Alten Kameraden by Ed Ahern

All’s fair in love and war.

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 skin.

He’d 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 10 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 crabbling 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 Harald.”

Hallo Walter. Scheisses Wetter.” Hello Walter. Shitty weather.

Wie immer für uns.” Like 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.

Gehts 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.

Zum woll.


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 after taste 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 moth balled 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 officer’s 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 liaised with no one. In Cold War Germany the natives were generally polite enough to not point out this absurdity. All except one middle-aged 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, faintly smiled. 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’ve 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 year’s 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.”

“The office?”

“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 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?”

There it was. He meant Irmgard of course. The young woman he had proposed to Peake eight years ago. They had sat in Bremen, in a bar much like this one.

Harald had pitched Irmgard to Peake hesitantly, but with conviction. He recommended Irmgard for extraction from East Germany and debriefing, citing her valuable familiarity with police security procedures and operations. He described a teaser list of information she could provide. He mentioned that he had approached Irmgard rather than the other way around, making it less likely that she was a plant. He mentioned that she seemed amenable to making a new life for herself in the west. He asked for quick action. He was an emotionally ruled idiot.

Harald was an intelligent work dog with bad teeth and the shape of a flop house pillow. The concept that Harald had proactively recruited a much younger and apparently attractive woman was mildly absurd. Under Peake’s prodding questions, Harald admitted that he and Irmgard had become lovers three months previously, and that he had intimated to her that he had contacts who could facilitate her departure. Bingo.

Walter Peake, real name John Swafford, brought the problem back to Alanson, his section chief. A black op pro in Berlin before the wall, Alanson was never guilty of wishful thinking. He and Walter gnawed through several sessions of the what-ifs in late spring.

“You realize John, that 327 is almost certainly blown?”

“I know. I’m thinking we can flip 327 into a stalking horse and keep three or four Stasi looking into dead ends. If they formally recruit him we have him accept and we give 327 enough to keep them looking in wrong directions.”

“And if he’s put in jail?”

“His information is tactical, anything more than a few weeks old is valueless to them, and no threat to us. We trade him for a player to be named.”

“And what the hell do we do with this woman?”

“She should have at least minimal information value. My suggestion would be to try and send her back in with some bait and see what we flush out. Brief stay, with the promise of a bunch of goodies when she comes back out.”

Alanson was doubtful. “327 won’t go along with that. Now that he’s got steady sex he’s going to want to keep her close.”

“327 needs to be protected from himself. We’re the ones who’ve already been screwed. Harald is arguably blown but of limited value to our friends in the east. Let’s give this woman something tempting that might coax a few roaches out of the walls. I’d like to be able to do some screwing of my own.”

“What’s your bait?”

“Maybe a bite at me. I’m probably already tagged anyway.”

“And on the outside chance she’s legitimate?”

“We put her at some risk. I can live with that.”

And that’s the way it went down. Harald was told that Irmgard would be extracted and debriefed. On his next trip in he pitched Irmgard, who accepted with little hesitation. She made arrangements for a three week summer holiday in Hungary, left Dresden by train and while underway used the documents and ticketing provided by Harald to switch trains and cross into Austria.

Harald met Irmgard at Güssing , near the Austrian border with Hungary, and escorted her to a hotel restaurant. Walter was waiting. Cloth table cover. Real flower in the bud vase. Better than Walter and Harald were used to.

Irmgard was firmly rounded and narrow waisted. No angularities. Skin like softly weathered snow with faint blue veining that coated almost defined muscle. Heavy breasts that emphasized her points as she excitedly talked. Light brown hair, hazel eyes, mouth that split all the way across her face. Irmgard lived so much in the moment that Walter wondered if she could follow directions for tomorrow. She was about 20 years younger than Harald.

Irmgard was fully aware of her effect on both men. Not manipulative, not coy, just pleased with her impact.

And Harald. Harald sat, saying little, occasionally making unneeded motions while he waited for the meeting to be over so he could take Irmgard up to a room. Walter prolonged the meeting an unnecessary 15 minutes to watch Harald begin to deconstruct. Irmgard gave Walter a complicit smile and continued the conversation, supporting the teasing.

“So Irmgard, what do you want to do now that you’ve come over?”

“All the television shows and movies that we never could watch. I’ll leave the television always on even when I’m in the bathroom or kitchen. Go to political rallies, any party, it doesn’t matter, so I can scream slogans and no one will stop me. Confront policemen, knowing they won’t arrest me.”

