Looking back on Fiction: The latest serial

My recent serial, ‘Russian Sector’ concluded yesterday. Later this week, I will compile all 27 parts into one story, for those who prefer to read it all at once.

This was my first attempt at ‘Historical Fiction’, albeit modern history, from 1945-1990.

Choosing that genre came with its own challenges. Research is critical, making sure that dates and places are accurate, names are valid, and events around the characters actually happened.

Trying to put myself into the mind of someone born in 1935, seeing the fall of Berlin ten years later, then growing up under a Socialist regime in the former East Germany, that was a challenge too. When we write characters, we sometimes include a little of ourselves in one or more of them. Whether we do this deliberately or subconsciously, it does happen. However, this could not be allowed in an historical context, so I had to re-think how I would approach it.

The real-life aspects of much of the story also meant that I could not inject the twists that are usually so much a part of any story I write.

Despite all this, I am happy to report that this was actually my most widely read/viewed serial so far. It enjoyed a regular daily view in excess of 80, sometimes higher, and engagement in the comments was very satisfying indeed. And it has encouraged me to experiment with genres outside of my usual comfort zone in the future.

As always, my thanks to everyone who read the serial, left a comment, and shared on other platforms.

Best wishes to everyone, Pete.

Russian Sector: Part Twenty-Seven

This is the final part of a fiction serial, in 1140 words.

Berlin, 1987.

For eight years, I sat in the basement office of Closed Files. I was reminded about the warning that I would end up pushing papers around in a basement, and that was what I was doing. I settled for knowing that Inge was alive and well in Hamburg, although we could never get in touch. I was fifty-two years old, and tired.

To my credit, I did help Maria during her last year before the cancer came back and took her. I helped where I could and even though my influence had diminished beyond recognition, I was still able to get access to good food and some luxuries for her. I felt older than my years, lonely, and depressed. The evenings in my apartment seemed too long, and I was going to bed earlier and earlier, trying to forget as much as I could.

As advised, I kept my head down and mouth shut, and never heard from Colonel Meyer again.
And then I heard that Nagel was dead.

It was one of those things that you couldn’t imagine. He had been hit by a truck as he left his own car and ran across to his house. Apparently, his wife had been standing in the doorway and had seen him knocked down. The driver involved was terrified, but it was judged to be an accident. Colonel Nagel, the man so feared in the Stasi, had been a victim of his own impatience to get home for his dinner.

As you might imagine, I saw that as very good news indeed.

I didn’t wait long before I tried to get out of Closed Files, and back to something that might be remotely stimulating. But my disappointment was immediate, when I was advised to apply for nothing, and to continue to sit quietly in the basement. Inge’s defection had not been forgotten, and my age was also against me. I went to a bar after work that night, and had far too much vodka to drink. At least six years to go until retirement, no prospect of transfer or promotion, and having to spend my days sitting with a bunch of prune-faced middle-aged women who had no conversation about anything.

I was beginning to wish I had left with Inge that night.

Berlin, 1989.

By the time of my fifty-fourth birthday, I was so bored, I thought I might go insane.

But things were changing.

Poland had changed. Hungary had changed. The Soviets had lost their hold over the Eastern Bloc allies, and events were spiralling out of control. By the autumn, there had been so many demonstrations in Berlin, that the government tried to calm things down by allowing people to visit the West once again. Naturally, I was no longer involved in policing or investigating any of this unrest. By the end of November, we had already received instructions to begin shredding the Closed Files. That was a huge task, and one that I suspected would take many years.

Walking home from work, I was amazed to see people on The Wall. Some were painting slogans on it, others chipping away pieces as souvenirs. The guards did nothing to intervene, and there was a strange party atmosphere on many streets. By the end of the year, it was obvious that the change was coming. I carried on going to work, and watched as my staff shredded files. As there were so many, trucks arrived to take them away for incineration too.

Familiar faces began to disappear. As the spread of peaceful protest widened, those who had seen the writing on the wall began to bail out. Like rats leaving a sinking ship, they did what they could to get out of the country during the time that restrictions were relaxed.

The mood in the city was different too. I wandered around warily, expecting to be recognised and denounced at any moment. The balance of power had shifted, and ordinary people were no longer afraid. Being a Stasi officer was soon going to put me at a distinct disadvantage, after all these years of privilege. The circle had undoubtedly turned. I knew instinctively that I would not be able to count on my colleagues. Many uniformed officers had already started to wear plain clothes, and the tension was visible in the faces of everyone at headquarters.

Berlin, 1990.

