A female spy. A war project stretched across half the United States. The fate of the Allies rests on her thin shoulders.
A female spy. A war project stretched across half the United States. The fate of the Allies rests on her thin shoulders.
United States1940s town life in Longview, bustling with oil refineries and surrounded by lakes and dark piney woods. Thriving stores, social life, and church life. Lot of interiors in offices, homes, and a fancy hotel.
Recent Past1940s oil boom town in East Texas. A bustling city hosting unlikely misfits from oil wealth to booze runners and everyone in between.
A female spy, recovering from a disastrous mission, has to outwit her enemies to get American oil to the Allies.
The Big Inch
By Kimberly Fish
Even before the actual historical events of The Big Inch Pipeline began, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were in conversation about how to thwart the 1941 Nazi crippling of U.S. tankers supplying Europe and the North Eastern United States with oil. With a vast number of oil tankers sunk by German submarines, a new means of acquiring oil to fuel Jeeps, tanks, airplanes, and ships had to be invented. Roosevelt wanted the vast amounts of Texas oil, and the only way he was going to access that supply was to command cooperation from a group of wildcatters, independent and national oil men—a group that typically despised doing business with the federal government. Roosevelt hand-picked one oil man from Texas, a former military major from the first World War, to act as mediator of the fractious group and implement the best design option for solving the oil distribution problem.
Major J.R. Parson, from Madisonville, Texas, culled all the ideas offered, and with Congress and Department of the Interior opposing most of the suggestions, put forth one final, crazy-big idea—a 1,400-mile, above-ground pipeline, two-feet in circumference, built from Longview, Texas to Norris City, Illinois, and then on to the ports of New Jersey. This pipeline would have to be built of enormous size to accommodate the volume of oil required (two feet in circumference, and an inch thick in density) be made of recycled steel (all new steel was already appropriated to the military for ships and airplanes,) and invent the hydraulic technology to push heavy crude oil up hill and over mountains. It would require a newly trained welding workforce since all previously expert welders were working in the factories building ships and airplanes. And it needed to be built seemingly overnight. Major Parson presented the crazy-big idea, and to everyone’s surprise, it was approved.
Meanwhile, the fledgling American spy agency created for espionage in WWII, the Office of Strategic Services, headquartered on 5th Avenue in New York City, was recruiting con men, felons with light punishments, and young college women with a flair of languages, into its forces. Working with the British counterpart, the SOE, the OSS was training recruited personnel in physical fitness, secret communication methods to include Morse Code, espionage techniques, survival skills, and Western European geography.
This novel, the historical fictionalization of The Big Inch Pipeline Project (nicknamed The Big Inch by the welders because of the inch-thick steel,) is the story of a broken-spirited spy assigned to go undercover in Longview, Texas as the project begins and report on the potential Nazi threats that were anticipated regarding a federal pipeline project stretched across the middle of America. Lane Mercer’s secondary mission is to protect Major J.R. Parsons at all costs.
The novel begins in July 1942 as Lane Mercer arrives in Longview, Texas—a place she visited as a child, to see an aunt who had moved to the east Texas town. The hustle of a small city high on oil industry wealth was a complete surprise to her, as well as the new levels of self-loathing brought on by a botched espionage assignment in France that cost the lives of four key French Resistance Fighters. Her handler, Major Theo Marks, assures her that is assignment in Texas is so different from the dangers of France that it will be like a vacation in comparison.
Settling into the office building in downtown Longview that is to become command center for the Petroleum Administration for War, she begins to assimilate the furniture, supplies, and equipment needed. Lane, trained in library sciences before she married a young Army captain, has never been an executive secretary and the undercover assignment is both frightening in scope and importance—compounded by her grief and shame that is as present as the odor from the refineries polluting this small city. Immediately she meets a fellow secretary, Velma Weeds, from a nearby office, who offers her friendship, the gossip on the man who’d previously rented the space (and died in at his desk,) and an inside track on learning the ins/out of the busy social life in Longview. Lane rents a room in a boarding house, run by a strict house mother, and stuffs her broken spirit into the momentum needed to prepare the office and meet her new boss, Major J.R. Parsons. Parsons and his Longview business partner are immediately skeptical of Lane, even though a falsified resume presents her as more than accomplished. They suspect she’s been sent to spy on them from the Department of the Interior—an agency that is not happy with the rules that had been broken to make the pipeline project happen. She is more disturbed by how they write her off as stiff as a Sunday School teacher. Underneath her armor, she questions herself at every turn, so she’s surprised by the impression she makes. Her grief—from the loss of her husband in a London bombing to the rigorous life she led as an OSS agent—remind her that she has many broken places in her soul and she might fail again in Longview.
