Ten years later: July 1975
Halle-Neustadt, East Germany
Back in the incident room in Ha-Neu, Schmidt busied himself with his railway findings – searching for fingerprints on the cigarette butt and lighter – while Müller got ready for her meeting with Malkus. She looked in the mirror on the back of the door, adjusting her minimal make-up – little more than retouching her black eyeliner – and straightening her short coat. The recent sunny days, first in Berlin, now here in Ha-Neu, had given her skin tone a healthy glow. The trauma of the previous case, her break-up with Gottfried, all had seemed to leave their mark earlier in the year. Now she looked more her usual self. Perhaps too youthful-looking for a murder squad head.
That was the reason for her choice of coat colour. The heat was stifling, but Müller had brought a lightweight red jacket with her from Berlin, and she took it now from the back of the door of the small temporary office Eschler’s team had provided her with. She’d deliberately chosen it to make herself stand out, not in meeting the public, but for her dealings with other officers. The red made her feel more powerful. It was only psychological, perhaps, but she sensed from her earlier meeting with Malkus that winning – or at least competing in – psychological battles might be the key to their relationship.
Malkus might have summoned her to this meeting, leaving her little choice but to attend. But she planned to use it as an opportunity to push for a full and open search for Maddelena. If – as Eschler and his team claimed – the Stasi were resisting this, then she wanted to know exactly why. A desire to avoid panic seemed trivial, set against the welfare of a baby girl for whom time was almost certainly running out.
She grabbed the Wartburg’s ignition keys from the table and made her way towards the People’s Police car park. As she did so, Eschler rose from his desk to follow, a shopping bag in one hand, a piece of paper in the other.
As they descended the stairs, their footsteps echoing like handclaps on the bare concrete, he handed her the piece of paper. It turned out to be a colour-coded map.
‘I thought this might be useful. You’re not the only one who gets confused by the numbering system for addresses. I find this helps me. It has all the Wohnkomplexe shaded in different colours, similar to the one on the incident room wall. Sometimes it’s not easy to see where the boundaries of each residential area are. This should do the trick.’
Müller took the map and nodded her thanks. Hopefully this was a small sign that she was winning the uniform captain over to her side, rather than him treating her as an unwelcome imposter.
Once they were in the car park, Müller got into the Wartburg’s driver’s seat, and – to her surprise – Eschler climbed into the passenger seat to her right, placing the shopping bag between his legs in the footwell.
‘Were you planning on coming with me, Comrade Hauptmann?’
Eschler laughed. ‘No.’ He leaned towards her, took the map from her clasped hand and unfolded it. ‘I just thought I’d point out the Stasi regional headquarters for Bezirk Halle, which is where Malkus will be meeting you. It’s here, easy enough to find, on the eastern edge of the new town. At the edge of Wohnkomplex VIII – the one that’s shaded blue.’
Müller’s eyes followed his finger as he traced the route on the map, then were drawn once more to his bag.
‘And while I go to meet Malkus, are you planning a shopping trip?’Müller took the map and nodded her thanks. Hopefully this was a small sign that she was winning the uniform captain over to her side, rather than him treating her as an unwelcome imposter.
Eschler grinned, the smile softening the features that – just a few hours earlier – Müller had found unfriendly, even threatening. ‘No, no,’ he laughed. ‘These are for you.’ He opened the bag so Müller could see its contents. ‘Some vegetables from my family allotment. I realise you won’t have access to anything like that while you’re here, and, well, we had a good crop this year.’
‘That’s really kind of you . . .’ She paused for a second.
‘. . . Bruno. Can I call you Bruno?’
Eschler shifted in the seat and extended his hand to shake Müller’s. ‘Of course, Comrade Oberleutnant. But in front of the
‘Don’t worry. In front of the team, I shall make sure I use your full title, Bruno. And you . . . you must call me Karin.’
Eschler nodded. ‘I’m sorry if I was a little offhand and unwelcoming today at the briefing. I’m sure you appreciate, it’s difficult having to relinquish control to a team from outside the local area. But I want us to work together in a friendly, cooperative way, as much as possible.’
‘Of course,’ said Müller. ‘I understand.’
‘The vegetables are my little way of saying sorry.’
Müller smiled warmly. ‘Much appreciated. Jonas Schmidt and I are off our usual patch. We’ll need your team behind us. The gift is very welcome.’
