Berlin — 1997
The letters shimmered on the plain of the yellowed paper, the moisture in his eyes fogging the squiggles into botches. Letters birthed by an ancient East German typewriter, standard issue.
David Ward coughed. The dust in these old East German Stasi — State Security Police — files penetrated his lungs. He was alone in the basement room eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall had brought down the Stasi.
He had taken precautions not to be recognized.
A black trim wig enclosed his blond longish hair. One of those ridiculous German hats with the little feathers, as if he were about to climb the Zugspitze, held itself up next to the file. A cheap “East German” polyester suit hung loosely on his muscled body. He had even padded his flat midriff with a cushion of cloth — the typical beer belly. He could be mistaken for a gastarbeiter — foreign worker — or one of those worker drones of the former German Democratic Republic.
His clothes concealed his weapons.
He pushed his disguise glasses farther up the bridge of his nose, then rose to return the file. He had people to see.
Berlin 1997 —
Hans Wermer hunkered in a disintegrating armchair in the reception room of the CIA’s office in Berlin.
At least that’s what his contact had called it more than 20 years ago — when he had a contact. Then he passed reports of economic progress in the workers’ paradise across the Iron Curtain. Before his fall from grace. Did they still call it the Library?
He shifted his beer-fed figure in the chair — one seam had sprung a leak, the padding sprouting whiskers. He was not good at waiting. No, not good at all.
Three days ago he’d been informed by the liaison officer at the CIA reception center in Berlin, a young man speaking in school-learned German, that Hans’ case would take some time. “Ist das klar?” the young man had asked.
It was not so simple. No, not so simple as the other refugees:
A short interview at the reception center, perhaps a few days, even a month, at a “hotel” the army maintained, then some marks and a “good luck and aufweidersehen.”
Sometimes there could be more, if the story were interesting enough. He’d talked to old acquaintances so he understood this.
It was not gemutlich — cheerful — sitting around the army’s transit housing for foreigners waiting to talk to someone who would remember his past importance. At last he had been invited here.
The inner door opened and a young woman approached. “Herr Smith will see you now,” she said in English.
Although his mother had been British, he hadn’t spoken English in years. All English-speaking in his Dresden home had stopped when Hitler marched into Poland on September 1, 1939. “Englisch ist verboten,” his mother had said. It was for his safety, she’d explained. And although he was five at the time, he had understood what she meant.
After the war and her death he had found hidden in a schrank her old English poetry books — poems of Shelley, Keats, Browning, the ones she couldn’t bear to burn, the ones she risked their lives to keep. He had struggled to read the poems, sounding out the words the way he’d been taught by his mother. Later he’d studied English at the university. Still he wasn’t comfortable in her language, would never be truly comfortable. He was too old now.
He rose and grabbed his hat from the seat, using his other hand to slick back his grey hair cut close to his head. The woman led him through the door and down a narrow hallway. She paused outside a closed door, opened it without knocking, and motioned him inside.
Herr Smith unfolded his tall body from his desk chair to shake hands in the proper German manner. He appeared to be in his mid forties, his pin-striped suit jacket and pants tailored to his thin frame. Hans was aware of the contrast with his own stocky figure, his shiny suit pulled across his stomach. Herr Smith’s face could be German, round like his own. Herr Smith’s accent, when he opened his mouth to say “Guten tag,” was definitely a foreigner’s. Hans answered in his British-accented English, “Good day.”
Herr Smith’s face relaxed at the English reply. “Please have a seat,” he said in English.
What did the man want from him? Would he demand a lengthy recitation of the case history? Or had he read the case beforehand?
Herr Smith peered at the papers in front of him. “We’ve reviewed your file. Washington has reviewed your file.” He paused.
“I don’t believe a word of it.”
Hans Wermer’s breath caught in his chest. He had failed.
Herr Smith’s eyes pierced his own.
“They do. We’ve booked you on an early plane to Washington tomorrow morning. The people in Langley want to talk to you.”
