Authors: Len Deighton
Max looked up. A few stars were sprinkled to the east but most of the sky was dark. If the thick overcast remained there, blotting out the sun, it would help, but it wasn't low enough to inconvenience the helicopters. The chopper would be back.
'We'll keep to the high ground,' said Max. These paths usually make good going. They keep them marked and maintained for summertime walkers.' He set off at a good pace to show Bernard that he was fit and strong, but after a little while he slowed.
For several kilometres the beech forest blocked off their view of the valley. It was dark walking under the trees, like being in a long tunnel. The undergrowth was dead and crisp brown fern crunched under their feet. As the trail climbed the snow was harder. Trees shielded the footpath and upon the hard going they made reasonably good speed. They had walked for about an hour and a half, and were into the evergreens, when Max called a halt. They were higher now, and through a firebreak in the regimented plantations they could see the twist of the next valley ahead of them. Beyond that, through a dip in the hills, a lake shone faintly in the starlight, its water heady with foam, like good German beer. It was difficult to guess how far away it was. There were no houses in sight, no roads, no power lines, nothing to give the landscape a scale. Trees were no help: these fir trees came in all shapes and sizes.
'Five minutes,' said Max. He sank down in a way that revealed his true condition and wedged his backside into the roots of a tree. Alongside him there was a bin for feeding the deer: the herds were cosseted for the benefit of the hunters. Resting against the bin, Max's head slumped to one side. His face was shiny with exertion and he looked all in. Blood had seeped through the paper and there was a patch of it on the sleeve of the thick overcoat. Better to press on than to try to fix it here.
Bernard took out the field-glasses, snapped the protective covers from the lenses, and looked more carefully at the lake. It was the haze upon the water that produced the boiling effect and softened its outline.
'How are your feet?' said Max.
'I have spare socks.'
'Don't mother me, Max.'
'Do you know where we are?'
'Yes, we're in Germany,' he said, still staring through the glasses.
'Are you sure?'
'But that's our lake, Max,' Bernard affirmed. 'Mouse Lake.'
'Or Moulting Lake,' suggested Max.
'Or even Turncoat Lake,' said Bernard, suggesting a third possible translation.
Max regretted his attempt at levity. 'Something like that,' he said. He resolved to stop treating Bernard like a child. It was not so easy: He'd known him so long it was difficult to remember that he was a grown man with a wife and children. And what a wife! Fiona Samson was one of the rising stars of the Department. Some of the more excitable employees were saying that she was likely to wind up as the first woman to hold the Director-General's post. Max found it an unlikely prospect. The higher echelons of the Department were reserved for a certain sort of Englishman, all of whom seemed to have been at school together.
Max Busby often wondered why Fiona had married Bernard. He was no great prize. If he got the German Desk in London it would be largely due to his father's influence, and he'd go no further. Whoever got the German Desk would come under Bret Rensselaer's direction, and Bret wanted a stooge there. Max wondered if Bernard would adapt to a yes-man role.
Max took the offered field-glasses to have a closer look at the lake. Holding them with only one hand meant resting against the tree. Even holding his arm up made him tremble. He wondered if it was septic: he'd seen wounds go septic very quickly but he put the thought to the back of his mind and concentrated on what he could see. Yes, that was the Mause See: exactly as he remembered it from the map. Maps had always been a fetish with him, sometimes he sat looking at them for hours on end, as other men read books. They were not only maps of places he knew, or places he'd been or places he might have to visit, but maps of every kind. When someone had given him the
Times Atlas of the Moon
, Max took it on vacation and it was his sole reading matter.
'We must come in along the southern shore,' said Bernard, 'and not too close to the water or we'll find ourselves in some Central Committee member's country cottage.'
'A boat might be the best way,' Max suggested, handing the glasses back.