When I turned up for work that morning, there were crowds of civilians outside. Many were scattering our secret files around, and congratulating themselves on having gained access to the building the previous night. I stopped short of going in, and realised that it was all over. I no longer had a job to go to, or others to work alongside. I had spent my working life in an institution that to all intents and purposes no longer existed.

I walked back to my apartment, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

In the bedroom, I had a few hundred West German marks, acquired from my previous job. There was very little that I had any attraction to in my apartment, save for some clothes, and my journals. Maria was gone, and I had no connection to anyone left in the East. I hadn’t turned up for work, but nobody seemed to care anymore. Time to face facts. My pension was gone. All those years counted for nothing. I had thousands of potential enemies, and not a friend in the world.

The Wall was as good as gone, and the Brandenburg Gate open to anyone who wanted to drive or walk through it. The German Democratic Republic was no more.

I thought of Mama. Her hard struggle to make things work. Her legacy that had eventually saved both Inge and myself. Memories of Grigiry, and the surprising news that Colonel Meyer had been her secret lover. She had worked so hard to secure a future for us in the DDR, and I imagined that she would be turning in her grave to see how readily the population had embraced the opportunity to become part of the West again.

I feared for our people, imagining that they would be marginalised in the West, and find life far more difficult than they might imagine. But it was too late. History had caught up with us, and our system was no more. I accepted that, and faced the change with a sense of foreboding.

I have enough western money to get to Hamburg, and find Inge. I am hoping that she will still be happy with Anna, and have a good life.
I will soon find out.

So, I leave these journals on the table in my apartment. I hope that someone will read them one day.

And I hope that they will understand how things were.

The End.

Russian Sector: Part Twenty-Six

This is the twenty-sixth part of a fiction serial, in 1710 words.

Berlin, 1978.

The short school holiday meant that Inge and Anna were not missed until the first week of the new year, when they should have both reported for work. The school authorities at both locations followed the usual procedure after they did not turn up the second day. Someone went to Inge’s apartment and could get no answer, so reported her missing. Entry was forced, and when nobody was discovered inside, Anna was reported missing too. The civilian police submitted a report, which was flagged up for the attention of the Stasi. Anna was on their radar for the allegation made by her husband, and Inge because she was my sister. Very soon, the report landed on the desk of Colonel Nagel.

When I was called to see him, I still didn’t know for sure that they had both got away safely. I had checked the arrest reports regularly, and saw no sign of either their real names, or the ones on the fake papers I had supplied. As I sat outside Nagel’s office, I was calm and collected. He either had something on me, or he didn’t. I was ready for whatever happened.

He didn’t beat around the bush. “I take it you know your sister and her girlfriend have disappeared, Kraus? Tell me, what do you have to say about that?” I raised an eyebrow. “Disappeared, Colonel? I had no idea. Just lately, I have been too busy with work to contact Inge. I spent a lot of time at the end of last year setting up a new circle of agents to infiltrate the West, and there was no time for any family meetings”. He sat back and sighed. “Just tell me where they have gone. It will help you, I promise”. As I didn’t have a clue where they had gone, I didn’t have to lie. Perhaps that made my reply convincing. “I have no idea where she is, Colonel. My sister is a grown woman, and doesn’t account to me for her actions, or her whereabouts”.

Nagel looked as if he was about to bite through his lip, he was so furious. But he kept his temper. After all, he could hardly have me arrested because my adult sister had fled the country, no matter how much he would have liked to. I had never feared arrest. He would get his revenge by other means, I knew that. And he wouldn’t wait too long before doing so. “Very well, Captain. I suspected you would play dumb. To be honest, I don’t blame you. But however your sister managed to travel, and whoever helped her do that, you are still here. You are the one who must face the repercussions of her actions. I am sure you know that all too well. You do, don’t you?” I shrugged. “You have to do whatever you have to do, Colonel. It’s beyond my control”.

The waiting was the worst thing. I carried on with my job, wondering when the hammer would fall. Still unable to hear anything about Inge and Anna, or to make any contact with them, or those who had organised the escape, I went through the motions. It seemed unbelievable that I was just allowed to carry on regardless, and when it ran into months, I began to really wonder what was going on.

Then one day, Inge appeared on television in the West. She was being interviewed in Hamburg, and asked questions about her defection. She stuck to what we had discussed. Her brother was a Stasi Captain, and she was being persecuted in her job. We had access to the Western broadcasts, and I was soon told about it. I was happy. At least she was safe, though there was no sign of Anna, and no mention of her name. But I also knew that I was finished now, and waited for the call that would come any day.

It came the same day.