Gut. Sehr gut. Hans’ caged breath hissed from his mouth. He would be meeting with important people. Much more important than Herr Smith in Berlin.
Herr Smith stood. “Here are your tickets and a German government-issued passport. That’s all you’ll need.”
Hans stood too and took the documents. He shook hands and inclined his head, then walked out of the office.
In the hall he smiled. He had passed the first test.
Langley, Virginia, 1997 —
“We have no choice,” George MacIntosh said, eyeing the authorization lying on his desk top. “He’s coming from Berlin tomorrow and she’s the only one alive who can possibly identify him.” He fingered his CIA-issue pen.
“Why do we need to identify him? Just tell him no, we’re not interested. Send him a check if you want,” Kathleen Walters said.
She directed her words to Charles Trenchant seated on her left, but George knew he was her focus. After almost forty years in this business George understood that Kathleen, the newest member of the team and a black woman, wouldn’t risk voicing her objections to him. No, better to speak to another junior member of the team.
“He knows a lot — if he’s telling the truth. We’ve got to be sure,” George said.
“She’s a civilian!” Kathleen said.
“He’s asking for a great deal of compensation. We have to check out his story as well as we can. Believe you me, if there were anyone else left to identify him, we’d use that person.”
George had been stationed at CIA headquarters for the last several years, since before the rumblings that brought the Wall down. If nothing untoward happened, he would retire from here in another two years after a competent if not spectacular career.
This case had been passed on to him by his colleagues in Germany and he would handle it as he saw best.
Charles fingered his Yale blazer buttons, then crossed his legs. “We have to contact her immediately. Give her time to get down here.”
Kathleen’s eyes bored the middle of George’s tie before she raised her eyes to his face. “How can she possibly identify someone she saw only briefly over 20 years ago?”
George glanced across the room at the American flag hanging from an upright flag pole in a corner of his office. He’d had this same flag in every office he’d had around the world; it had seemed only appropriate in those cities where his cover had been political officer for the American embassy. In other places, such as when his cover had been cultural attache to the American consulate, he’d told visitors it was a little piece of the United States to keep him from being homesick. Now it was a reminder of his past, the places he’d been, the places he wouldn’t go after his retirement from Langley.
He flourished the signed authorization at Kathleen. “If she can’t, we’re out of luck.”
Kathleen locked her files before leaving for the day. Tomorrow she would wear a two-piece navy blue size 8 suit that added years to her actual late twenties. Her very short haircut ensured a “business” look. At 5’8” several of her shorter male colleagues were on a par with her, satisfying her and discomforting them.
Tomorrow something was going on, something bigger than George had let on. George had spoken of this as a routine matter of identification, just something “to help out the boys in compensation.”
She knew differently.
George didn’t realize he had a giveaway. Whenever he dissembled his eyes slewed to his flag, as if apologizing to it for lying in the line of duty. After Charles had left the room, George had briefed her on her assignment, including having the woman stay overnight at Kathleen’s apartment if they needed her to stay in town. As he spoke George’s eyes had found his touchstone. Kathleen’s protests about the overnight arrangements had died before she voiced them.
Usually when something was happening she wasn’t allowed to know and she certainly wasn’t allowed to sit in on a visit from a non-agency person. This time she’d been asked to be Beth Parsons’ escort. Ferry her around Langley. Apparently it had been decreed that a woman’s presence would help this operation. “Make her feel relaxed,” George had said. “She’s not used to our kind of work anymore. She’ll have misconceptions, concerns. You can handle them.”
George had finally handed her an opportunity to get close to a real operation. If she only knew what that operation was.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1997 —
Beth Parsons glanced in the mirror covering the entire end wall of the narrow room. Her chin-length red hair hadn’t fizzed much. On the other hand, her white gi — uniform — tied with her brown belt looked like it could use a wash, thanks to the sweat of exertion and the humidity of May. She hated the way the bulk of the gi was around her waist. She worked out daily on an ab machine and her gi didn’t showcase her efforts.