The family relation, her aunt, that she did not announce herself to immediately upon arriving in Longview, marches up to the PAWS office and demands an explanation. Lane is busy learning the ropes and is not prepared to deal with creating a false story for family. Distracting her aunt with a plea to take lunch, Lane encounters a golfer she’d met while following Major Parsons around a local golf course the previous Sunday. Zeke Hayes whispers information to her that he expects her to communicate to Parsons. The information is in direct conflict with what she knows about the pipeline project and her radar tells her something is off about Hayes. He insists that he has her best interests at heart and invites her to meet him at the local music club to discuss it further. She ultimately goes to the club, but it’s to explore her interpretation of the danger the man presents to Parsons and if he’s someone worthy of noting to the OSS. Hayes flirts with Lane and suggests a seduction. Lane put her guard in place against Hayes and moves him to the enemy category.
Lane returns to the boarding house and discovers one of her housemates has been raped. Sneaking her into the house and asking help of the Army nurse who shares the floor with them, she and the nurse administer help to the distraught woman. Lane goes downstairs to find the secret stash of bourbon and is caught by the house mother with the bottle in her hand. Lane refuses to advertise that one of the girls was raped and instead stands accused of being a thief and a drunk. She’s kicked out of the house.
Lane moves in with her aunt and uncle, a complication that thrusts her right into the social and church world of a wealthy, conservative town. Because she’s an executive secretary no one takes her tasks as seriously as she does and she’s often accused of working too hard, and perhaps having an affair with Parsons because she’s always with him. She’s with him to watch him, but he’s a slippery man with a mind of his own. He doesn’t like being tied to his secretary, even if the secretary has made herself invaluable to the team.
As the first stretch of the pipeline is built from Longview to Arkansas, natural disasters derail construction and she’s on site with Parsons to detail events and fire off letters. She gets attached to some of the older, grizzled crew and finds their no-nonsense attitudes refreshing after having served previously on the war front. Hayes arrival in Arkansas causes her to question Parson’s involvement with Hayes.
As Lane learns more about Longview and befriends locals she comes to understand the dual worlds that exist between the city limits. A wealthy white community and the working-class blacks who have created an underground to move people and products between their communities. Because she’s unusually observant, a cultivated skill that moved her up the ranks in the OSS, Lane sees details in circumstances and behaviors. She knows how to think and move on the fly, and when Parsons thwarts her she frequently has to take matters into hand. Even as she works late at the Bramford Building office, she sees things that make her question what is going on around her. Namely, Velma and her band of friends who have illicit parties on the buildings’ roof.
One evening while stalking him at the Gregg Hotel, Hayes sneaks up to flirt with her. She’s attracted, but untrusting of him. A wedding party descends from the ballroom above and the frivolity and romance prove an undoing of her careful box of memories from the French fiasco. As she’s undergoing some sort of post-traumatic syndrome meltdown, she notices two gangsters who enter the hotel with weapons aimed at the happy couple. She pushes them to safety. The melee that follows—crowd chaos, police intervention, and her personal meltdown—is overshadowed when a female debutante accuses the black doorman of stealing her bracelet. Lane knows this is not true based on what she’d witnessed. Despite training to the contrary, Lane inserts herself into the paradox, and calls out the false witness. The police discover that Lane was correct and a new level of chaos erupts in the hotel lobby. Lane collapses and is removed from the hotel by an ambulance service that caters to the black community. She overhears the conversation of the two ambulance workers and better understands the underground network that had staged that scene of injustice to allow for a pre-selected police officer to escort the doorman to a rendezvous point that would have aided in his escape from Gregg County. Even the white debutante was a plant. She’s dismayed by what she doesn’t know going on around her.
She’s kidnapped from a medical clinic by her handler, Theo Marks, and another undercover OSS agent in the area, Emmie Tesco—the Army nurse she’s been living next to at the boarding house. Stunned, once again, to discover there’s more going on in Longview than what she’d been briefed about, she’s growing angry over the way she’s been thrust into a situation that is more complex than she’s able to handle. The clear friendship and history between Theo and Emmie is disturbing (Lane had enjoyed thinking Theo held a tender spot for her) and Lane has to pay attention to something other than her fragile feelings to overhear their conversations. Theo reveals that Emmie is assigned to the U.S. Army hospital in the town to look for a mole selling biological development secrets to the enemy, but that she is a backup for Lane should Lane need help.
Emmie is a seasoned warrior with limited sympathies for Lane. They don’t click.