As I was leaving work, I was approached by a man I didn’t know. “You have to come with me, Captain. I have to take you to see Colonel Meyer. Are you going to come voluntarily?” I smiled at the man. “Of course, I have always wanted to meet him”. Colonel Meyer was almost a mythical figure. His name was mentioned in the same way that children are told about monsters under the bed, or the bogeyman. I had never met anyone who had seen him, though everyone seemed to fear him. In theory, he was the head of a department that nobody knew existed. The secret police who went beyond the remit of the Stasi. They really were secret. So much so, that I didn’t know anyone who had ever met one. For most of my career, I had considered that they might not exist, a mere invention to make sure we did our jobs.

It seemed that now I was about to find out I had been wrong.

He drove me in silence, a short distance across the city. When the car stopped outside a modest-looking house, he left the engine running. Turning to me in the back, he nodded at the door. “They’re waiting for you inside”. I walked the few steps from the car wondering if this would be the last walk I might ever take, and the door opened before I could knock on it. A bored-looking man in plain clothes pointed to a door at the end of the short hallway, and jerked his head. From the attitude of both of them, I had already gathered that they had no concern for my own rank or reputation.

Inside the door was a normal family kitchen. Colonel Meyer was a surprisingly old man, sitting at the dining table like a well-dressed grandpa. I guessed he was at least seventy, probably older. But when he spoke, it was with the voice of someone much younger; forceful, polite, and with perfect diction. “Please sit down, Captain. And don’t look so worried. There is no firing squad in the back yard”. He chuckled softly at his own remark as I slid out a chair, then he reached down and removed a thick file from a briefcase resting against the table leg. I saw my name on the front of it. Tapping the file with the arm of his spectacles, he shook his head. “I have to say I’m surprised. I read your file carefully. You have done exceedingly well, never put a foot wrong. You had a great career ahead, and would easily have made the rank of Colonel within the next few years”. I sat still, and said nothing.

“No doubt you are going to say that you had no idea your sister intended to leave our wonderful country. You didn’t see that much of her, and she was not about to tell you about her escape plans. She must have been a resourceful woman indeed. My information is that her and her friend were smuggled out posing as agents. Agents arranged by you, and your department. But you are going to say you know nothing about that, aren’t you?” I kept silent, and stared into his small blue eyes. I wanted him to keep talking, to find out what he knew before I made any reply. He was right about one thing though, I wasn’t about to confess.

The next thing he said made me want to fall out of the chair, but I kept quiet.

“I am sure that your mother must have told you about me. You can thank my fondness for her that you are not sitting in an interrogation room now, with a couple of heavies rolling up their sleeves about to beat the truth out of you”.
I swallowed hard, and tried to think fast. Of course, my mother had never mentioned his name. She had never mentioned any man’s name in that sense. But now those late meetings and overnight visits were beginning to make sense. I played the only hand I was holding, and secretly thanked him for dealing it.

“My mother may have mentioned someone, Colonel Meyer. But I could easily forget the name of that person. It was a long time ago, after all”. I sat back, considering his reaction. No wonder Mama had done so well. She had risen up the ranks in the Party, and appeared on more organising committees than you could shake a stick at. She had jumped the queue to get our new apartment, and Inge had been chosen to train in Russia. It was all falling into place.

She had been looking out for us, all that time ago, and Meyer had been the man who had made it all happen.

He placed the file back in the briefcase, and turned to me with a smile. “This is what is going to happen, Manfred. You are finished in Internal Affairs, I can do nothing about that. Nagel is after you, so I would be wary of him. I can let you keep your rank, but you can have no influence, no active role, and certainly no access to any important decisions, including foreign agents, or who to arrest. Your reputation has been tarnished by your sister’s actions, and it can never recover. Do you see that? I sincerely hope you do”. I nodded.

“So I have had to intervene, and find you a job. It is going to be a very boring job, I warn you now. But if I were you, I would just go and do it, say nothing, and keep your head down. You will be the Captain in charge of closed files. The staff will deal with the filing, all you have to do is sign the file to confirm that it is closed, and just turn up for work from Monday to Friday, between eight and four. And this is the last thing I will ever be able to do for you, is that clear”.

He closed his briefcase, and put his spectacles back on. I guessed the meeting was over, so I stood up. “Thank you, Colonel Meyer”.

Outside, the car had gone.

I didn’t mind the long walk home. I was still alive.

Russian Sector: Part Twenty-Five

This is the twenty-fifth part of a fiction serial, in 1183 words.

Berlin, 1977.

