It was well past midnight when the harsh metallic ring of the telephone next to his bed broke the solitude of the night. Most of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik was asleep, and programming for the day had long ago ended, leaving a snowy image on his TV screen, a flickering gray glow on the naked bedroom walls and a ghostly illumination to the layer of stale cigarette smoke that hung stagnant above his head.
It had not been a pleasant exchange and the telephone now lay on the floor where it had fallen after he slammed the handset down.
He sat in his bed, his back propped against the wall finishing an f6, East German made cigarette, another in the endless chain that began long ago, before his first pubic hair, he liked to joke, the only constant thing in his whole damned life. Beside him the woman lay softly snoring, naked and undisturbed, a heavy sleeper. This he liked about her.
It was the woman’s fault, he thought as he stabbed out the cigarette and lit another. She’d turned off his pager; didn’t want any distractions, she’d said; he’d had so much on his mind lately. Great fucking idea. He snorted humorlessly at the accidental pun he had made. It hadn’t worked. He’d failed to perform again, and this time it had also nearly cost him this client and the hard currency it brought, Deutschmarks worth three times the ostmark. Holding the cigarette between thumb and index finger, he watched the bluish smoke rise lazily to join the cloud that was the upper half of the room. “Shit,” he muttered.
His client had been trying to get hold of him for hours, and when Bauer answered the phone, the familiar voice was, for the first time, neither civil or calm. Tonight the caller was agitated, rude and insulting, making derogatory remarks, which should have been enough to terminate the business relationship right then and there, but he listened to the verbal onslaught, passively absorbing the abuse. What else could he do? He had no other choice. He was a captive of his own miserable condition, which made it – unbearable – sever the ties with this client. So he had swallowed his pride, stored his rage, and, like a pathetic schoolboy, received his reprimand and instructions.
He checked his watch. There was still plenty of time, over thirty minutes until he was to receive a call at the designated phone box, and his thoughts, rather than focusing on the upcoming business, dwelt only on drivel. For the moment it was the woman. There was not enough time now, but when he got back, he’d make her pay for her gross stupidity. A good thrashing is what she deserved, and she’d get what’s coming to her, as sure as a Polish whore stinks like perfumed fish. He’d think up a few kinks, make her afraid, a little foreplay to enhance what would otherwise be a rather tiresome beating. This idea gave him a rare, though brief, warm feeling, the first in a long time. For a few moments he indulged in a string of rough fantasies, which he concluded may have been much more useful a couple hours earlier.
Rage and violence; it had always been that way, as far back as he could recall. Rage and violence and hatred were wrapped about him, layer upon layer, like morphine to deaden the pain he never understood, pain that owned his soul.
He was born into a hostile world, unwanted, uncared for, and alone. There had never been anyone there to cradle and soothe his fears; there had never been any kindness nor succor or reassurance. He’d never known the security of love. When he cried for the quiet haven of a mother’s arms, he found peace only in the uncertain sanctuary of sleep, and when he awoke it was always to the cold hard gaze of one guardian or another, glaring down at him with resentful alienation. As he matured, the pain sprawned anger, and and the urge to lash out. The subtle violence of indifference and neglect that dominated his youth was met head on as he grew, and the endless upward spiral became his life; pain, hate, violence, pain, but no matter how hard he hit or crushed or mangled, the pain never left. It could be dulled behind the ever-thickening shroud of loathing, but it never unclenched his heart.