The late afternoon sunlight slid across the wood floor, culminating at the bare feet of the shotokan karate sensei — instructor — Eitan, an Israeli who at 3rd dan black belt level was better than Beth could hope to be in three lifetimes. He also had the cutest smile wrinkles around his eyes — unfortunately he was a good 10 years younger than Beth’s 49 years.
The perennial tinge of guilt pinged. Beth shook her head. Noticing a man’s smile wrinkles was not betraying Stephen’s memory — noticing a man’s age in comparison to hers was.
Actually, Beth had more important things to worry about at the moment. The green belts testing for the highest level of that color belt were almost done. In a few minutes she and two others would be called up to test for the lowest level of brown belt.
From the corner of her eye where she sat on the mat waiting her turn she saw the dojo door open. Two men in dark suits with briefcases entered. It wasn’t unusual for people interested in starting karate to come by and check out the place. Yet the suits and the briefcases seemed incongruous. Maybe Eitan hadn’t paid the rent.
Now at a nod from Eitan she stood and took her place. She tried to block from her consciousness the smirk on the face of Shmuel, a 1st dan black belt Israeli who rumor said had once been the leader of an Israeli commando unit and still had ties to Israeli intelligence. To Beth all Shmuel represented was the black belt who must got on her nerves during training. Once, after she had managed to bungle a particularly difficult maneuver, he had said to her, “On the street you’d be dead.”
Eitan nodded for the test to begin. She blocked Shmuel from her mind and concentrated on her performance.
At the end of her test minutes later, she returned to her place on the mat. As she passed Shmuel he had murmured, “Better luck next time.” The shit!
Finally the testing of all levels was over. The sensei indicated they should line up for the closing ceremony.
Starting with the head-of-the-line black belt, the students kneeled singly as in one of those old Busby Berkeley movies where the dancers create an undulating wave. At the head of the line, Shmuel honked the command to breathe deeply for several seconds. Beth stared straight ahead into the middle distance, her hands on her thighs, trying not to shift on her knees — Shmuel always stretched out the seconds to demonstrate how macho he was, how long he could remain kneeling in the uncomfortable position.
After forever Shmuel barked the commands to bow to the wall portrait of the current grandmaster of their system, then bow to their own sensei. Eitan motioned for them to stand singly, starting with Shmuel, the line undulating upwards this time.
Beth stepped off the official dojo floor and onto the carpet where they left their shoes and socks. She reached down for her Reeboks.
“Beth Parsons?” a man behind her said.
Beth looked up, one shoe dangling from her right hand.
“Yes,” she said to one of the suited men.
“We need to speak to you.”
“Who are you?”
The man glanced around the small space, crammed with karate students gathering up their gear. “Could you step outside a moment? We’ll show you our IDs.”
“Show them to me now.”
“Outside would be better.”
She shook her head.
Both men palmed small ID cards encased in plastic and swiped the cards under her eyes. Tompkinson and Hemmings, both CIA. CIA?
“Wait a minute, what’s going on here?” she asked.
“Now will you come outside,” the one with the Tompkinson badge said. “We can’t speak in here.”
Outside the humidity pushed against them. Beth’s nose wrinkled, protesting the stench of garbage and dog leavings that perfumed the streets of Center City Philadelphia whenever the thermostat rose. She checked where she placed her barefoot feet. Was she in some doo-doo she didn’t know about?
“Langley needs to speak to you,” the one identified as Hemmings said.
“We weren’t given that information,” Tompkinson said. “Langley just notified the local office to deliver this message.”
“IDs can be faked. How do I know you’re for real?”
Hemmings snapped open his briefcase, extracted a single sheet. Beth could see it was old, not a computer-generated document.
He held it under her nose. “Look familiar?”
She recognized the type of form, but without her glasses she couldn’t read the type. “Hold on.” Her hand went to the purse she had grabbed as they exited the dojo. She slipped on her glasses.