For the next five years, I became obsessed with getting my sister and Anna out of the country. As I suspected, life was made increasingly difficult for them. First of all, Anna was transferred to another school some distance away. That involved her taking various buses and trams to get to and from work, arriving home to Inge tired, stressed, and exhausted. Then Anna applied for promotion, and was turned down flat. Even worse, she was advised not to apply in future, though no reason was given.

Nagel had not been amused when I had gone to see him and told him that Pressler had withdrawn the complaint. I knew full well he would keep it on file, in the same way as I had no intention of disposing of the man’s record of visiting prostitutes. We didn’t ever do things like that in the Stasi. Once it went down on paper, it stayed there forever. Wilhelm Pressler didn’t escape Nagel’s revenge either. I found out later that he had been demoted at work, and was now making the buckets, instead of supervising others. His Party membership had counted for nothing once he had crossed Nagel.

Inge never wavered though. If anything, the problems made her all the more determined to stay with Anna. And she never once asked for my help, but I knew I had to do something.

My position was no longer so secure. I had a determined enemy in my own organisation, and I was already forty-two years old. And my domestic situation took a downward turn when Maria was diagnosed with breast cancer. I also found out that she was fifty-eight years old. I had always known she was older, perhaps fifty, but I was rather shocked to learn her real age. She had to go into hospital and have a breast removed. I did what I could for her afterwards, but I went to see her less. Even now, I am ashamed of myself for that, but not only did the surgery make me feel uncomfortable, I was consumed with plotting to help my sister.

By the autumn, I concluded that I had little to lose. Inge had to come first.

The meeting was arranged in a cinema. The three of us entered separately, and left through a side exit not long after the film started. I stood in the alley behind, outlining my plan to them. They both agreed immediately, even Anna, who was normally so fearful. I warned them to be ready to move at a moment’s notice, and left to start work on what needed to be done.

One good thing about my job was that I knew every possible way to get out of the country, and into the West. I was actually tasked with placing agents in foreign countries, and had access to forgers, photographers, and both suspects and collaborators in the underground networks. I could look at any file, no matter how secret, and interview anyone with no questions asked.

At work that Monday, I began to set up a new network of infiltrators. Taking some from a list we already had, I added the photos of Inge and Anna from their files, and gave them both false names. They would be part of the new team to be planted in the West, and it would all appear to be completely official. Naturally, I knew that once they both disappeared, it would all come down on my head, but I was past caring as long as Inge had some sort of future.

I went to see one of the forgers on our payroll, and got him to make identity cards and new passports for the seven names I gave him. Included in that seven were Inge and Anna of course. To avoid suspicion, I set up a new file for the group, and assigned Bauer various tasks supposedly connected to it. I could keep it away from Nagel, as he had no remit for operations outside of East Germany. And I tried to put the potential repercussions out of my mind, so I was able to concentrate.

Making a simple mistake wasn’t an option.

Two weeks later, I met my sister in the park, supposedly having an innocent coffee together. I slipped her the documents, and warned her to have small suitcases ready. I would only be able to get them one hundred West German marks each, and once away, they would have to throw themselves on the mercy of their new country. I told Inge to readily claim to be a defector, and Anna too. I also told her to use the fact that her brother was a Captain in the Stasi. “They will like that, Inge. It should help you. But it will also mean some suspicion. Better to tell them straight away, rather than have them find out later”.

She was tearful, and squeezed my hand. “But Manfred, when will we ever see each other again?” I told her not to worry about that, and made her promise not to change her mind. “I have already set the wheels in motion, Inge. You cannot back out now, you know that”. She nodded, and as I walked her home, we said no more.

One good thing about my decision was that it made me feel calm, for the first time in years. I called in some suspects, and offered them a deal. if they would get my women out through their network, I would turn a blind eye to any others who escaped at the same time. I might also conveniently forget a few names I had heard. They were remarkably unimpressed, and reluctant to cooperate at first. I knew they suspected a trap, and had to make the irrevocable choice of telling them the truth. “Two of those women are my relatives. This is personal, so I can assure you that this is not a trap”. I was still not sure they believed me, but they agreed. After all, I could just as easily have thrown them in jail to rot, with no evidence of what they were up to save for being denounced by someone I had invented.

The whole thing gave me the shivers. If any of them were caught before Inge got out, I would be named, and everything would fall apart.

On a freezing cold evening close to the end of the year, some of my operatives took a van containing the seven women to the agreed place. I had arranged to be somewhere else, with some witnesses. I had invited myself to Bauer’s house, to have dinner with him and his wife. They would be able to vouch for my whereabouts the whole evening. But my heart was heavy. I had no chance to bid farewell to my beloved sister, and I knew that by tomorrow morning, she would be in a place where I would never be able to contact her again, let alone see her.

