It was the tenth of November: the year doesn’t matter. It was one of those years of the primordial eon when Berlin was a walled city. It was not a traditional fortress, but rather one turned inside out. It was designed not to keep enemies out, but to keep citizens in.
We were crouched, freezing, on the side of a hill in the southern reaches of our half of the city. The hill was a manmade creation—a giant mound of rubble from when the allies bombed Berlin day and night. Over the years the rubble mountain was accepted into the environment and we, in our utilitarian way, had ringed it with barbed wire of our own and capped it with a massive listening post that reached out to the communications of the five Soviet armies that still occupied the German Democratic Republic.
The structures behind us, atop the hill, looked like something Mad Ludwig of Bavaria might have conjured up in one of his worst nightmares, It was the run-on sentence of architecture with sub-buildings scabbed onto main buildings creating layers that reached ever higher; all of them were surmounted with plastic domes of every size. The entire fantasy was webbed together with miles of co-ax cable and wire.
The place was on the absolute cutting edge of technology, but the sophisticated gathering of electronic intelligence was not for us. Our presence there was for a much more prosaic purpose. We were involved in the more gritty, more traditional occupation of finding and exploiting the rare souls that always exist in any population–the ones who would spy for the promise of escape, the love of liberty, a handful of Ostmarks, or merely for the perverted thrill of getting away with a double life.
By the time I came on the scene in Berlin, spying was a prominent industry in the divided city. We maintained a web of communications to the East—the place we called drüben. It meant ”over there” in German. We had visual observation posts where we could check for the physical signals set for us by our assets on the other side. We had an army of accommodation agents in the East who would observe for us, or carry money or papers, or even occasionally, medicine or weapons.
For our best sources—or for those we could recruit only by promising to get them out of the Worker’s Paradise at some future time—we had escape kits. They were completely personalized with identity papers, passes, disguises, and detailed instructions. These kits had to be maintained with a ferocious attention to detail. The East German authorities were absolutely fiendish in their changing of paper types, fonts, and general regulations. We had to stay current, or the escape kits would be so much worthless paper, or even a death warrant.
On this cold night in November we were engaged in that least favorite occupation of case officers—the emergency face-to-face debrief, better known to us as a “crash meeting.”
Often the motivation for a crash meeting is merely a bad attack of the willies for a source operating on the end of a very tenuous tether. When the willies come, the asset desperately needs the reassurance of human contact. Sometimes even a good source will manufacture a piece of false intelligence that sounds compelling just for the chance to have direct contact with a case officer.
You’ve seen, no doubt, the spy movie version of this meeting. The valiant case officer mounts up and rides clandestinely into enemy territory to meet with a source so stereotypical that any self-respecting law enforcement official of any country would arrest him or her on sight. The venue is inevitably a dive bar of uncertain provenance and the face-to-face meeting is usually a trap.
The real world is not so clearcut. There must be a certain amount of trust between handler and asset, and that trust is strained when the asset sets the signal requesting a crash meeting.
At worst, the asset simply wants to come out. They know about their escape kits and when strain and fear reach a crescendo they want to be exfiltrated. To fulfill their wish, however, means throwing away years, sometimes decades’ worth of work and burning a valuable penetration. The term “hard hearted empath” was coined exactly to describe the role a case officer must play when his asset reaches out.
Servicing the request for a face-to-face is inherently stressful. Crossing over into the East— drüben— was not on the menu for case officers who wanted to continue their careers. Kidnappings by the opposition happened very rarely, but their rarity was a direct result of our resistance to crossing over. A meeting in the East was a fool’s game. If you didn’t end up sitting somewhere in the basements of the Lubyanka, you would certainly end up strapped to a polygraph somewhere back in the States attended by a guy whose only hope of promotion was to break you and make you admit some nefarious purpose for crossing the line.
We almost never went across to carry out a face-to-face debrief. We occasionally brought an asset into the Zone across one of Berlin’s pedestrian crossings that allowed limited transits between East and West. Even more rarely we used a vehicle tricked out with a person-sized concealment device and some sort of immunity from search at the crossing points.
All of these methods made us crazy with anxiety. We had to get the asset out and calmed down, find out what was needed or what there was to report, and then we had blow some sunshine up his skirt, or hers, and make the movement back across the Wall expeditiously enough avoid a curfew. While we did all that, we also had to avoid notice by the army of Stasi informers.
Sometimes we could avoid the worst problems of the face-to-face. On this freezing night we were using one of the less risky methods. On the other side of the Wall a couple hundred feet away from our vantage point was a public telephone box. In the West, that telephone kiosk would have been brightly lighted with the enigmatic slogan of the Bundespost, “ruf doch mal an”—we always figured it was the equivalent of “reach out and touch someone.” The kiosk we watched had no light at all, and furthermore it was perpetually out of order—at least as far as the citizens of the DDR were concerned. By a freak of bad planning, in their haste to finish the Wall, the Easties had left that telephone booth connected to the city telephone service that was in the walled-in West. All we had to do was dial the telephone number and presto, instant, interception-free communications. How we discovered it is lost in antiquity. I suppose there may have been many other orphaned telephones, but that is the only one I ever knew about or used.