'Let's get closer,' said Bernard, who didn't like the idea of a boat. Too risky from every point of view. Bernard was not very skilled with a set of oars and Max certainly couldn't row. In winter a boat might be missed from its moorings, and even if the water was glassy smooth – which it wouldn't be – he didn't fancy being exposed to view like that. It was an idea typical of Max, who liked such brazen methods and had proved them in the past. Bernard hoped Max would forget that idea by the time they'd covered the intervening countryside. It was a long hike. It looked like rough going and soon it would be dawn.
Bernard felt like saying something about the two men with whom they had been supposed to rendezvous yesterday afternoon, but he kept silent. There was nothing to be said; they had gone into the bag. Max and Bernard had been lucky to get away. Now the only important thing was for them to get back. If they didn't, the whole operation – 'Reisezug' – would have proved useless: more than three months of planning, risks and hard work wasted. Bernard's father was running the operation, and he would be desolated. To some extent, his father's reputation depended upon him.
Bernard got up and dusted the soil from his trousers. It was sandy and had a strange musty smell.
'It stinks, right?' said Max, somehow reading his thoughts. 'The North German Plain. Goddamned hilly for a plain, I'd say.'
'German Polish Plain they called it when I was at school,' said Bernard.
'Yeah, well, Poland has moved a whole lot closer to here since I did high school geography,' said Max, and smiled at his little joke. 'My wife Helma was born not far from here. Ex-wife that is. Once she got that little old US passport she went off to live in Chicago with her cousin.'
As Bernard helped Max to his feet he saw the animal. It was lying full-length in a bare patch of ground behind the tree against which he'd rested. Its fur was caked with mud and it was frozen hard. He peered more closely at it. It was a fully grown hare, its foot tight in a primitive wire snare. The poor creature had died in agony, gnawing its trapped foot down to the bone but lacking either the energy or the desperate determination required for such a sacrifice.
Max came to look too. Neither man spoke. For Max it seemed like a bad omen and Max had always been a great believer in signs. Still without speaking they both trudged on. They were tired now and the five minutes' break that had helped their lungs had stiffened their muscles. Max found it difficult to hold his arm up, but if he let it hang it throbbed and bled more.
'Why didn't he go back?' said Max as the path widened and Bernard came up alongside him.
'The poacher. Why didn't he go back and look at his snares?'
'You mean we are already in the
? There was no fence, no signs.'
'Locals know where it is,' said Max. 'Strangers blunder onwards.' He unbuttoned his coat and touched the gun. There was no practical reason for doing so except that Max wanted to make it clear to Bernard that he hadn't come all this way in order to turn himself in to the first person who challenged them. Max had shot his way out of trouble before: twice. Some people said those two remarkable instances of good luck had given him a false idea of what could be done when facing capture; Max thought the British with whom he worked were too damned ready to let their people put their hands up.
He stopped for a moment to look at the lake again. It would be so much easier and quicker to be walking along the valley instead of along this high path. But there would be villages and farms and dogs that barked down there. These high paths were less likely to have such dangers but the ice on the northern aspects meant they were sometimes slower going and the two men didn't have time to spare.
The next hill was higher and after that the path would descend to cross the Besen valley. Perhaps it would be better to cross it somewhere else. If the local police were alerted they were sure to put a man at the stone bridge where the footpath met the valley road. He looked at the summit of the hill on the far side of the river. They'd never do it. The local people called these hills 'mountains', as people do in regions where no mountains exist. Well, he was beginning to understand why. After you walked these hills they became mountains. Everything was relative: the older he got the more mountainous the world became.
'We'll try to get over the Besen at that wide place where the stones are,' said Max.
Bernard grunted unenthusiastically. If they'd had more time Max would have made it into more of a discussion. He would have let Bernard feel he'd had a say in the decisions, but there was no time for such niceties.
Scrambling down through the dead bracken and the loose stones caused both men to lose their balance now and again. Once Max slid so far he almost fell. He knocked his wounded arm when recovering himself, and the pain was so great that he gave a little whimper. Bernard helped him up. Max said nothing. He didn't say thanks, there was no energy to spare.