I got home before midnight, but I was unable to sleep.

Russian Sector: Part Twenty-Four

This is the twenty-fourth part of a fiction serial, in 1680 words.

Berlin, 1972.

I left it until the following weekend to go and see Inge. No point visiting her and Anna when they were both at work, and I certainly didn’t want to set tongues wagging by turning up in my car with Bauer.

To her credit, Inge made no attempt to conceal what was going on. She sat on the tiny sofa with Anna standing next to her, holding her hand. They were both still in their dressing gowns, and from the look on Anna’s face when I arrived, I guessed that I had interrupted something. I didn’t mince my words.

“They have a file on you, Inge. Photos, a complaint from Herr Pressler, and for all I know there could well be a microphone hidden in this flat. Even me coming here to discuss it with you will probably be monitored, so you have to tell me what you want to do”. I hadn’t seen Inge for a few weeks. She had filled out, and had some colour in her face. She looked something like the little girl I once knew. There was no mistaking that Anna was good for her. I put a finger to my lips to silence her as she started to speak. Adopting a cheerful tone, I spoke with a smile.

“Why don’t we go out for coffee and cake? That would be nice”. I nodded as I spoke, leaving her in no doubt that we had to get out of her apartment.

They went into the bedroom and dressed hurriedly, not bothering with any make-up or smart clothes. I walked between them not saying a word until we got to the small park nearby. I knew that the Stasi used lip readers, and often filmed conversations. I chose an outside table away from the counter, and at the side of the building. Anyone watching us would have had to show themselves to see our faces. When I had finished looking around, I nodded to my sister that it was safe to speak.

“Manfred, Anna and I are in love. It just happened over time, at work. Neither of us planned it, or even realised it was happening. She is not happy with her husband. He drinks too much, and is mean to her. She won’t go back to him, no matter how many times he complains. We are going to be together, whatever anyone says or does”. I looked across at Anna. She looked terrified, but her plain features softened when I spoke.

“You can stay living together, but you must try not to be so obvious. No hand-holding, or public affection. If anyone asks, you are giving Anna a place to stay. She should be registered at your address, and you must get a separate bed in the living room, so there can be no allegation that you share the same one in your bedroom. If you are interviewed by anyone else, you stick to the story that you are just friendly work colleagues. I will go and see Anna’s husband and warn him off. But you must promise me not to give anyone cause for gossip or suspicion in public. Can you do that?” Inge nodded, obviously unhappy about it, but with little choice in the matter. I carried on, looking at Anna this time.

“You do realise that your career is over, Anna? You will be lucky to keep the job you have now, and promotion will never happen. The same applies to Inge. You have both made a decision from which there is no going back. Are you certain? I need to know, because my sister’s happiness is important to me. Without sounding harsh, I don’t care what happens to you, but now you have involved my sister, and that has involved me. So you cannot suddenly change your mind. That is no longer a luxury”. She kept my gaze, and straightened up. “I love your sister, Herr Kraus. As long as we can be together, I don’t care what happens with my job. I am sorry if this has got you in trouble, I really am”.

I took a small notebook and pen from my coat pocket, and slid it across the table. “Too late for sorry, I’m afraid. My job now is to try to salvage something, and hope that you stop being of interest to the authorities. Write down your previous address, your husband’s full name and place of work. I will do my best to get him to withdraw the complaint, but I cannot promise to be successful. I put some money on the table and stood up. Inge jumped up and hugged me, whispering in my ear. “Thank you, darling Manfred”.

My decision was to tackle Wilhelm Pressler at his place of work, so I waited until Monday. Before leaving the office, I went down to check on the microphone authorisations in the records office, and was relieved to find that Inge’s name and address were not listed. Then I checked on Wilhelm Pressler. He was a Party member, and had never been in trouble. But he was noted by survelliance for frequently visiting prostitutes, many of whom were in our employ. That was something, but I would have liked more.

Bauer drove East across the city, to an industrial area in the suburbs. Pressler worked as an office manager for a small company making metal objects like buckets and pans. It was very noisy inside, and as I walked along the production line followed by Bauer, the people working on the machines eyed us nervously. In his small office, I flashed my badge quickly, not wanting him to see my name. He seemed happy to see me, and offered me a chair. I casually turned to Bauer. “You can wait in the car, Sergeant. I will deal with this”,

Once Bauer was out of earshot, I sat down and took a look at this man. I often wondered how some couples got together, and when I saw them on the street, I found it hard to believe that they had settled for each other. Pressler was no exception. Slim, smart, with thick hair slicked back, he looked nothing at all like the husband of someone so plain and dowdy like Anna. I knew he was the same age as his wife, but he looked at least ten years younger. He offered me a cigarette, and I shook my head. “So, I presume you have come about my complaint? The lesbian bitch who has stolen my wife.” He was beyond confident, even cocky.

