Released on the 21st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall
9 November 2010
from T.H.E. Hill, the author of
Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary
Chapter1 : Knocking at Heaven's Door
A gentle rhythmic knocking sound swam down into the darkness that had swallowed my consciousness and attracted my attention. My consciousness hung out the "Do Not Disturb" sign and tried to ignore it. The knocking got more insistent, which prompted my consciousness to begin a groggy search through the dim caverns of my memory, trying to identify the sound. My consciousness stopped when it got to the memory of a clearing in Korea. I was lying on my face in the mud with a bullet in my shoulder. The sound was the bark of a fifty-caliber heavy machine gun on the chopper that had come to pick us up. The fifty-caliber was raining death and destruction into the underbrush where the bullet in my shoulder had come from.
The shooter in the underbrush had apparently been displeased by the fact that we had just blown up a regimental headquarters and made off with a stack of classified documents. I guess that he found the fifty-caliber's arguments for why we should have blown up the regimental headquarters persuasive, because he had stopped shooting. The memory of the clearing in Korea stopped abruptly when I passed out from the pain of being dragged unceremoniously to the waiting chopper by my wounded arm.
My consciousness compared the two sounds, and decided that, even though they were a lot alike, the sound on the outside of my brain did not correspond with the one on the inside. The one on the outside didn't have the metallic bark of a fifty-caliber, and it wasn't as fast. My consciousness left that particular patch of unpleasant darkness and went off in search of another sound pattern. It tried the memory slot marked "knock on the door," and I said, "Come in! It's open," but the knocking didn't stop.
That stirred up some clouds of dust in the caverns of my mind, which, when they settled, said, "The door's locked, stupid. Get up and go open it." That was easier said than done. I opened my left eye, because the first step to opening the door was to find out where it was. It was dark, so that didn't help much.
Opening my eye reminded me that my head hurt. That was a bad sign. Your head's not supposed to hurt unless you've got a hangover, or somebody applied a heavy blunt object to it. I couldn't remember drinking anything recently, but in my present state I suspected that my perception of time was slightly out of whack. I started feeling around in the dark with my right hand to see if I could figure out where things were. I was lying on some hard surface. My reawakening consciousness suggested that it might be a floor. That made some sense. Drunk or bashed on the head, the floor was where you normally ended up.
My hand worked its way around to my head, and discovered a large bump on it, and some sticky stuff, which was either congealing blood or grape jelly. It seemed like a hangover was out. I had been hit on the head.
The sound on the outside of my brain only got louder and more insistent. Three tries later, my consciousness found what seemed like the right memory slot. It was the "Knocking Shoppe Waltz" for squeaky old bed, bed-knobs and wall. This surmise was not particularly comforting. If it was correct--a conclusion that I wasn't quite ready to leap to--it meant that this must be Friday and I was in East Berlin.
My reeling consciousness added the knowledge that I was on the floor with a bleeding bump on my head to the fact that I was in Berlin in a knocking shop and decided that this equaled big trouble. This solution to the equation released a shot of adrenaline that dragged my swimming consciousness out of the darkness in which it had been floundering. It was still dark on the outside of my brain, but on the inside, at least, a light had gone on.
While I waited for my muscles to kick in and pick me up off the floor, the lump on the back of my head suggested that it might not be a bad idea to get out of here and back across the sector border. I told it that I would give the matter some serious consideration once I got up off the floor.
I got both eyes open at once, and could make out just enough of the room I was in to recognize it as the cheap "hotel" that was the "Post Office" where the agents I handled dropped off the information I had asked them for and picked up their payments, and requests for more information. It was a great cover for my network of low-level military assets. Who would suspect a young soldier was doing something other than getting laid when he visited a house of ill repute?
I was standing on my own power now, more or less. I turned slowly to take in the room in its entirety. When my scan of the room got to the bed, I saw the body of a young woman. I assumed it was a body because, unless she was sleeping with her eyes open, she was laying mighty still. I walked over and checked the pulse in her neck. She was dead all right, and so was my op. She had been my postmistress.