“You don’t believe it now, but within a few months you’ll become indifferent to politics and focus on your next vacation.”

“So many possibilities, so few rules. I feel like I could run naked down the Elbe Chausse in Hamburg and no one else would care.”

“Oh, there are rules. You have to be able to afford what you want.”

As she spoke, her face, hands and body moved semi-independently of each other, as though the excitement had taken her body orchestra off tune in a still melodic way.

Walter grudgingly let them go, visualizing Irmgard undressed but unable to add Harald into that vision.

The next morning Irmgard and Walter went by train to a debriefing facility in Augsburg. After six days she was again moved, this time to a hotel in Frankfurt.

Walter was with Irmgard for the entire process, the good guy helping her through the intense interrogations and testing. During the process he painstakingly reviewed his action plan—the set up, pitch and return trip of Irmgard the presumed double agent. Walter scheduled a lunch with her the day after Harald’s next departure into East Germany on business. She wore loose open clothing that showed Walter her bare arms and legs.

“Are you okay without Harald here?”

“I like Harald, but he’s too old. You’re younger than Harald, aren’t you?”

“By a few years.”

“No so beat up either. Do you have a German girlfriend?”

“Not right now.”

The lunch meeting never evolved into dessert and coffee. Before their butter fried schnitzels were completely eaten Irmgard had invited him up to her room. Between the restaurant and her hotel room Walter jettisoned much of his action plan. Once in the room Irmgard was immediately physical.

Through the two hour bed wallowing neither mentioned Harald. As he meandered over her still sweaty body, Walter guessed that she was fond of but not emotionally attached to either Harald or him. She shaved her armpits but not her legs, and the hair on her calves was gossamer. Her breasts pendulumed left and right to make room for Walter’s head.

Harald had known that Walter was with Irmgard through her debriefing and polygraphing (she passed, marginally). He did not know that the format was debriefing, dinner, and sex .

Irmgard began her post-coital conversations while Walter was still wandering through her body, examining moles and smallpox vaccinations and unpolished nails.

“How long have you been working like this Walter? Do you handle many men like Harald? Do you ever come east yourself?” (Come, Walter noted, not go.) “Is it always civilians or do you also work with military people?”

Walter told the truth when generalities were innocuous, and used pre-cleared lies to inflate his importance to the intelligence effort. Might as well make himself an attractive target.

Despite his hints and prompts, Irmgard never let flicker any illumination that she was a Stasi plant, so Walter played it on its face, a necessary trip for her to obtain additional and confirming information.

Liebchen, why do I need to go back, I’ve told you everything I can remember, I don’t want to get caught.”

“You’re just coming back from vacation a little early, no one should be suspicious. I have to show our people that you’re worth the expense of keeping here, and that means your getting targeted information. Being unemployed here is worse than being unemployed in Dresden. Harald makes a modest living but could not afford to keep you.”

At their third dinner, while eating another butter saturated schnitzel, Irmgard rephrased her objections from if to how.

“How would I be able to get back in and out? What happens if I’m delayed in Dresden?”

Walter cringed. Too easy, and much too soon. He had hoped that she would hold out another week, not so much for the prolonged sex, but to give him the faint hope that she was as she seemed, a bluntly erotic woman looking out for main chance. He was becoming fond of her.

“It’s a three day trip, using documents for entry and exit that will be better than most real West German papers. We’ll be watching for you the whole time. You’ll never get caught, but if you do we’ll trade you for someone they want back.”

Irmgard capitulated, again too easily. The next step was Harald, who would not consider sending her back until he was clearly told by both Irmgard and Walter that he had no power of refusal. Harald succumbed, realizing that his tenuous chance to keep Irmgard next to him was based on her being comfortable.

Irmgard patted, then stroked Harald’s hand. “Harald, I have to do this. It lets us both afford to be together. I can’t stay in a hotel room for the rest of my life.”

Harald had sex with Irmgard for the last time the night before she boarded a train from Austria back through Hungary to East Germany. But Walter was with them on the platform before the train departed. It was the last time either man saw her.

When she failed to show at the border crossing five days later the usual passive monitoring was intensified. Harald panicked immediately. Walter had practice keeping the fear churn hidden, but after another day let Harald see that he too was worried.

“Walter, I have to go east and check on her.”

“Harald, you can’t, not until your next scheduled trip. You can’t change your pattern, especially now.”