I disliked him immediately, and let him know from my tone.

“Your wife has been interviewed. She tells us you have been unfaithful, and that you drink too much. You are also unkind to her. If this is the case, then may I ask why you are so concerned that she has left you?” He leaned across the desk, lowering his voice in a conspiratorial tone. “You know how it is, I’m sure. I couldn’t care less about the dumpy cow. I only married her because she was pregnant, then she lost the baby. But I’ll be damned if I will let myself be humiliated by her going off with a woman, and a younger one at that. If she wants to go, she can go with my blessing. But not to go and cuddle up to another woman. I’m not having that”.

When he leaned back, I opened my notebook. The page was blank, but he couldn’t see that. “Our report states that the young colleague is merely giving her a place to stay. They are good friends perhaps, but we have no evidence of anything inappropriate. Your wife has a bed in the living room, and they live together as friends until your marital situation is resolved one way or the other. It seems straightforward to me”. He was shaking his head before I finished speaking. “No, that’s not it. They are lovers. I have seen them walking hand in hand in the park, staring into each other’s eyes. believe me sir, I know what’s going on”. I looked blankly at him. “Your suspicions are one thing, but evidence is another matter. And we have none”. I flicked onto the second blank page in the notebook, and shook my head slowly.

“However, we do have evidence that you regularly visit prostitutes. Some of those women are believed to be agents of the West, or associated with conspirators here. What do you have to say about that?” His cockiness vanished in a heartbeat. “Sir, a man has needs. Have you seen my wife? I can tell you she doesn’t satisfy me. I can’t even get excited by looking at her, let alone the thought of doing anything with her. The girls I visit are not spies, I assure you. I’m a Party member, I would know”.

I closed the notebook. “I assure you you wouldn’t know which girls were doing what. If you continue with this complaint, then the evidence of your associations will have to be considered, and further investigations will be forthcoming. Why don’t you just accept that your wife has left you, and move on? You can get divorced in time, and start a new life with no black mark against your character. I can arrange for your records to disappear. As a loyal Party member, that’s the least I can do for you”.

He lit another cigarette, and I was trying to look unconcerned, though I was worried that my bluff might be called. He suddenly stood up, and extended his hand. “You’re a good man for doing that, put it there”. As I shook his hand, he smiled. “Let’s forget the complaint. Tell them I withdraw it. Tear it up. Anna can do what she wants, for all I care”. I wasn’t gloating as I left his office and walked back to the car.

I had managed to save my sister for now, but I knew it wouldn’t go away.

Russian Sector: Part Twenty-Three

This is the twenty-third part of a fiction serial, in 1360 words.

Berlin, 1972.

The new job as Captain was confirmed after less than a month. I took my cue from Graf, and adopted his style. I had more people under surveillance than during his time, and listening to the secret microphones and phone taps was bringing in lots of names that were new to us. Rather than keep rounding everyone up, I advocated the use of informers and infiltrators. Remembering my own experience with Mona, we made good use of attractive women, often using them to have affairs with married officers we suspected of being disloyal. In a few cases, some of our agents even married the suspects, finding that once they were trusted as a wife, the real secrets began to be divulged.

Very soon, we were able to have a good idea just who was involved in any suspicious activity, as well as knowing all their contacts. This led to quite a few shocks. Very senior officers, important local government officials, even senior Party organisers. Some evenings I would sit alone in my office wondering if anyone was actually who we thought they were. There were occasional high-profile defectors too. Sports stars, famous writers or actors, all seemed to be taking any opportunity of travelling abroad to suddenly disappear.

After a high-profile meeting, we changed our policy. Rather than wait for these individuals to appear on western television celebrating supposed escapes, we started to expel them from East Germany. They were labelled undesirables, and it wasn’t unknown for some trumped-up charges to precede their expulsion. For most of them, life in the West was far from what they had expected. The fame or reputation they had enjoyed in their home country rarely followed them into their new life, and some became disillusioned very rapidly.

Some of those expelled were our own agents, who went to the West with a cover story, but were actually going to spy for us voluntarily. This proved very useful, resulting in the downfall of some senior West German politicians, and many other officials being implicated in scandals and disgraced.

