. Hence the lack of a comical accent.”
“Well, sir, he must have been a complete buffoon,” I said, playing along for the moment.
“Actually he was supposedly a stand-up fellow. Barrister. Member of all the right clubs. He left his body to science when he passed away a week ago. This is the precise problem we’re having. We bring them back to life, and they turn into drooling idiots.”
“Why didn’t you just leave the original brain in?”
“Tried that first with a different one. He sat around muttering about bratwurst or some other nonsense for days until the bug juice wore off. We couldn’t exactly kill him again either. That doesn’t  work well, unfortunately.”
The aide interjected, “That one started smelling something awful too. We should have just dismembered him and buried the parts.”
“Now that would have been an unpleasant job. Are you volunteering for next time around? They start rotting, and parts fall off. We usually have to use makeup as well, depending on how they were killed. That would sufficient, perhaps, if only it gave us a few days.”
“Just send a horde of undead zombies running amok on their front line,” I suggested, still playing along.
“Right, except that they’re absolutely harmless. They just sit around blathering, mostly about food. We were hoping to have a cool-headed British noggin mounted on top of a genuine Nazi officer.”
“Why not just inject this stuff surreptitiously into a ranking Nazi official. They would waste a whole lot of time running around in circles trying to figure out what had happened,” I said.
“We thought of that too. We were worried that they would figure it out and somehow figure out the chemistry.”
“I think I’ve had enough,” said Charlie, levering himself out of his chair. “This is complete nonsense.”

At that precise moment, a shrill klaxon started ringing. “Air raid?” I asked. “We’d better get down to your shelter.”
“No. That is a different alarm.”

Somebody knocked once and then stuck their head inside the door. The aide went outside and closed the door quietly after himself. Then the phone on the colonel’s desk rang. He picked it up, as the aide came back into the room.
“Are you certain you locked that door?” he asked the aide, still holding the phone at arm’s length.

#

We spent a fruitless half hour helping the guards search the facility and its rather expansive grounds. Outside of the rooms that were in use, the place was terribly run-down. Several rooms were piled to the ceiling with old furniture, covered with white sheets. These all had to be carefully checked, using a borrowed flashlight.

In the end, the colonel’s aide, looking frustrated, asked us to visit the small village we had passed on the way in, to see if the escapee had somehow managed to walk past the guards at the gate. We took the Ford, as the driveway of the facility was long, and we would need something to drag the chap back in, assuming that we found him there.

#

“Are you here about the spy then?” asked the old codger from the home guard. He stood, arms akimbo, in the middle of the road. He had clearly been waiting for somebody to come from the facility. He wore a battered round metal helmet that just might have belonged to an ancestor during the Civil War, and wielded a rather rusty pitchfork. Firearms and ammunition being in rather short supply, of course.

I thought quickly. “He’s not a real spy. We’re just testing your emergency preparedness. You would probably have seen a parachute come down, if he had been real.”
“Ooh. I thought he was one of those chappies,” he said, pointing at a prominently displayed preparedness poster in a nearby shop window. It featured a sinister-looking blond-haired fellow in a black leather trench coat, with his hand cupped around his ear.
“No, no, nothing like that. In any case, would you mind telling me where he is?”
“Oh yes. He kept blathering on about tea and biscuits. We’re keeping him under close guard in the tea room.” he pointed in the direction of a classic round house, a hundred feet down the road.
“We’d appreciate it if you don’t talk about this,” Charlie said.
“Yes, yes. Loose lips and all that.”
“Well lead on then.”

#

At another time, I would have gladly stopped off at the tea room for a cup of the old Earls’ greyest, and a piping hot scone with jam. The proprietor and staff were gathered at one end of the room, looking uncomfortable. The cause of their dismay sat in a corner at the other end of the room, muttering softly to himself, his pale eyes looking off somewhere in the distance. We apologized to the owner, and escorted the zombie out. From close up, in the sunlight, we could  get a better look at the scarring around his hairline, which was partially obscured by makeup.

#

“This is like herding sheep,” said Charlie. We each held one of the fellow’s arms. It wasn’t so much that he was actively trying to escape, as that his miniscule attention span resulted in his wandering off in the direction of anything that caught his eyes.

Eventually we successfully shoved him into the back seat of the old Ford. He was still muttering about tea and biscuits as we drove him back to the facility.
“Shouldn’t you say something threatening instead,” said Charlie, jokingly. “How about brains? I think that’s traditional.”
“Braaaiiiinnnnnsssss,” brayed the purported zombie.
“Yes, that’s the spirit. Good job!”

#

A short while later, we handed our charge over to the guards at the facility, and headed back up to the colonel’s office.

“I’m glad you found him,” said the colonel. “That could have had some rather uncomfortable results. As it is, I’ll have to go over to the village afterwards in person, and smooth some ruffled feathers.”
“Sir, I’m sorry, but I can’t think of anything that will help you,” I told the colonel. “This fellow isn’t useful for anything other than annoying people and getting in the way.”
“Back to the drawing board. I’m thinking of mothballing this project entirely, and trying something else,” he replied. “Before you go, please recall your non-disclosure agreements. We don’t need this getting out. People might panic.”

We both nodded, shook hands with him, and headed for the door. The receptionist looked passively at us with her pale blue eyes as we headed for our car.

A few miles down the road, Charlie asked me, “What do you think that was all about? I didn’t get the impression that the colonel is, well, losing his marbles. They’re obviously trying to achieve something.”
“My best guess is that they’re hoping a vague rumour filters out about something odd going on there, and that it is intended to lead Jerry on a wild goose-chase,” I replied, tapping my hands on the steering wheel.
“You think they were all play acting?”
“Could be. I’m not sure about the supposed zombie. Perhaps they found him in an institution. I don’t think anybody could act like that.”
“He had some awful scarring.”
“Maybe he is a casualty from the front.”
I shrugged. “I rather wish you hadn’t taught him to recite the word brains though.”

Author’s Note: About a month after I wrote this, there was a story in the news revealing recently declassified information about how various countries experimented with brain transplants (hopefully unsuccessfully) during WWII. I found that amusing.