My consciousness was beginning to stand on its own two legs too. It said, "This has all the makings of a Stasi set-up. Get out now!"
That sounded like good advice to me, but my sense of duty said, "Better check to see if there is anything in your mailbox first." That sounded like good advice too. "But make it fast," said my consciousness, taking in the disarray in the room that indicated it had been ransacked by person or persons unknown. That wasn't a good sign at all. Ilse's room had always been very neat.
What was a good sign, though, was that they hadn't found the concealment. It was the bed, and that had the body on it. The brass bed-knob was a reverse-threaded screw-on cap for a hollow cylinder four inches in diameter that to all the world looked like the left bed-post. You could hide a lot in there, and we had. I unscrewed the bed-knob and pulled on the string that brought the contents of the concealment up from the bottom of the bed-post. There was a roll of documents, three envelopes and 20,000 West Marks. The roll of documents was incoming mail for me. The three envelopes were outgoing mail that hadn't been picked up yet.
The 20,000 West Marks must have been Ilse's nest egg for retirement. She has said that she was only in this business until she could save up enough to move to Munich. She had a sister there. I'd have to see to it that her sister got the 20,000.
I shoved everything into the pockets of my raincoat, screwed the bed-knob back on and smudged my fingerprints so they couldn't guess where the concealment was by looking at what I had touched. No point in giving away a secret that could be kept by wiping all the fingerprints off.
I said "Good-bye," and "Thanks" to Ilse, but before I could say more, my ever-practical consciousness reasserted itself and said, "I thought I told you to make it fast!"
"Okay, okay," I answered. "I'm going."
I headed for the door. There was a dim light on in the corridor. I could see its faint glow shining through the crack at the bottom of the door. That made it easier to navigate across the room to the door. I leaned my left ear against the door and listened. Too quiet for my taste. The place was normally full of noises.
While I was having an argument with my consciousness about whether to open the door or not, I heard a door open to the left. My guess was that it must be the John who had been playing the "Knocking Shoppe Waltz" next door.
The door shut, and I could hear him clomping his way down the corridor toward the stairs in the middle. It sounded like he had on boots. I figured he was twenty paces from the staircase. I wanted him to walk down the corridor and take the stairs first. If there was somebody out there waiting for me to come out of the room, I wanted him to run into them first and warn me that they were there. I counted each clomp. When he got to nineteen without making any other noises, that sounded safe enough for me to try the corridor. If there had been anybody else out there, I would have heard some extra noise, or an embarrassed change in the rhythm of his stride.
I opened and closed the door as quietly as I could, making sure to wipe off my fingerprints. There was nobody else to be seen in the dim light of the naked 15-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the corridor where the stairs were. The John was already headed down the stairs. He was in no hurry from the sound of it, but I tip-toed down the corridor as close to the wall as I could. That way I avoided those two squeaking boards in the floor, one about a quarter of the way to the stairs and one about two-thirds of the way.
When I got to the stairs, I heard voices. The John had run into somebody about two flights down.
"Your documents, please, comrade," said a voice that was clearly used to saying that and getting what it asked for.
"And bring your hand out of your jacket very slowly when you do," said a second voice that sounded more like it belonged to a cop than the first one did.
"Stasi!" said my consciousness.
"Sounds more like VoPos," I replied holding up my end of this mute conversation.
A little voice in the back of my head joined this silent discussion. It told me that going up might be a better idea than going down. As I recalled, this little voice had given me some good advice in the past, so I hugged the wall, and headed up, skipping step number five which could have had a great career in a haunted house, if it could have relocated itself there to take the job of groaning stair-step.
"My apologies, comrade colonel," said the first voice.
I was somewhat surprised that the John had turned out to be a colonel.
"Did comrade colonel notice anyone else moving about the building before he encountered us?" asked the second voice much less apologetically than the first.
"No, not a soul," said the colonel. "And at this hour, I'm not surprised."
I looked at my shock-resistant watch. The crystal was cracked. It had stopped at 01:18. The shock that had sent me to the floor had obviously been too much for it. There'd be time enough to find out what time it was later. Right now I just wanted to put as much distance as possible between me and voice number one and voice number two.
