Franz Mueller sat on a bench by the fountain in Monbijou Park, eating his salami sandwich and washing it down with buttermilk, while he waited for the man to show up. It was an early spring day and, although still cold, the sun was shining and was warm on Franz’s face. He didn’t notice the warmth of the sun or the taste of his sandwich or the smoothness of the buttermilk. He was too busy keeping his eye on the wrought-iron fence just on the other side of the fountain. This spot on the bench was perfect for observing without being spotted.
The first time Franz saw him, the man was walking through the park, no different from any other pedestrian. Franz had watched as the man bent down and picked up a child’s mitten from the ground. The man looked around, and seeing no children in the vicinity, he popped the mitten onto a spike in the wrought-iron fence and walked on.
Franz thought nothing of this event. It was common that when a person found an item on the ground that clearly had been dropped inadvertently, that one would pick it up off the ground and place it somewhere where its owner might find it later. It was a friendly gesture to get the item up off the ground so that it wouldn’t accidentally get trodden on and to put it in a place where the owner could see it if he came looking for his possession. Franz didn’t know if this was a custom practiced anywhere else in the world because he had lived nowhere but in East Berlin and had never traveled outside of East Germany.
Like all young men his age, Franz had served in the army from age eighteen to twenty. While in the military, he had told his superiors he was interested in working for the Ministry of State Security upon his discharge, but he had not been selected. This had been a tremendous disappointment to him. He thought he would have made a fine Stasi officer. He felt he was very observant, and he believed fully in the cause of communism. Franz’s Uncle Klaus had said that it was probably for the best that he hadn’t gotten picked for the Stasi and got Franz a job as a janitor at Humboldt University, where Uncle Klaus worked as a math professor. Klaus had also told Franz’s mother, in private, that Franz was probably not intelligent enough for the State Security Force, and that he was not so much observant as nosy. Not to mention, in Klaus’s opinion, communism’s days were numbered.
Franz overheard this.
Soon after, Uncle Klaus suspected people were watching him and that papers and other objects in his office at the university were being gone through and moved around. His friends and family worried Klaus was becoming paranoid. In reality, Klaus was being targeted by a particularly nasty Stasi method called “Zersetzung.” It was a form of gaslighting and smear campaign. Basically, it was psychological warfare that the government of East Germany perpetrated against its own citizens. These tactics were designed to disrupt the victim’s family life, ruin his career, and, if possible, make him doubt his own sanity. It was extremely effective. Within six months, Uncle Klaus had lost his job and his wife. He didn’t commit suicide like many victims of Stasi persecution did, but he may as well have. He now spent his days sitting in his studio flat, staring out the window, a broken man.
Franz was responsible, of course. He was proud of being numbered as an informal collaborator for the Stasi. He needn’t have been so pleased with himself. In 1982, one in every 65 East Germans collaborated with the Stasi. It wasn’t exactly an exclusive club.
Franz had thought that turning his uncle in would give him a foot in the door at State Security headquarters, but that hadn’t proved to be the case. Still, he kept his eyes and ears open for another chance to prove himself. Now, sitting here four years later, he knew he was onto something.
About a week after he saw the man the first time, he was sitting in the park eating his lunch when he got a feeling of déjà vu. A man walked into the park, picked up a child’s mitten from the ground and put it on the fence. Was it the same man as last time? Franz believed it might be, and he made mental notes of his height, hair color, and physical build. When he got back to the university, he wrote these down in a small notebook. He then made a habit of carrying the notebook every day when he went to the park to eat lunch.
Franz saw the man the next two Wednesdays. He’d walk into the park, pick up a mitten from the ground near the play area, and put it on the fence. Franz caught on that the man was not actually picking up the mitten. It was already in his hand. Franz believed the man was passing some kind of message, but to whom? What kind of message would fit in a child’s mitten? After the third time this happened, Franz stood up, walked around the fountain and passed by the place where the mitten was. He nonchalantly scooped it up off the fence as he walked by, put it in his pocket, and walked back to the university. He locked himself in a supply closet and examined the mitten. There wasn’t anything unusual about it. It was a cheap pink mitten that one could buy in any department store.
Each week, the mitten had been a different color. The first time it was yellow, then blue, and now, pink. The mitten wasn’t carrying a message. It was the message.
As Franz went about his duties at the university, mopping floors and emptying trash cans, he thought about how he would proceed. He’d have to figure out a way to follow the man next Wednesday. Perhaps the color of the mitten denoted where the man and his fellow spy should meet up, or maybe the mitten told another spy where he could pick up a package. That made sense. Meeting in the same spot every time or always using the same dead drop would be suspicious if someone was watching.
The next Tuesday, Franz breezed through his work and also did half of his Wednesday chores so that he could leave the uni at lunchtime the next day and simply not come back for the afternoon. No one ever paid attention to him. As long as his work got done, no one cared where he was or what he was doing.
And now he was waiting for the man. And here came his quarry, right on time! He strolled into the park, pretended to pick up a tiny white mitten and placed it on a spike in the wrought-iron fence. He then strolled out the other side of the park with Franz tailing him. The man ran a few errands. He picked up a newspaper at a stand, bought a sandwich and a coffee-to-go from a bakery and walked back toward the park, this time walking around the perimeter instead of through it. He disappeared into a 5-story building. After giving the man time to get inside and out of view of the front door, Franz went over to look at the bank of door buzzers. There was a dentist, a notary public, a property rental agency, a lawyer, and a temp agency listed as tenants of the building. So, this was not where the man lived. He probably worked in one office as a camouflage for his illicit activities. Franz tried to imagine which business would be a good front for a spy and decided that the temp agency was probably the one. He couldn’t figure out a plan for getting in there to confirm his suspicions, though, so he crossed the street and stood in the shadow of a doorway, waiting for the man to come back out. It was a long and boring wait, but Franz’s whole life was boring. It didn’t bother him to wait.