Max had chosen this place with care. Everywhere on its east side the Wall occupied a wide band of communist territory. Even to get within five kilometres of the Wall itself required a permit. This well guarded and constantly patrolled prohibited region, or
, was cleared of trees and any shrubs or growth that could conceal a man or child. Any agricultural work permitted in the
was done only in daylight and under the constant surveillance of the guards in their watchtowers. Artfully the towers were different in height and design, varying from the lower 'observation bunkers' to the tall modernistic concrete constructions that resembled airport control towers.
But in the
of that section of the frontier that NATO codenames 'piecemeal', good or bad fortune has called upon the DDR to contend with the lake. It was the presence of a lake at a part of the Wall that was undergoing extensive repair work that caught Max Busby's attention in the so-called Secret Room.
For the regime it was a difficult section: the Elbe and the little river Besen that feeds into it, plus the effect of the Mause See, all contributed to the marshiness of the flat land. The Wall was always giving them problems here no matter what they did about waterproofing the foundations. Now a stretch almost three kilometres long was under repair at seven different places. It must be bad or they would have waited until summer.
Getting through the
was only the beginning. The real frontier was marked by a tall fence, too flimsy to climb but rigged with alarms, flares and automatic guns. After that came the
, the security strip, about five hundred metres deep, where attack-trained dogs on
ran between the minefields. Then came the concrete ditches, followed by an eight-metre strip of dense barbed wire and a variety of devices arranged differently from sector to sector to provide surprises for the newcomer.
To what extent this bizarre playground had been dismantled for the benefit of the repair gangs, remained to be discovered. It was difficult to forget the helicopter. The whole military region would be alerted now. It wouldn't be hard to guess where the fugitives were heading.
When they reached the lake it was not anything like the obstruction that either of them had anticipated. They'd been soaked to the knees wading across the slow-moving Besen. The necessary excursion into the Mause See – to get around the red marker-buoys which Max thought might mark underwater obstacles – did no more than repeat the.soaking up to the waist. But there was a difference: the hard muscular legs had been brought back to tingling life by brisk walking, but the icy cold water of the lake up to his waist drained from Max some measure of his resolution. His arm hurt, his guts hurt and the arctic water pierced through his belly like cold steel.
The snow began with just a few flakes spinning down from nowhere and then became a steady fall 'What a beautiful sight,' said Bernard and Max grunted his agreement.
There was just a faint tinge of light in the eastern sky as they cut through the first wire fence. 'Just go!' said Max, his teeth chattering. 'There's no time for all the training school tricks. Screw the alarms, just cut!'
Bernard handled the big bolt-cutters quickly and expertly. The only noise they heard for the first few minutes was the clang of the cut wire. But after that the dogs began to bark.
Frank Harrington, the SIS Berlin 'resident', would not normally have been at the reception point in the Bundesrepublik waiting, in the most lonely hours of the night, for two agents breaking through the Wall, but this operation was special. And Frank had promised Bernard's father that he would look after him, a promise which Frank Harrington interpreted in the most solemn fashion.
He was in a small subterranean room under some four metres of concrete and lit by fluorescent blue lights, but Frank's vigil was not too onerous. Although such forward command bunkers were somewhat austere – it being NATO's assumption that the Warsaw Pact armies would roll over these border defences in the first hours of any undeclared war – it was warm and dry and he was sitting in a soft seat with a glass of decent whisky in his fist.
This was the commanding officer's private office, or at least it was assigned to that purpose in the event of a war emergency. Among Frank's companions were a corpulent young officer of the Bundesgrenzschutz – a force of West German riot police who guard airports, embassies and the border – and an elderly Englishman in a curious nautical uniform worn by the British Frontier Service, which acts as guides for ail British army patrols on land, air and river. The German was lolling against a radiator and the Englishman perched on the edge of a desk.