Yet even after all those years, and all that work, escapes were still commonplace, and every so often someone would still be killed by the guards as they tried to cross the border. So we tightened the screws more than ever, letting people know just how closely they were monitored. At one meeting, it was proposed to put an informant into every apartment block and shared house, and the cost of paying these people was approved. It wasn’t long before I read the staggering statistic that we had one agent or paid informant for every six people in the republic. We had exceeded the control exerted by the Nazis, and made them look like amateurs.

Naturally, my bosses were very proud of this fact, and news that dissent was on the rise in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary was scoffed at. It was never once imagined that we could have such problems. Despite the popular uprising in Prague in 1968, there was nothing remotely similar here, and life went on much as normal. But unknown to us in our Stasi bubble, the economy of the country was collapsing; crippled by debts, bad management, and lack of exports earning foreign currency. Finance was never on our minds. We did our job, and it cost what it cost. No request for resources was ever denied, and we continued to grow our numbers of double agents and other operatives with never a question asked.

Home life for me had not changed at all. The same apartment, regular visits to Maria, and checking in on Inge when I could. It never even occurred to me that I had no social life to speak of, as work took up too much of my time to worry about that. I was thirty-seven years old, relatively secure in my job, as much as any of us could be, and the war seemed like a memory. I wouldn’t say it out loud, but I was lonely.

I was also feared.

I guessed that my position would come with that, but I wasn’t really ready for the daily implications of it, once I became in charge of the department. I now had a driver, one I had chosen myself, after much investigation. Sergeant Bauer had served in the Army in 1946, and entered the Stasi after five years as a soldier. He was a little older than me, and was married to a woman who worked for the youth programme, the Free German Youth. Their credentials were impeccable, but I never opened up to him.

After all this time, I still trusted nobody except Inge.

It was obvious that he was afraid of me. He rarely spoke unless to reply, and jumped whenever I entered a room. He didn’t speak about his wife, or her job, and never mentioned doing anything outside of work. I was rather torn. Like most people, I wanted to be liked. After all, I had never tortured anyone, had only ever shot anyone in the line of duty, and I didn’t even participate in any of the tougher interrogations that went on. That was covered by another department. In many ways, I couldn’t understand why anyone could be afraid of Manfred, who had once been a schoolboy who looked after his mother and sister.

The other side of me rather relished that fear. It came with the job, and had to be maintained. Weakness was not allowed, and with any show of weakness came suspicion. Once a suspect, however small the suspicion, life could change in a heartbeat. I worked for the Stasi who policed the Stasi. But it was well-known in our circles that there was another department whose job was to police us. And probably yet another that policed them. Our organised paranoia was on an industrial scale, unheard of in the history of mankind.

I wasn’t about to let myself get entangled by doing anything that could be construed as weak or ineffective, that was for sure.

Just when I thought things had calmed down into a manageable routine, I was ordered to report to Colonel Nagel’s office.

Although I was now a Captain, and a relatively important figure, Nagel still treated me as if I was Teller’s driver. I would dearly have loved to have got something on him, but he had resisted all my attempts to plant an informer into his social life, and the secret recordings in his office and of telephone conversations had yielded nothing of interest. It seemed the man was whiter than white. He sat with his arms folded, and nodded at a file on his desk.

“Have a look at that, Kraus, and tell me what you have to say about it”.

I flipped open the file, and the colour drained from my face. It contained photos of Inge, with another woman. Nothing explicit, but they were holding hands in the park, then sitting on a bench, with Inge’s head on the older woman’s shoulder. More photos showed her walking into her apartment with the woman, then leaving the next morning together. It could all have been so innocent, if it wasn’t for the look on both their faces. I wasn’t about to let Nagel see I was bothered.

“So my sister has a friend. So what? She’s allowed to have a friend, isn’t she? Nagel grinned, and I knew he had something up his sleeve.

“Her name is Anna Pressler. She is the senior teacher at your sister’s school. Last month, she left her husband and moved into your sister’s apartment. She is forty-four years old, Kraus, and her husband has made a complaint that your sister has seduced his wife into an unnatural relationship. It doesn’t look good”. I shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. “No doubt she was unhappy with her husband, Colonel. My sister is a kind girl, she probably offered to let her stay while she sorts out her problems”. Nagel bit his lip, and I realised that was all he had. I closed the file.

“Leave it with me, Colonel. I will go and speak to her”.

Russian Sector: Part Twenty-Two

This is the twenty-second part of a fiction serial, in 1100 words.

Berlin, 1965.