“For heavens sake! This is the first page of my application for a security clearance. It’s almost 25 years old. Where did you unearth this?”
The men smiled.
“I still don’t get it.”
“We have no comment,” Tompkinson said. “Only to notify you.”
“When will Langley call?”
“No call. A man will come for you tomorrow at 7 a.m. He’ll drive you down to Langley,” Hemmings said. “And bring a suitcase for a few nights.”
Tompkinson now snapped open his briefcase. He pulled out a black-and-white photo and handed it to her.
Her face burned. “How did you get this? It’s personal.”
She and Stephen stood with their arms around each other, her red hair long and straight instead of short and permed. Snow-covered peaks filled the background.
“This was taken in Bavaria, wasn’t it?” Tompkinson said.
“Yes, at Linderhof, one of Mad King Ludwig’s castles.”
“It was taken, no doubt, when you lived in Munich?”
An eternity ago. “Yes, why?”
“As I’ve already said, Langley needs to speak to you.”
“And if I can’t arrange to come?”
“You will. This is important.”
Hemmings nodded. “You will be reimbursed for any out-of-pocket expenses.”
Two of her classmates exited the dojo, waved to her as they headed down the block. What would they think if they knew who she was talking to? They’d want to know what she wanted to know — what could this possibly be about? Unless, unless, the CIA had finally learned who was responsible for Stephen’s death?
She pushed her breath down into her diaphragm, the way the students breathed in karate class. She couldn’t get her hopes up. This would probably be about something silly, but what silly thing would be worth bringing up so many years later?
“How’s the weather down there?”
“If I were you, I’d bring an assortment of clothes — and your passport. You never know where you may end up.”
End up? What was going on here? And how did they know she had a current passport? Oh, duh. They could easily check that.
“Anything else I’ll need?”
“Just your memory.”
Terrific. “What’s the name of the person coming for me?”
“Ralph. He’ll have a grey Chevy sedan.”
A green belt waved to her as he left the dojo, then she nodded to the two men.
“And tell no one where you’re going. Just say you’re going out of town.”
The men didn’t say good-bye; they just turned away.
Beth walked back into the dojo to put on her Reeboks. Several students still milled around, jawing with each other.
Shmuel leaned forward, his open gi top framing a hairy chest. Macho. “What did the spooks want?”
“Don’t bullshit me. I can spot one a mile away.”
Beth stared into Shmuel’s eyes. Stephen always said “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter.”
Shmuel laughed. “What would they want with you?”
Beth jammed her feet into her shoes. “That’s for me to know and for you to find out.”
Shmuel’s eyes blazed. Would she regret her words?
Outside again on Walnut Street she turned towards her Pine Street townhouse. At the northeast corner of Walnut and 18th she entered Rittenhouse Square. Halfway through the park she collapsed onto a bench, leaned her head against the wood slats.
She closed her eyes and was back at the 66th Military Intelligence Group, sitting at her secretary’s desk on the second floor of the enormous stone building — former Luftwaffe headquarters — as traffic raced alongside the building to exit the eastern edge of Munich and headed toward the lake at Chiemsee where Mad King Ludwig had another one of his castles, Herrenchiemsee, or the mountains in Berchtesgarden where Hitler had his aviary hideaway, Eagle’s Nest.
Around her at their desks sat the U.S. army civilians, the captains, the infantry major who thought the military intelligence unit’s security measures lax — all scribbling or telephoning. Or reminiscing with each other. Did civilians wear uniforms in Taiwan in ‘54 or Hong Kong in ‘56?
The highest-ranking civilian in the room, a GS-13, had caused trouble for her. Had actually gotten her fired without ever telling her he could or would. Her own boss had been a GS-12, unable to reverse the firing. The infantry major had patched things up. And she had played the power game from then on, once she had known that a game had been in progress.
All that was years ago. What could it have to do with her now?