"Thank you, comrade colonel. I'll just make a note of your name for my report," said the second voice with an undisguised note of pleasure.
"You do, and you'll be walking a beat at a sewage treatment plant tomorrow night," said the colonel with an equally undisguised note of displeasure.
"I see your point, comrade colonel. We won't detain you any longer," said the second voice, undoubtedly recalling Engels' dictum that "Freedom is the recognition of necessity," which went a long way towards explaining a great number of things that happened on the eastern side of the sector border.
This little tête-à-tête lasted long enough that I managed to put a flight of stairs between me and the VoPos. By now even my consciousness agreed that they were VoPos. The colonel, however, I surmised, was probably Stasi.
The colonel's foot steps continued their echoing journey down the stairs, and the VoPos resumed their climb. From the sound of their footsteps they were tired. That was strange for cops in a country where you would think that the word for elevator is außer Betrieb (out of order), because that's the sign you always see hanging on 'em. Maybe it was a lot later than 01:18. Those were three-A.M. footsteps, if I ever heard any. I, on the other hand, was still on my adrenaline high. Nothing like the prospect of an East-German prison camp to raise your stress level.
Before I could resume my climb away from the VoPos, my consciousness chimed in with an insightful analysis of the situation. "It's strange that there should be VoPos here at oh-three-dark-early," said the faceless voice of dispassionate reason that resided in my head. "If they were going to raid the joint, they would have done it at 22:00 so that the reporters who came with them could have made the deadline for the morning edition. And there would have been more of them."
"When you put it that way, it sounds kind of fishy," I said.
"I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that they're here for Ilse … and you," said my consciousness.
"Makes sense. Let's see where they go," I replied silently. I climbed up on the first step of the next flight of stairs and hugged the wall, listening to the progress of the two cops coming up from below.
"What gets me is how the Stasi know that there is a dead body in 304," said the voice that belonged to the first cop.
"They've probably got the place bugged," said the second cop.
"Oh, so their bugs are so sensitive that they can hear when you've stopped breathing and pronounce you dead," said the first cop.
"No, they can hear the ruckus that leads up to you're being dead," shot back the second.
"No, I don't think that they've got the place bugged. I figure the Stasi put the dead body there and wants us to clean up their mess for them," continued the voice that obviously smoked too much.
"If it wasn't a bug, then how do they know that a guy named Dieter did it?"
Now that got my attention. 'Dieter' was my name on this side of the sector border. The Stasi were trying to pin the wrap for Ilse's murder on me. If it hadn't been for my hard head and that Stasi colonel playing "The Knocking Shoppe Waltz" next door, I'd probably have still been on the floor when these two guys walked into room 304.
"Like I said," continued the first cop, "something that they were working got out of hand, and now they want us to clean up after them."
"You can think what you want, but when we go into the room you'd better not say what you think. A comment like that could get us both into the slammer in Bautzen. You for saying it and me for not reporting you. When we get into that room everything I say will be by the book, and you'd better do the same," said the second cop, showing that, despite the early hour and his weary footsteps, he still had a lot of horse sense.
My consciousness and I had a hurried conference. This was one of those situations where there wasn't enough time for careful analysis and planning. Action was the name of the game, and hanging around here was clearly not a good idea. Taking off my shoes and scampering down the stairs like a mouse, however, was. From the way they talked I didn't think that these two cops had any back-up downstairs. I waited for my exit cue.
I could hear the cops walking down the corridor. They hit both the squeaky floorboards that you passed on the way to 304. Then there was a knock on the door.
"Volkspolizei. Open the door, please," said the second voice like he was reading from a radio-drama script, plainly playing it up for the bugs he imagined to be there.
They waited a minute. There was another knock and "open up." I didn't hear the door open--I'd oiled those hinges myself--but I did hear the light switch click on. It was one of those old bakelite jobs that made a real racket. That was my cue. I was down the stairs two at a time like a shot, making sure to skip step number five on the way. I was out the back door and two blocks away before I stopped to put on my shoes.