As I approached my thirtieth birthday, I was wondering where the last years had gone. Inge would soon be twenty-six, and was firmly established as a teacher. But she had never had a boyfriend, and when I spoke to her of loneliness and marriage, she told me that she could never trust a man as long as she lived. I felt sad for her, but she assured me that her life was good. I used my position to get her a few luxuries, but she would often refuse them, telling me to pass them on to someone more deserving.

My own love-life was non-existent too. The situation with Mona had made me too wary, too paranoid to embark on a relationship with another woman. I had to sadly reflect that the job I had chosen had made me distrust everyone I met. Other than Inge, I didn’t really have a friend in the world. Of course, I did have access to women, when I wanted or needed that. We had records on every prostitute working in the city, as well as the scores of women who were working for us by informing on their clients.

I found myself a decent widow, Maria. Short of money, she had attempted to work from her apartment, but had been informed on before she had managed to bring home a single client. It was a coincidence that her younger brother happened to be a policeman, so she was referred to our office for questioning.
I was supposed to talk about setting her up as an informer, someone who would chat to her clients, and report back to us if they said anything that could get them arrested.

Although she was considerably older than me, I took to her, and even felt sorry for her. So I made her a good offer. I would set her up in a different flat, pay the bills, and supply her with what she needed to get by. In return, I could go and see her anytime I wanted to, and my job would protect her from any prying neighbours. I expected her to hesitate, maybe ask for time to consider. But she accepted immediately. We couldn’t become a conventional couple of course, but she was happy with my infrequent visits to her, and liked the fact that we often just talked.

But I only ever spoke to her about the past, never about what I did, or what was going on. And I didn’t allow myself to become overly fond of her.

Just in case.

During those years, the new wall had caused a lot of work. It had become condemned internationally of course, and even those who had willingly stayed in the old Russian Sector were not convinced by the official explanation that it was an ‘Anti-Fascist Wall’, to keep our people safe from infiltrators or spies. Many would-be escapees were killed by soldiers or border guards trying to cross over. We had discovered elaborate tunnels that had been constructed to facilitate escapes, and had an increasing number of defectors in our own ranks, as well as from the Army and Police. Graf relished the challenge, seeing each new discovery as an opportunity to round up scores of people, and get more information about their networks.

Some days, I still felt as if I was drowning in paperwork and files.

At work, I spent more and more time with my boss. I had come to really like Graf, and to consider him a friend. He didn’t consciously use his position to intimidate anyone for no reason, and working alongside him made me feel more like a police detective, than a Secret Service Officer. And after all this time, I was also becoming well-known in our circles. Many considered me to be an important figure, an experienced Lieutenant in the company of those who wielded power. I didn’t see that at all. To me, I was just Manfred, a victim of circumstance who had gone along for the ride, with no realistic option to do otherwise.

But I was happy enough to use this new influence in my favour.

One decision I made was to get Inge somewhere better to live. Her tiny studio was depressing, at least to me. I got her name down for a one-bedroom flat only five minutes from where she was living, and she no longer had to share a bathroom. And for Maria I managed to obtain some decent lingerie and nylons, as well as some excellent make-up and hair products. All of this stuff had been confiscated from smugglers who had been arrested, and it was supposed to be destroyed. But I knew where to go, and who to talk to, and I could wander around the storeroom where it was kept, choosing my goods free of charge as if in a department store. Cigarettes, chocolate, wine and liquor, I could just turn up and select anything I wanted, no questions asked.

The one thing I didn’t do was to change my own apartment. I liked how central it was, and that it was in an old building, not one of the fast-appearing high rise blocks. I got to use the car too, if I wanted, but I generally left that at headquarters, and walked home. I would walk in the next morning, and collect it to go and pick up the boss. For me, the walking around gave a connection to the city, and also enabled me to keep an eye on the district. It didn’t hurt that local people knew full well who I was, and where I worked.

Berlin, 1966.

There was to be an important meeting, and Graf asked me to drive him there. “You should come in too, Manfred, listen to what is going on”. As we walked down the stairs, he stopped and rubbed his arm. “I feel sick, Manfred. Too much cognac last night, I suspect”. He started to smile, then suddenly sat down heavily, slipping down four of the stairs on his back. I was shocked. “What’s wrong boss? Shall I get help?” He didn’t respond, and his mouth was opening and closing like a fish taken out of water. I ran down to reception, and told them to call a doctor. By the time I got back, Graf’s face had turned blue, and I knew he was dead.

Two days later, I was told that I was now the Acting Captain, in charge of Graf’s department.

As I walked home, I felt cold.

I was going to have to step up, no mistake.