He hated the mother he never knew, a woman who abandoned him out of shame the day he was born. He hated his unknown father, a conquering invader who had claimed his ancient right as he unceremoniously took drunken pleasure from any Frauline he could find before disappearing back into the vast Russian hinterland, unconcerned, without knowledge, guilt, or responsibility for his miserable creation. Bauer often imagined him, a hulking, illiterate peasant, who could not tell the time from the armful of watches ripped from wrists and pockets of his victims. He hated his half-country and its heartless institutions, and the foster caretakers, those gray, faceless, overburdened and uncaring wardens of the state, who had reluctantly provided his minimal needs during his early, helpless years, a thing they did only to earn sustinance for themselves, while they beat him and sneered at him, a detested kriegskind, and deprived him of as much as they could get away with. He hated his employers because he needed them too much, had no choice, and they knew it, using him to do the dirty jobs they had no stomach to do themselves. Most of all he hated himself because he was never meant to be, and didn’t have the courage or wherewithall to do anything about it.
In a way he was the ideal Communist. Half German, half Russian, he was unencumbered with family ties or moral inhibitions that might affect his ability to do the Party’s work with a totality of commitment and efficiency. He was a born socialist, with dependency only to the state. Add to this formula the strong impulse to do harm to others and you have the perfect candidate for a secret police organization. It was only natural that he become an agent of the Staatssicherheitsdienst, affectionately known as the Stasi, and his chosen path led him straight to the SSD headquarters in East Berlin.
Karl Bauer wads a large, square man, big-boned and muscular, not particularly quick in his movements, but exceedingly strong. He had crushed skulls with a single blow from his huge, anvil-like fists, and had once taken a victim’s life with a simple bear hug, a deed he often remembered with fondness, taking particular pleasure from the popping sounds of a rib cage slowly crushed by the massive force he was able to exert. The large square head, topped with thick black hair, and the matching eyebrows in a continuous bushy line over his equally black, pupiless eyes gave him an ominous and fearful appearance that gave considerable credence to whatever threat he might proffer.
Bauer’s relationship with the Stasi was contradictory and confusing for him. It contributed to his miserable life, yet at the same time made it manageable. By feeding on a daily diet of victims he was able to turn his anger outward, avoiding any self examination. The absence of the truth allowed him to roam, a chameleon in the fabric of the East German ecosystem, a man with no friends and only dead enemies.
Like all abusers of substance or otherwise, he had found it necessary to maintain the habit, to smash, and bludgeon, to torture and kill, at an ever increasing rate just to keep his own personal demons at bay. Lately, slowly and imperceptibly, like summer fading into autumn, he had been changing. He had grown weary of it all. In this altering state he was finding it hard to sleep, and impossible to keep his mind from dwelling on his situation, just as now.
“Shit,” he said out loud as he threw the bed covers aside and twisted around until his feet were on the bare wooden floor. Bracing his elbows on his knees, he ran his fingers through his hair as he fought to empty his mind. Then standing stiffly, he shuffled laboriously into the bathroom.
The image in the mirror did nothing to change his mood. What he saw was barren like the no-man’s land that lay beside the wall, that stark scar across the land, void of life, ravaged by despised neglect, plastered with the graffiti of nihilism and filled with rusting tangles of angry barbed wire. What he saw wasn’t the hard, powerful body that had been his ticket into the privileged ranks of the Stasi. Everything sagged a little, his cheeks, his chins, the skin on his neck. There was softness where once there was hardened muscle. The proud chest had now fallen toward his belt line. He saw it now; the change, the atrophy and decay, had not been a sudden thing. Just the same it caught him by surprise. Never was perfect, he thought, but it had worked allright. “Shit.” It was gemutlich. But now everything was going to hell, just like the whole damned country.
It was the television. He knew well this huge window to the West. It was one of his mundane duties, when not assigned to “corrective activities” to collect the reports from the schools which identified those children who had happily admitted to watching the prohibited yet popular children’s’ shows beamed from West Germany. He had seen the numbers swell in recent years as more and more families acquired the TV and turned their antennas west. These same antennas also received other decadent American shows, like Dallas. He knew this firsthand.
It couldn’t be controlled. That was the problem. This virus was everywhere; countrymen flocking to Prague for transportation to the west, riots and demonstrations in Dresden and Leipsig, Honecker’s resignation a couple weeks ago. It was an epidemic, and he began to think that he, too, might be infected. How else had he come to the point of thinking the unthinkable, when before he had not thought much at all.
