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Catch the Harpy

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The later it got, the less people were roaming on the streets of Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin. Just fifteen minutes earlier, an older gentleman with a small dog was walking home from the Helmholzplatz park; two schoolchildren were giggling at the corner of Dunckerstrasse and Letterstrasse; a grandmother was saying goodbye to her granddaughter at the door of house number eight; a young lady, dressed entirely in a dark green costume, had entered the house opposite number eight… And now, suddenly, all was quiet. No children’s playful noises, no footsteps on the cobblestone streets, no dogs barking. It was as if the night had suddenly befallen over East Berlin and everybody deemed it safer to lock themselves in their homes and watch the news from their tiny television sets, transmitted by the state-controlled TV channels, and drink their late-night herbal teas.

The night was actually befalling, albeit it was around ten o’clock in the evening and there was still plenty of daylight for people to go about doing their evening chores. But East Berliners were naturally careful. Actually, all Berliners were naturally careful, if not all Germans. After what they had been through in the past decades, nobody could really blame them. To witness two devastating wars, an almost complete destruction of their beloved country, to bury their mothers, fathers, children, husbands, and wives—it had been more than one nation’s fair share of misery. And on top of all that, half of the country had now fallen into the hands of communists that, as the older people still clearly remembered, were little different from the nazi rulers who only a few years ago had relentlessly murdered millions of people, intimidated the entire nation and imprisoned everyone who dared to disagree with them. The new rulers were indeed no different.

But despite the natural carefulness and the late hour, quite suddenly the sound of steps emerged from behind the corner of Schliemannstrasse and continued through the park. When the man reached Letterstrasse at the opposite side of the park, he stopped for a moment to look around. He couldn’t see anybody, and kept walking until he reached the little basement café at number fifteen on Schliemannstrasse. It appeared to him that the bar was closed as he couldn’t hear any noise that usually goes along with every watering hole. But it wasn’t. He walked down the stairs, opened the heavy wooden door and walked in.

A lonely local drunkard sitting at the corner table right by the door. Another one at the far end of the bar. A middle-aged barmaid looking through a beer mug as if she was trying to decide whether it was clean enough or not. As she put it on the shelf without wiping it, it was probably deemed clean enough. A guy in a leather coat sitting two tables away from the local drunkard in the back of the bar. That’s my guy.

Carl White walked to the table and sat down.

“Ein bier, bitte,” he said to the barmaid and then turned to the man wearing the leather coat. “I trust everything is hunky-dory.”

“Keep your voice down,” he leather-coat man replied, almost whisperingly. “You know just as well as I do that the walls have ears.”

White nodded. “Do you have it?”

Now it was the leather coat man’s time to nod.

“Good. Let’s wait until I get my beer, then nobody will notice us any more. We’ll be just two friends catching up.”

The barmaid brought the beer and the “biscuit.” White always called the beer mat a “biscuit” because of an old Russian joke he had once heard: “Two Russians are in a German beerhouse. They order beer and when the waitress brings it over, she also brings two beer mats. After a while, the Russians order more beer and when the waitress brings it over, she doesn’t see the beer mats anywhere. Fair enough, she brings them new ones. When she goes back to bring them more beer, again, the beer mats are gone. What the fuck? thinks the waitress and decides, the next time she won’t bring them any new beer mats. So she again goes over to the Russians’ table, brings them beer, but no beer mats. As she’s already walking away from the table, she hears one of the Russians shout, ‘Hey, where’s the biscuit?’”

White loved to drink beer and regarded the day’s first sip heavenly. “When the gods on Olympus drank ambrosia, what it actually was, was beer,” he was used to say as if consecrating the beer he was about to have. And so he did this time as well.

The man in the leather coat smiled. “German beer, probably. I don’t think the Greek can actually make proper beer.”

White nodded. “Preaching to the choir, buddy.” He then looked around and, satisfied that nobody was paying them any attention, he gestured the leather-coat man to hand over the package.

In the brown envelope the German handed White was a letter-sized sheet of paper with twenty-four names. These were the names of twenty-four East German spies in the West—and not only in West Berlin, but the entire West Germany. It was the first batch of what the leather-coat man had promised to deliver White, as there were actually hundreds more. “Getting these names will take time. Perhaps even months,” he had told White when they made the agreement. Fortunately for White, they had made a great start.

“Thank you, old sport. You have no idea how much this is appreciated,” whispered White, folded the envelope with the list into a small postcard-sized package and put it in his jacket pocket. “After the next delivery you’ll get your first payment.”

The leather-coat man nodded agreeingly and stood up. “It was nice doing business with you, but I’ve got to leave now,” he said, shook White’s hand and gone he was.

White took another manly sip from the beer mug, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and looked towards the bar. The waitress was gone. That’s weird. He then looked around him and noticed the local drunkards were gone, too. What the hell, he still got to think, when he suddenly felt a heavy blow to the back of his head. He collapsed on the floor without ever seeing who or what hit him.

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