Eschler climbed out of the car, but then ducked his head back in again before closing the door. ‘One thing, Karin. Be careful what you agree to with Malkus. I know we’re all on the same side, and by and large want the same thing. But they’re a funny pair, him and Hauptmann Janowitz. The major’s OK if you stay on the right side of him. Janowitz, however . . . well, you’ll probably find you’re dealing with him day to day. And he’s a cold fish. It’s very hard to stay on the right side of Hauptmann Janowitz, take it from me. I would be very careful in your dealings with him.’ The police captain gave a gentle bang on the vehicle’s roof. ‘Anyway, I shouldn’t be keeping you. Good luck.’ He slammed the door and wandered back towards the incident room.
Müller had left more than enough time to get to her meeting, and now had about twenty minutes to spare. She decided to use it to get her bearings around Ha-Neu in the daylight. The previous evening she and Schmidt had been too busy finding – and settling into – the apartment.
The lack of street names was something that – coming from Berlin – would take a lot of getting used to, but she managed to navigate by referring to Eschler’s colour-coded plan and comparing that to the numbering of the apartment blocks. What struck her – from the children cooling off in the fountains, mothers in their short dresses pushing their prams over pedestrian walkways, and Pioneers in their white, blue and red uniforms – was a general air of carefree summer happiness. There was no sign that word of what had happened to the twin babies had affected people’s everyday lives. Perhaps the Stasi’s policy of a news blackout was the right way, thought Müller. But she couldn’t shut out the nagging voice in her head that told her that – for the sake of missing baby Maddelena – house-to house inquiries were necessary. She glanced at another mother with a pram, getting a fleeting look at the baby’s face as she drove past. Although she’d nearly pulled him up for it, what Fernbach had said about most babies looking very similar did have an element of truth. If anyone wanted to steal a baby, perhaps the best way of hiding it would be to pretend it was your own. Was that conceivable?
Müller suddenly slammed on the brakes to avoid an elderly woman weaving about on a bicycle, the weighed-down shopping nets attached to each handle causing the old dear to wobble alarmingly. The woman’s angry glare reminded Müller of a chore she would rather not face. It was the same sort of thunderous look she’d often been on the receiving end of from her mother. She wouldn’t be able to put off the overdue visit to the family home in Thuringia for much longer. It wasn’t something she was relishing. Her police career had provided her with an escape from the stifling atmosphere of the family home and those angry looks whenever she did the smallest thing wrong. The angry looks that never seemed to be directed towards her younger sister, Sara, and brother, Roland. Why? she wondered. Surely any parent should want to treat their off spring similarly, yet her relationship with her mother had always been fractious at best – occasionally downright hostile. Was that Müller’s fault, her mother’s fault, or something else?
She’d driven for another few hundred metres almost on autopilot, but now she pulled sharply to a stop and consulted the map. Here, the apartments were newer, uncompleted, with building rubble and dried-up mud between the blocks, and despite trying to follow Eschler’s colour codes, she realised she was lost. Not only that, but in this section of the town the people, the citizens of Ha-Neu, all seemed to have disappeared. No proud mothers pushing prams. No Pioneers in their smartly starched uniforms. Müller felt herself give an involuntary shudder. Panic began to constrict her stomach: she’d be late for her meeting with Malkus, and the psychological protection of her red jacket wouldn’t be much use. Not the best way to start if she really was having her performance monitored.
Something made her look in the rear-view mirror. Perhaps she was looking for the previous night’s red Lada – the one that may or may not have been following her and Schmidt. That particular car was nowhere to be seen, but some hundred metres or so behind her, a black Skoda was parked on the same side of the road, with a figure at the driver’s side. Had that been following her this time? If it had, she hadn’t noticed. In the sharp shadow thrown by the nearest apartment block, she couldn’t make out if the occupant was male or female. But she hoped they would be able to help her – Stasi observer or not.
Müller got out of the Wartburg, and – with Eschler’s street map in her hands – made her way towards the Skoda. As she entered the same cloak of shadow that was partially obscuring the car and its occupant, she saw it was a man inside – staring straight at her. Something about the look was unfriendly, even though he had no way of knowing she was a police officer. She was in plain clothes, her car was unmarked. Unless, of course, he knew exactly who she was, and that was why he was here. Keeping tabs on her.
For a few seconds, Müller held the man’s gaze as she closed the space between them. But then he broke off the stare, looked down at the Skoda’s dashboard, and Müller heard the roar of the engine starting up. She raised her arm with the map as he drove past, but the man ignored her.
She put her hand to her brow, feeling the thump of a headache starting, her body battling the fierce, dry heat and her mounting anxiety. But as she drew her hand down across her face, her eyes focussed on the apartment block itself. It was one of the few in this newly built part of Ha-Neu which had its block number assigned. Relief flooded through her as she matched the block number to her map: she had her bearings once more. The towering concrete apartments – which had seemed to be closing in on her, trapping her in a maze of nameless streets – now once again seemed benign, inanimate.