He decided to shave. The woman would be pleased with his smooth face when he got back. He frowned as he turned on the hot tap. Why should he care? Why he even considered her feelings was a mystery. Had he not resolved to beat her? He paused and stared absently at the trail of cloudy water that circled the basin before disappearing down the drain. Maybe he wouldn’t hurt her too bad, just enough to show her who’s the boss. He stopped shaving in mid-stroke and looked deeply into his own eyes. Yes, it would be better not to beat her.
He dressed quickly in the glow of the television, strapping on his small, blunt-nose Makarov 9mm handgun before pulling on the black, heavy-knit sweater that he usually wore for night work, then he did something he’d never done before. It was a sudden impulse which both puzzled and pleased him. He leaned over and kissed the woman on the neck, a gentle affectionate gesture
A couple minutes later he walked out into the coolness of a clear, indigo darkness, and as he breathed deeply he felt a faint edge in the air and he shivered. Another autumn was coming to end. It wouldn’t be long before the interminable winter was with them again, the long cold nights, arctic storms with freezing winds as sharp as razors, the miserable rain and the snow. God, how he hated the snow. In East Germany the snow always turned brown from the soot and smoke of the soft brown coal which burned in a million fireplaces and hundreds of power plants. Even the countryside seldom had that storybook whiteness of postcards and paintings. In the cities, where Bauer spent all his life, it was always wet, nasty, and dirty. It coated everything with a smeary film of gray-brown, making what little color that did exist in the streets disappear completely.
He walked to where his pale blue Trabant was parked. But the mood was not dispelled. As he pulled open the rickety door, which responded with a deep rusting groan, he shook his head and curse again silently. He knew what winter meant when it came to this piece of crap that his countrymen called a car.
He especially hated the Trabant. Everyone hated the Trabbi, the pride of the DDR. Everyone loved it, too. It was the ultimate status symbol. It meant mobility, and it was the only thing available. Unless of course you were high up in the hierarchy of the aparatchiks and got one of the rare imports. He didn’t rate, not ever. Being Stasi couldn’t even get him a new Trabbi or a few quick repairs. There were so many other Stasi agents in the same boat, and it was impossible to find a repair shop that didn’t already have a long line of his fellow agents ahead of him. They all hated the Trabbi.
He cursed again and squeezed his bulky frame into the small box masquerading as a car and settled himself with a rehearsed wiggle into the familiar, vinyl-covered seat. He lit a cigarette, and in the dim illumination of his first inhale, inserted the key then gropped for the choke, which he adjusted with experienced precision. He gave the gas pedal a quick step and at the same time turned the ignition. The Trabbi coughed and belched into life, and he rhymically played the accelerator with perfect timing to feed gas into the system to the counter-beat of the car’s attempts to sputter out. This delicate interaction went on until he had nursed it through the lengthy warm-up period which the good communist engineers had designed into their two-stroke creation. For a man with such a loathing for his car, Bauer had a remarkably soft, almost tender touch when it came to its operation; however, there was no trick for getting around the gears, and he accepted without emotion the painful grinding noise as he pushed the column-mounted gear lever into the reverse slot. He backed out of his parking place into the dense black cloud of his own exhaust and was soon heading off into the Berlin night, trailing the peculiar scent of burning gas and oil shared by the Trabbi, and a woodcutter’s chain saw.
Soon he was heading through the dark streets, buzzing along the Frankfurter Allee as quickly as the dim light from his head lamps would permit. It was too dark to discern anything outside the limited cone of light, not that it mattered; even in daylight there was nothing worth seeing, just the dull and dirty buildings, many still with the pockmarks of bullet holes or the massive gray socialist apartment blocks of Russian proportions, build by his countrymen in the style of their occupying victors. Like all the streets, it was cobbled and in constant need of repair, which made his fiberglass Trabbi bounce and wobble as it belched black exhaust clouds in its wake.
