by Edward Ahern
The water-splattered store window in front of Walter Peake held richly tooled leather desk sets and overweight filigreed pens, the kind given as retirement gifts but rarely used. The reflected image of the rain-blown cobblestones behind him was empty. The sodden wind measured a few degrees above zero Celsius. His legs, hands and head were already soaked and every gust of wind drove wet chill through the wool to his skin.
He arrived well within the meeting procedure of five minutes before and after the arranged time. A two-hour train ride, an U-Bahn ride, a short walk, another U-Bahn hop and a ten-minute walk. Nothing unusual had been observed. In more than a decade, even with occasional support counter-surveillance, there had been nothing noticeable.
The reflection of 327 slowly rose into view on Martin Strasse. His gray shape was a bandy-legged bug scrabbling up the dark cobblestones. Peake turned, keeping both hands in his coat pockets. 327 pulled his right hand out of his coat pocket and put his left hand into its pocket instead. Peake took both hands out, walked up and shook 327’s unpocketed hand. Had Peake noticed a problem his hands would have stayed in his pockets.
“Hallo, Walter. Scheisses Wetter.” — Hello, Walter. Shitty weather.
“Wie immer für uns.” — As always for us.
As they had for twelve years they both spoke German. English was Peake’s native tongue, and Harald Brunner was nearly fluent in it. But in Hamburg, English was noticeable and softly spoken German wasn’t.
Peake wore clothing purchased from German department stores. He topped his nondescript ensemble with a Mutze cap which covered his bald spot. Brunner also wore a Mutze. They were a matched pair of middle-aged men.
Peake controlled their movements. “Hier rechts und unten n’bißchen. Was zum essen?” — Right here and down a bit. Something to eat?
“Nein, danke, Walter. N’a Maltezer und Bier wäre besser Heute Abend.” — No, thanks, Walter. A Maltezer and beer would be better tonight.
The deserted business district in which they had met quickly mutated into neighborhood bars, restaurants and little shops before dropping downhill into the Reeperbahn, the raucous sex center. Peake and Brunner walked to the middle of a long block and into the Bruns Eck bar.
Hamburg was dominating Bochum in a Bundesliga soccer match on the television at the end of the bar. The seven occupants and bartender were absorbed in the game. Peake used the time it took to order drinks to sort through them.
One woman, heavy, middle-aged, with two men of similar heft and vintage, both ignoring her advertised cleavage; bartender in his late sixties, who squinted rather than wear glasses; four loud men in cheap suits and ties, in their thirties, with about sixteen empty shot glasses clumped into the table center.
The bar was overheated but still damp. It smelled of smoldering tobacco, stale beer and body odors that had spent at least a full day developing.
They ordered two rounds of Maltezer Kreuz aquavit and draft beer, and sat at a table toward the back. The beer would take five minutes of foam-settlings and top-ups before it was ready.
Funerals, Peake thought, are rarely fun. He had bet himself that as awkward as this would be it would go reasonably well. He and Harald were old comrades with few illusions.
“Geht’s gut?” Peake asked.
“Good enough. The shoulder turns out to be arthritis rather than a rotator cuff. What a blessing, huh?”
“Sometimes it’s okay to settle for a lesser evil. Still on your own, Harald?”
“Same arrangement with the woman downstairs. A couple times a month I buy her dinner and she lets me screw her. I keep my eyes shut and think about Irmgard.”
Peake ignored the tacit invitation to talk about her again. Wallowing in emotional mud would only make this harder. He shifted the envelope in the inside chest pocket of his coat so that it bulged a little less. The pass had been made between the outside door of the bar and the heavy black rubber curtain that acted as a seal to keep the warmth in. No one could have clearly seen the transfer from inside or outside of the bar.
Once the beer and Maltezer were positioned in front of them they picked up the shot glasses of aquavit.
They sucked in half of the aquavit. The Maltezer would have been frozen solid were it water. It slid down with the consistency of liquid butter and the aftertaste of caraway and anise. On the television Hamburg narrowly missed scoring a goal and ragged noise erupted and subsided from the suited tableful.
This would be the last time Harald met with Walter Peake, a cover name backstopped by a passport, driver’s license, business cards, family pictures, credit cards, a couple of memberships and a social security card. The identity would hold up under thirty minutes of casual questioning, but probably less than two hours of interrogation and back-checking.
* * *
John Swafford had grown fond of his Walter Peake avatar, part of the reason he had argued with Peter Alanson, his section chief, about maintaining the operation. Peter had been merciless.