Harald held back for a week before making a scheduled business trip over the border. Irmgard had left no trace of a return to Dresden. Harald’s questions to neighbors and acquaintances were answered with suspicion and ignorance. Walter added more names and topics to the passive monitoring of press, radio, television and police and military transmissions. Nothing.

Neither Harald nor Walter were approached with recruitment offers or threats. No surveillance was noted. Nothing. Walter, with no traces or clues, kept asking himself the same questions in an endless loop.

Were 327 and I so inconsequential that they had her switch to a better target? Did she just move in with another man? Was she disposed of? Or maybe, just maybe, she’d turned around in Hungary, come back out and dumped both of us as bad bets.

Seven months later the monitoring department reported a brief death notice for an Irmgard Thoden. The name matched but the biographical details were skewed. Walter told Harald only about his suspicions that Irmgard had made a u-turn with the bogus documents, and not about the obituary. Better for Harald to think that she’s alive and missing than maybe dead.

Walter considered himself immune from emotional entanglements, but felt surprising guilt about Irmgard. He missed her cheerfully blunt acceptance of what life presented to her, and her equally blunt enjoyment in sex.

After the wall came down Walter had made vigorous inquiries. As anal as the East German intelligence service was about record keeping there was no mention of Irmgard being interrogated or punished. There was, of course, no record of her being an operative, that file would have been among those purged. The Stasi had noted her as missing from her work and apartment, but came up with no leads. Equally interestingly, there was no record of Irmgard Thoden’s burial or cremation. Just a death notice.

Walter still had no answers to feed Harald’s hungry memories. We’re both brooding about a woman who would have quickly told us to go to hell.

He patted Harald’s arm. For no discernible reason he recalled the music of a patriotic German march from the First World War—Alte Kameraden, old comrades.

“Harald, I know you still care for her. I’ve been searching. There’s no record of her, good or bad. She just disappeared. We’ll keep investigating, but at this point I can’t offer much hope. I’ll get back in touch if anything comes up.”

They had spent three hours at the bar, far too long, and the processed beer and aquavit was pressing to exit. They took turns in the toilet, first Walter, then Harald. Like most German toilets it had a flat dry platform on which excretion rested before being flushed away. Walter sometimes joked that is was a final health check on the digestive process. This night he wondered if it could also be used for divination, to poke a stick into one’s own feces and foretell the way forward.

They paused just outside the bar. The rain also had paused.

“Walter, Spiel ist aus. The game is over. The need for all the rules is over too. Let me show you what I do sometimes after our meetings. It’s not far.”

“Why not, as you say, the game’s been played.”

For the first time in their long association Harald led the way, shifting from one downhill street to another until the last narrow side street opened up onto the bright neon lights of the Reeperbahn, the sex center for Hamburg. They walked past tawdry souvenir stores and fast food restaurants and strip bars until they reached the entrance to the Eros Centrum.

There was no door, just an alleyway sized opening. Harald entered without hesitation and Walter followed. The large open space inside was unheated but covered. It was faintly lit and populated with about twenty roving women and another male twosome evaluating the prospects. Walter thought of a leper colony.

Harald waved away a pair of approaching women with a shoo fly motion, and turned to Walter. “I come here sometimes. I never buy sex from these women, but I look at all of them. I think maybe Irmgard is here. She loved sex, loved being with men. She had no real profession or aptitude. Maybe she’s here. But she’s never here, and I go back home. Pathetic isn’t it.”

The women were circling closer, sensing fresh meat. As they emerged from the dusk Walter saw that they had all left forty behind, and wore plastered makeup and forced smiles.

“Harald, Irmgard would still be better looking and younger. She would make love for enjoyment, not really just for money. She wouldn’t have to work this desperately to find another man”

Jah, maybe so. But all these years with no contact, no knowledge of her. I never changed my address or telephone number, just in case she found me.”

“She’s better off than this Harald. Irmgard is doing fine. Let’s get out of here before these women whore us to death.”

The two men pushed their way past women whose smiles sharply inverted as they passed, and stepped back out, blinking, into the glare of the Reeperbahn”s street and neon lighting. The almost freezing rain had resumed.

“I’ll miss our times together Harald. I almost wish the Cold War resumed”

Harald’s lip corners twitched upward. “I suppose there won’t be a twenty-fifth reunion?”

“No, we end here. Leb woll.”

They shook hands as they had after every meeting and separated. Walter stopped and turned. “My name is John, Harald, John.” He turned away. The wind and rain blustered down the street, pushing one man away, and slowing the steps of the other.

Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but advises that after forty six years they are both out of warranty.

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