He turned his thoughts to the night before him. When all things are watched, you must be careful. As the widening infection of malcontention spread through the DDR it perturbed him that he did not have an exit strategy. He was not that smart but he knew for months the scramble was on at all levels of the Stasi. Lighting another cigarette, he considered the course he’d now taken. The idea of hedging his bet this way was not original, and, when a comrade had surreptitiously made the suggestion to him and even provided him with a contact, he jumped. A couple calls to the number, which the fellow agent had passed him and the business relationship with the unknown, elegant-speaking West German client was established.
It turned out to be good, very good. He’d been given a name. Initially all his client wanted was a simple biographical outline of this person, the kind of stuff he could easily find and copy with no more authorization than his ID number presented to a bored clerk. He gathered the information and made the pass. Payment, equal to three months of his Stasi salary, was received in US dollars, better even than deutschmarks. It was amazing. He had his way out and it paid him. It was, in fact, too good.
It was too damned good for one who had lived in a secret world so long, a world where nothing could be trusted, and nothing was as it looked. A world within the Stasi, whose motto was “We are everywhere” while all the time they saw Gegner, or opponents of the state, in every nook and cranny, and where the three fundamentals rules, which all agents were taught, were rooted deeply in paranoia. Over and over it was drilled in them that every person is a potential security risk; that it is necessary to know everything in order to be secure; that security takes precedent over law. With these tenets ingrained into his perception, it was natural to feel that it had been too easy. The information on the subject had no content. It was boring, like a cold potato dumpling. Nothing.
In June this person had a stroke which forced her to move out of her small apartment into a care at the Beelitz-Heilstatten Sanitorium where she had worked since her transfer there. What he didn’t know was that two months ago, she’d had suffered a second stroke with a deadly result. The client had just told him.
It was the glaring unimportance of this woman that had caused his paranoia to grow. He knew how things happened. The possibility of a set-up had taken root. He had watched it happen to others. Why him? Why now? Had they recognized the signs, seen the loss of dedication and zeal? Maybe they needed a scapegoat, it was a common enough pattern. Had he reached the point where it was his turn? For weeks he waited for the summons, the knock on his door, the car pulling up beside him in the street. He lost sleep trying to pinpoint something in this woman’s dossier, for which a Wessie would pay so foolishly high a price. He wasn’t a thinker, and the process was hard. He went over and over the information. There was nothing in her life worth a second look, but the more he thought, the stronger the feeling that he was missing something, something right in front of his eyes.
Driven by the big fear, a fear that most East Germans functioned under as a matter of course, he took it upon himself to dig deeper into the labyrinth of Stasi files, even into the secret files of Department XX, the dissidents department, the department whose only task was to eradicate all internal dangers. It was the minds of department XX that created the Feinbild, literally, the picture of the enemy, a picture the State freely revised to fit its multiplying tentacles. It was a place you avoided like quicksand. Panic though trumps caution. He pulled in a favor, calling a comrade for whom he’d once sorted out a delicate situation, and with the first original action of his life, entered the forbidden crypt in search of anything.
He was a changing man. The molten life form that had burst forth out of the oppression of his youth had glowed furiously as it flowed through life, but lately the flames had cooled, the flow had slowed to a series of hard shutters, and suddenly he could see both beyond, and within.
In the darkness of the claustrophobic Trabbi he felt for the breast pocket of his shirt. There underneath the black sweater he traced the outline of a photography. The image was perfectly fixed in his memory. It was of a young girl, no older than fifteen, or sixteen. She was looking back over his shoulder, smiling at the unknown photographer who had probably just called his name and released the shutter. The face was pretty, with well balanced features, although the mouth was a little thin in the upper lip. The long blond hair, combed back, was tousled and wavy, giving an air of casual carelessness, and the eyes, even within the limitations of the black and white film, shone with a translucence that made Bauer think of the pale blue depths of high mountain glaciers. What was it about this woman?