“Look John, I know we’ve had 327 for a long part of the Cold War. I understand he’s provided good intel over the years. I appreciate what we did to him and that woman. We both also know that when the Wall came down he lost his usefulness. We have ex-Stasi walk-ins giving us better stuff than he does. It’s time. If you can’t terminate him I will, but he’s getting pensioned off. Our glory years of coddling the Huns are over.”
“Peter, he can still provide good commercial intelligence. “
“Horse crap, John, and you know it. Summer interns from IBM could do as well. The power curve is passing us by. We’re experts in the passé.
“If you don’t want to get mothballed in Langley, reviewing contact reports, you have to roll up this operation and move on. I know you’re close with 327, but that’s become a handicap. In any case, we’ll be giving him separation payments contingent on his keeping his mouth shut.”
Alanson was pompous, but his logic was unflawed. 327 was of very little further use. And others as well. Peake’s stable of intelligence stallions had turned into gossip nags. And Peake suffered by association. The organization’s squinty focus had shifted east, to China and the Arab countries.
He and Alanson worked in a windowless and alarmed building on an Army base in southern Germany. The base provided security, a cover story, documentation, housing and cheap booze. Most of the case officers were married, lived on base, sent their children to the base school and socialized at the officers’ club.
But Peake lived alone off base and socialized with Germans on the weekends. In order to explain his fluency in German he was titled a community liaison officer, but he liaised with no one.
In Cold War Germany, the natives were generally polite enough not to point out this absurdity. All except one elderly neighbor and friend, a former officer in a Waffen SS tank brigade. “You speak German with an East Frisian accent that almost hides the American. And the only other American I ever met who could speak my language well enough to hold an intelligent conversation was a spy. Not you, of course, John.”
The man, who had survived the Eastern Front and a Russian prison, smiled faintly. He had earned the right to gently needle a fraud.
* * *
Peake realized he had been blankly staring at Harald.
Brunner, sensing the unusual in Peake’s stare, sat a little straighter. “You seem preoccupied, Walter. Your health is good?”
“Still healthy, just fatter, thanks. Tscha, Harald. Here it is. We’ve been doing this work together for twelve years, and you’d been doing it for seven or eight years before then. That’s a long time in any business. But everything changes, and we need to change as well. It’s been a good, long run, but the conflict we were engaged in has passed us by. It’s time for us to close up shop and move ahead.”
Harald sippingly finished the shot of Maltezer and studied Walter’s face. “So the shoe drops. I doubt this was your idea, which means there is no way you can change it even if I begged. How does it end, Walter?”
“We pay into your account as before, until the end of the year. Then a smaller stipend for three years, paid monthly. There won’t be any more tasking, so you effectively have almost four years’ severance. We’ll collect your equipment and have you sign an agreement. “
Harald smiled. “And you will have thought out the consequences of my going public or switching sides.”
“There no longer is another side to switch to, Harald, and you’d be trying to compete with hundreds of East European and Russian operatives already peddling every secret they have or can make up for a few dollars.”
Both men took a sip of their beers. It was, as always, fresh and complex and satisfying. The head on the beer would survive to the bottom of the glass.
“I’ve always assumed that Walter Peake isn’t your real name.”
Walter paused. “It isn’t.”
“Is your first name at least Walter?”
“Perhaps before we separate you could tell me your real first name. It would be a shame to have a fiction as my memory.”
Peake nodded. “Perhaps, Harald. But then again, our stock in trade for all these years has been creating fictions. Maybe you should remember me as Walter Peake.”
They finished their drinks in near silence, knowing each other well enough to answer their own unvoiced questions. Walter broke his own rules and ordered another round.
“What about Heinrich and Wolfgang?” Harald finally asked.
“You advise them that things have come to an end, and pay them off from the usual funding.”
“We have no interest. Close it or keep it open on your own.”
Between questions and answers about how to bury a twenty-year old operation, the moments of silence expanded, not strained, but anticipatory. They knew that the beginning of the last silence would mark the end of their long, once-a-month life together.
Hamburg had won the televised soccer match and the four well-soused men left. The noise level dropped with their departure and Harald and Walter lowered their voices.
Harald raised an eyebrow and a shot glass toward Peake and got a confirming nod. He ordered a third round. As the bartender was preparing their beers Harald touched Walter’s hand. “Walter, I need to ask a favor of you.”
“If I can.”
“We won’t have an operation to jeopardize anymore. When we’ve closed it down could you check with your new Stasi friends and try and find out what happened to her?”
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Edward Ahern