Zeke Hayes pursues Lane with relentlessness. Now that she knows he’s working with Parsons—not against him—she’s willing to endure his attentions. He takes her on a nighttime tour of Longview hotspots and she relaxes under his influence. He also clues her in to the mafia undercurrents in the city—the oil boom attracted a lot of workers and con men to the area in the 1930s—and they’re almost caught by those hosting an illegal poker game. Coming off the heels of her meltdown, and the rumors that are swirling about her now that the newspaper wrote about her role in the shootout at the hotel, Lane tries to file the new emotions and resolve that she can’t possibly keep up with Parsons, and that doing the best she can doesn’t mean punishing herself for circumstances she can’t control.
At a swankly community fundraiser, Lane sees a woman flirting with Parsons and she immediately suspects a Nazi infiltrator. Tracking the woman is a lost cause but she comes across one of the ambulance drivers and decides he’d make a good resource for future information. She tries to tease out information he has about the doorman who’d wanted to escape Longview, but Zeke interrupts. Flirting with Zeke is interrupted by her aunt who tracked her to the party to give her the devastating news that her mother-in-law died in a train accident. Lane recognizes Theo’s coding and knows that the message references a rendezvous of another sort. Indulging Zeke and her aunt, Lane is tangled by the stories she’s spun. In a move that surprises her, Zeke figures out that she’s trying to get better acquainted with the Negro Underground and offers to take her to the nightclub where the leaders operate.
Lane and Zeke make a difficult entrance to the Cotton Club and it’s only her powers of observation that save their skin and impress the leader of the underground—Judge Wyatt.
Soon after, Wyatt starts to feed her information in exchange for her help getting his men employed with the Big Inch Pipeline project.
Rumors of a rogue agent complicate what is a mission fast running out of control. Lane and Emmie try to do a better job of networking locally to gain more information, but the pipeline project is moving so fast that they’re about to uproot the local office. A Christmas disaster with the pipeline over the Mississsippi removes Lane from her aunt’s home and thrusts into the cold, muddy conditions of a flooded river and broken pipes. She’s working alongside Zeke and a black man, George Washington, to right the wrongs of Mother Nature in time. Lane and Zeke both spend the night in the Washington house and due to Zeke’s back injury (and a midnight need to go the bathroom) Lane and Zeke are caught in an indelicate position and Washington threatens to call a preacher to make it right. Instead he throws them out at daybreak. The refhreshingly honest chaos has helped her achieve what nothing else had—peace with her circumstances and ability to laugh at herself.
As the nightmare of construction gets nearer the next stage—Norris City, Illinois—Lane starts to close down the Longview office so she can move the operation further east. Theo reports that there have been no known threats against Parson and the pipeline. Lane doesn’t see how the Nazis could have had time since Parsons is a jack-rabbit of an administrator—getting things done faster and better than men half his age.
She will miss the friends she met in Longview, and the experiences that helped her make a reckoning of the senseless loss in France. She’s grown attached to the idea of normalcy that Zeke represents and wonders if she’s ready to get involved with someone again. Her first husband was unfaithful and she has always wondered if it was her (and her complicated and ugly childhood) that made her unlovable.
Wyatt’s men are sending her secret messages as they disassemble the “secured phone line” equipment in the basement of the office building, she’s charged by the idea of helping Wyatt move men to more successful job futures. It helps her feel like she’s making amends for the lives lost in France. The snow is falling outside, and she’s supposed to have one final dinner with Emmie—a debriefing—before she leaves.
The secretary she’d met at the first, Velma, corners Lane and threatens her because of resentment that she couldn’t be hired for the job as the PAWS secretary. Velma wanted that job so she could feed information to the Fascists that she’s fallen in with. Lane is surprised that she didn’t pick up on this during all the odd things she’s noticed about Velma, but doesn’t have time to think back because Velma pulls a gun on Lane. Lane has to move fast to thwart the threat and invents a trick involving a nearby rope and the elevator shaft to upend Velma. Emmie, Theo, Zeke, and one of Wyatt’s men arrive after Velma is strung up.
Theo didn’t realize the threat all along was to Lane, and wants to ship her off to another assignment. She makes a rash decision to stay in Longview and explore her relationship with Zeke. Theo isn’t happy, but thinks this might be the stress talking and indulges her, on certain limited conditions. One of which is that she operate a safe house that the OSS needs in Longview (based on its transportation grid for the South West.)
The book ends with Lane buying a local book shop and deciding to plant roots in Longview. Zeke proposes and she accepts. Theo sends in the first guest to stay overnight at the book shop, and Lane knows she’s about to enter a new world—one that she’s bound to have more control over than before.
The sequel to The Big Inch is Harmon General, which debuted in July,2018. It continues the story of Lane Mercer and her safe house, her romance with Zeke Hayes, and gives more than a peek into the complicated world of OSS agent and Army nurse, Emmie Tesco. The two agents also get to tackle the rogue agent that has been thwarting the OSS for two years and solve the issues of who is trying to sell intellectual property and medical developments from the lab at Harmon General Hospital.
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