We had badges that gave us passage through the barbed wire at the site. When we presented them, the young G.I. at the guard desk looked at us as if we might be extraterrestrials and made a furtive motion for us to come inside. I think they passed around stories about who we were and what we did out there in the shack, but they would never discuss them with us.
Our post was a knocked-together structure just inside the site’s perimeter fence. No heat and no lights. We had a telephone handset and two pairs of fine night vision binoculars. We used hooded flashlights only under duress. We had to assume that the Volkspolizei or worse yet the Stasi knew about our little operation, so showing activity might summon all the wrong kinds of response.
It was black dark by four in the afternoon and, as I recall, curfew was at maybe nine p.m., so we were golden. We had signaled for a meeting at eighteen-thirty. We got to our observation post about an hour early and settled in to freeze.
Time passes slowly in such jobs. Ice crystals were already beginning to grow in the corners of the wide expanse of glass that faced the Wall. We slumped on opposite ends of the window and spoke only in monosyllables. There was no activity on the other side. There was a small village perhaps five hundred feet away. We could see a few scattered lighted windows and some gray-blue squares of televisions behind dingy lace curtains that might have been there since the war.
i said to Pete, “what are they watching? Herr Comrade Ulbricht?”
He looked up from the binoculars, “Looks like Dynasty to me,” he grunted, “I think I see that big-shouldered blonde, what’s ‘er name, uh, Krystle?”
West German television signals spilled across the Wall, and there was nothing the Workers’ Paradise could do to stop it. The Germans called Dynasty “Der Denver Klan,” and they were as mad for it and for all the other adult prime time soap operas as anyone from Peoria. We were asked, “who shot J.R.?” several times by assets from the other side. It was probably verboten, but they followed the stories almost religiously. We always wondered about the experience of crouching next to a coal-burning stove in a, shabby flat in Teltow or Potsdam watching the wretched excess of The Carringtons or the Ewings, or the street scenes from Miami Vice. It must have seemed like watching life on another planet.
Just then, off to the right, I saw movement. “Head’s up. Something’s happening.”
At first it was just a ripple; something that caught my eye, perhaps an errant reflection, but soon I could see a procession of bobbing lights. They were low to the ground and strung out in a long, wavering line. They kept appearing till there might have been twenty or more “What the hell?”
Pete slid out through the opening we used as a door, it was as cold inside as out and he probably thought he was seeing reflections on the glass. “It’s candles. Like little lanterns, I think.”
I joined him and then I could hear the singing, the piping tones of little voices. “I know what it is. It’s the tenth of November, isn’t it? This is the eve celebration.”
“Yeah,” Pete nodded, “why? Do they celebrate Armistice day?”
“It’s Martinsmas, the eve of St. Martin’s Day. The little kids have these parades and then they go get candy and stuff.”
“A saint? In the East?”
“Yeah, I know, but I guess they can’t take everything away. Tomorrow you’ll smell roast goose everywhere—Martinsgans they call it.”
The lights disappeared from our view. “I doubt our guy is going to show up, there’ll be people out walking all around these villages.”
Just then there was the unmistakable sound of a heavy machine-gun. It fired a ten-round burst, then another, and then maybe fifty rounds coughed out into the darkness.
I felt a ball of ice form in my stomach. They killed those little kids? Did they walk into an ambush set for our guy?
We both hustled back across the rocky space to the guard post. Inside, the army corporal was engaged in quickly turning a Playboy magazine back to the portrait position. “Did you hear that?”
“Oh, yeah, uh, yessir.”
“We think they shot some little kids.”
He got a puzzled expression on his face. “Who?”
“Well, the East Germans, I guess, or maybe there’s a Soviet unit over there.”
‘No,” he shook his head, “that’s our gun. They test it every Wednesday at six. There’s a range just on the other side of the hill.”
We went back to our post and finally we talked to our asset. Through the night glasses we could see him gesticulating in the darkness. The telephone connection was perfect. The piece of information he was desperate to impart was something we knew already, as those things usually are, but we got him calmed down, and spun up to go back and do his duties. We reminded him to follow his counter-surveillance procedures and we signed him off with the promise that he was going to get a bonus paid into the account we maintained for him in the West.
We gathered our stuff and Pete said, “you know what? I am craving roast goose, whattya think?”
“I think we can get it at Soldat Shweik, just off the KuDamm.”
I hope the asset we worked that night got to have his Martinsgans the next day. He didn’t make it till Christmas.