With a sudden turn of the steering wheel he put the Trabant into a screeching right turn, leaving Frankfurterallee, heading north through the empty, orange-lit streets of Berlin, and away from J. Duclosstrasse, where loomed the very Stasi Headquarters, a massive building complex, inhabited by many potential witnesses to his late night excursion.
For the next five minutes he wound past endless drab, gray post-war apartments injected amongst older, crumbling tenement buildings, none of which had been restored after the final violent street fight that ended with Stunde Null, the night the guns became silent, and the victors sliced Germany in half. He entered the Prenzlauer district, the section of the city that had been his first home. It lay hidden behind the facade of Stargarderstrasse and its ornamental 19th century structures, like the Gethsemane Lutheran Church, where the “reformers,” the “peaceniks,” who called themselves the New Forum, met these days.
Prenzlau, the most dismal, ugly area of decay and rubble, a forgotten land, was a dangerous place even for those who lived there. The socialist revolution hadn’t reached Prenzlauer, with its dingy streets and smoky Kneipe, the neighborhood bars to which a pertson belonged or didn’t enter. Out of this cesspool of neglect he’d seen the new life form evolve, the Gammler, the young dropouts who hung uselessly about Alexanderplatz in the day, long-haired, in torn and ragged jeans and ill-fitting jackets, forever gossiping against the great socialist society and openly advocating a Western lifestyle. At night they slunk back into Prenzlauer to drink themselves drunk on cheap beer, and sing forbidden rock songs. It was the same Gammler who had fought the police and the Stasi that night to demand the right to hear the music at the wall.
He kept a sharp eye out as he drove though the streets. If there had to be one, Prenslauer was the crime ghetto of the DDR. Nothing like the shoot them up and leave the bodies in the streets ghettos of the west that he’d heard about, but a place to be cautious. The Gammler and the other rough inhabitants could always be dangerous. Many outsiders had fallen victim to their late night prowlings, and within the present atmosphere, a single Stasi agent wouldn’t fare well if discovered. He unconsciously he felt under his sweater for the reassurance of his Marakov.
It was the desperate and forgotten nature of the neighborhood that brought him there this night. It was a section of the city, which even the Stasi avoided, and as a result it was home to one of the few untapped call boxes in Berlin. It was to this phone that he now was arriving.
He pulled the Trabant up to the curb next to it, turned off the motor, and extinguished the lights. He lit another cigarette, and in the light of the match looked at the time on his wristwatch. In eight minutes the phone would ring. He rolled down the window so he could hear it and settled back to wait.
He took the photograph out of his pocket, but he did not try to look at it. He wondered about her. The only possible thing of relevance was her son. From his search in the files of the dissidents, he knew that after his escape to the west through a tunnel in 1964, she’d made a number of attempts to contact him. She’d been interrogated three times and was quite open about these efforts, even allowing the Stasi to copy the five letters from her son which she’d received through illegal channels. But it seemed that the link had dissolved sometime after the last letter in the summer of 1976, when he was living in America. The record ended there. No doubt the officer in charge of the case had abandoned it as a pointless.
Bauer hadn’t told his client he knew about the son, not even after the second assignment, the break in and search of the old woman’s apartment, which had taken place while she was recuperating from the first stroke. The results of this operation were disappointing due in part to the heightened expectation he had allowed himself to feel.
On that occasion his client had been very mysterious.
“You are, I hope, sufficiently trained to gain entry without being detected or leaving any evidence behind to indicate that the premises had been searched,” the voice had said, more as a statement of fact than a question. Bauer had the unsettling feeling that the man knew him very well, he had done his research.
“Of course. I do it all the time. I’ll simply find out who the IM is in her building.”
“Forgive me, what is IM?
“Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, a collaborator; there’s always one in every building, probably more IMs than regular Stasi agents. They’rte very useful and discreet. They must be because it’s one of my jobs to make sure.”
“Of course. Forgive me, but it’s very important, for both of us that you succeed in complete secrecy.”
“There will be no problem. What am I looking for?” he drawled in force casualness.
There was a pause at the other end, as if the speaker was hesitant to let go of something dear to him, like a child who knew it was proper to share a special toy, but found it difficult to do so.
“We believe she has in her possession a letter. Nothing of much value to anyone but us. Its an old letter, you see.”
“There could be dozens of letters. An old woman like her could have hundreds. How will I know the letter?”
Again the voice didn’t speak at once. Bauer could almost hear him thinking.
“It is a very old letter, over forty years old. If it has a date it will be March 1945. It’s a handwritten letter, in black ink. It may be in an envelop bearing a name but no address. It will most certainly be kept in a special place, on its own, not mingled with other papers. She treasures it, you see.”
“If I find it?”
“If you find it,” replied the voice, suddenly harder and sharper, “you’ll treat it with great care. It’s old and may easily damage. If it’s in an envelop, leave it there. In any case, for your own welfare, heed this warning; do not read it.
There was no such letter, not in that apartment. He had left no place untouched. Drawers were opened, deftly searched and carefully closed, every book, every hat and shoe box were examined, carpets were rolled back, chairs were all turned over, under the TV and behind the toilet were all included. The disappointment Bauer suffered seemed equal to that of his client. When he telephoned his brief report,”Nothing”, there had been a long silence. Then, in a calm voice, the velvety voice spoke.
“Very well. You’ll receive your compensation in the usual way. Goodbye.” It was the last communication between them until this night.
He took another long drag on his cigarette and checked his watch, four minutes to go. What could his client need him to do so urgently? Why such agitation? Whatever it was, he suddenly decided, he would terminate the relationship when he was done. In fact, he thought, it was time to make many changes. When he was done he would go back to the woman. He would not beat her. He chuckled. That was strange. The fact was, he liked her. He’d never talked with a woman before, except to get what he needed from them, but this one he had talked to about the strange western client. She had said that sometimes a mother bird pushes its babies out of the nest to make them fly. It was a form of love, she told him, but what if they break their necks on the way down, or a cat pounces on them before they open their wings? It’s not the mother’s fault? he asked. No, she had only done what was natural. Karl Bauer had thought a lot about this. He would talk to her more when he returned to the apartment.
In the back of his mind a warning light was flashing, a trained sense that reminded him that he would be hearing a phone ring any second, but he didn’t hear the faint sound when a stealthy figure approaching the car trod on and crunched a small peeble. It was hardly audible, but he missed it; nor did he see the brief, darting movement in his side view mirror. It wasn’t until the figure stood by the side of the Trabant that Karl Bauer sensed its presence, when it was too late. He looked over and recognized a long black barrel, and at that moment, a voice said, “It was in the fucking bible.”
The slug from a suppressed Ruger Mk II .22 mm handgun, whose basic use is target practice, fired extremely quietly, like spit hitting the pavement, and mada a small hole, sufficient at close range to kill, yet lacking enough force to be messy. The bullet didn’t exit the head, merely bouncing around inside the skull. His body lay slumped over the steering wheel. There was a little blood. A few drops trickled down his nose and fell to the floor, landing on the photograph of of the woman. The young face smiled eternally up at the dead man’s open eyes.
The ringing came from the call box. The figure walked around the car and lifted the receiver.
“It is done.”
The receiver was replaced and the dark figure slunk hurriedly back to the car, opened the passenger door, reached across and violently pulled the dead man out of the driver’s seat. It was no easy task. He shut the door, strode around to the driver’s door and entered. Moments later the Trabant was farting its way through the sodium-lit streets of East Berlin.
In Bauer’s apartment the women snored.