The man came out of the building at 5:30 and walked toward the tram station. He took a tram out to the Prenzlauer Berg city district, walked to an apartment building and let himself in with a key. That was disappointing. Was the man simply going home? Franz debated going home himself. He was hungry and cold. The café across the street decided his fate. He went in and ordered a coffee and a sandwich and ate it sitting at a table in the window with a good view of the front of the building the man had entered. Franz ate his sandwich slowly, and when he finished, he ordered another cup of coffee and a piece of Linzer torte. He dawdled over the dessert, too, making it last as long as possible without calling attention to himself. When he had dragged it out as long as he could, he paid his bill and left. The time in the café had warmed him. He felt like he could probably spend a couple of hours waiting to see if the man came out of the apartment building. Franz consoled himself by telling himself that when he worked for the Stasi, he’d probably have to spend long hours doing surveillance, just like this. He was practicing now, so that he could breeze through the training program and get the highest marks. The thought cheered him. He mentally prepared himself to wait for hours.
He didn’t have to wait, though. The man came out of the building just as Franz left the café. Franz followed him to another section of East Berlin, to another apartment house, this one with a glass-fronted foyer. The man entered and used a key to open one of the tenant mail boxes. He took out some envelopes, got into the elevator, and disappeared. Franz decided that the man was home now, so he went home himself.
Franz followed the man every Wednesday for several more weeks and it was always the same routine. He’d put a mitten on the fence (there seemed to be only four colors being used, Franz noted in his little book). Then he’d go to one of four different apartment houses directly after work, where he would stay for about an hour. Then he’d come out and go home.
Franz tried to work out whether the man was meeting someone or dropping something off. As the weather got warmer, he decided it must be a meeting because the man never seemed to carry anything and if he was dropping something off, it wouldn’t take an entire hour. The next week, instead of following his quarry home after the meetup, Franz stuck around at the meeting place for the entire evening, noting down who came out of the building. He wrote descriptions in his notebook.
The week after that, he did the same at a different apartment house, hoping that he’d see a familiar face.
And there she was! He knew it! He knew he was onto something. Oh, they’d take him into the State Security Ministry now! He’d proved himself worthy.
On the very next Wednesday, Franz sat waiting. He’d done reconnaissance. He’d planned his ambush well.
The man walked through the park, put a blue mitten on the spike, and continued through the park. Franz jumped up and followed. There was an alley just across the street from the park, a little way down from the corner, and as the man approached it, Franz sped up, grabbed the man’s arm and pushed him into the alley.
“Okay, okay!” said the man. “Take my money! Don’t hurt me.”
Franz, momentarily confused by the man’s reaction, recovered enough to say, “Shut up! I won’t hurt you if you tell me the truth. Who’s the woman? British Intelligence? American CIA?”
“What?” said the man, “I don’t…”
“The woman you meet every Wednesday! Who is she?”
“Oh my God! Did her husband send you?”
“Her husband?” asked Franz. He felt like he was losing control of this conversation and he didn’t like that feeling. He punched the man in the face, splitting his lip. The man fell against the wall.
“Please don’t hurt me.”
“Then tell me what I want to know! I know you meet the woman every Wednesday. You leave the mittens on the fence. I know you meet her in a different place each week according to the color of the mittens. I want to know which government she works for, you traitor!”
“Oh! No, no! It’s not like that. Please. It’s my neighbor’s wife. We’re having an affair. We meet in different apartments. I run an apartment rental agency and so I know which are the furnished apartments and which ones are empty.”
The reality of the man’s words hit Franz in the gut. He found it hard to breathe for a moment. Then he exploded.
“Verdammt!” said Franz, “Are you kidding me? I wasted months watching you!”
Franz spit in the man’s face.
“Go on! Get out of here! And stop messing around with another man’s woman. Hurensohn!”
The man nodded his head in agreement, bolted out of the alley, and scurried down the street.
Franz was livid. He couldn’t believe it. He had really thought he’d had something there, and it was just people committing adultery! Scheisse!
The adulterer walked quickly to his office building, wiping his face on his sleeve.
He checked out his bleeding lip in the restroom’s mirror down the hall from his office and cleaned himself up as best he could. He let himself into his one-man office and made a phone call. Then went out to a local bar. He needed a drink.
The woman whom Franz had seen coming out of the apartment houses stepped into the bar, saw the man, and went over to him.
“You look like shit,” she said, as she sat down opposite him.
“Yeah. The kid had a pretty good left hook. It’s all set. We don’t need to meet anymore.”
“What about the dead drop messages? Do we need to find another system?”
“No. The system works. We just need another place to do it. There’s a nice fence around the duck pond in Volkspark Friedrichshain and it’s too far for our young friend to walk to eat his lunch every day.”
“So, he wasn’t really Stasi?” she asked.
“No. It was like I thought. He was just a stupid git playing spy.”
© 2021 Liza Cameron Wasser