Müller checked her watch as she studied the map. She’d drifted into the far west of the town, near the apartment assigned to her and Schmidt, although until just now she hadn’t realised that. Twenty minutes had been wasted by her unnecessary detour and panic about getting lost. Even if she drove at speed back to the eastern side of town, and the Stasi HQ, next to Wohnkomplex VIII, she knew she would be late.
As she turned off the Magistrale, Müller glanced into the Wartburg’s rear-view mirror again. Her heart rate quickened when she saw the black Skoda making the same turning towards Stasi HQ. At first, she told herself to stop being so paranoid. That it might just be coincidence that the other vehicle was taking the same route. She decelerated ahead of the barrier at the gated and walled Ministry for State Security compound. As she did so, the Skoda passed her and entered the Stasi zone without stopping.
By the time her pass had been examined and the guard had rung to confirm her appointment, Müller’s tardiness verged on being reckless. Not the best way to start what already promised to be a difficult relationship with Malkus and Janowitz. As soon as she was out of the car and had put her red jacket back on, a plainclothes officer was at her side as her escort, whether she wanted one or not.
‘Good afternoon, Comrade Oberleutnant. I’m here to take you for your meeting with Major Malkus. This way, please.’
As she walked alongside the Stasi operative, Müller looked up at the outside of the building. It was much like the other high-rise blocks of Ha-Neu. Almost brand new, with seven storeys and bands of terracotta-stained render underneath each floor’s line of windows – giving the building a horizontally striped appearance. The headquarters was cut into thirds by two towers made up of decorative concrete screen blocks, adorned by a repeating pattern of the Stasi’s emblem in the same dull cement grey: the Republic’s flag attached to a rifle, held up by a muscular worker’s arm.
The entrance towards which the officer was guiding her was under one of the towers. It looked to Müller almost identical to the entrance of the main Stasi HQ in the Hauptstadt at Normannenstrasse. But this would be the first time she’d actually set foot inside a Ministry for State Security premises – other than the jail at Hohenschönhausen where Gottfried had been held earlier in the year. The memory of that, the way they’d tried to use manufactured evidence against her former husband, and her more recent encounter with the agent in the Skoda, made her shiver despite the heat. Malkus had talked of offering her and the team any ‘assistance’ they needed. In her experience, assistance from
an agency like the Ministry for State Security was often a poisoned chalice.
Malkus appeared to greet her warmly, rising from the leather chair behind his desk, shaking her hand, and then inviting her to sit on a low corduroy sofa at the side of the room. He retook the desk seat, his bald head shining as the afternoon sun streamed through the window. His eyeline was a good metre or so above hers. No doubt deliberate, thought Müller, the height differential putting her at an immediate disadvantage.
‘Thanks very much for coming, Comrade Oberleutnant,’ Malkus began, as though she’d had some choice in the matter. ‘And don’t worry about being late, I realise you and the team must be busy getting to grips with things.’ He said this with a thin smile – but it was an admonishment, and Müller knew it.
‘Apologies, Comrade Major. It’s taking me a little while to get used to the fact that there are no street names. It’s very different from Berlin.’
‘Quite, quite,’ said Malkus, sitting back in the chair and twiddling his thumbs slowly. Then he leant forward and pulled up the cuffs of his long-sleeved white shirt a fraction, leaning his arms on the desk. Müller’s eyes were drawn to the white bust of the sharp-faced head of the Soviet Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, on the desktop. She knew Stasi members liked to think of themselves as the ‘German Cheka’. Alongside the bust was an open vodka bottle with a half-empty glass next to it. Malkus saw her eyeing it, put the top back on the bottle, and then placed it and the glass in one of his desk drawers.
He looked up at her with the same thin smile. ‘Now what I wanted to try to agree with you was a framework for this investigation. A framework that suits both the purposes of the People’s Police and the Ministry for State Security. I gather you have experience of working with us. Oberstleutnant Klaus Jäger, wasn’t it, of Department Eight in the Hauptstadt?’
Müller nodded, warily.
‘Klaus and I are good friends. We go back all the way to college. He recommended you for this job. Even though you will face some necessary constraints in the inquiry, heading your own murder squad again is preferable to pen-pushing and interviewing no good little thugs at Keibelstrasse. I’m sure you’ll agree with that?’
The knowledge that she’d been chosen by the Stasi, by Jäger in particular, rather than her own People’s Police superiors, was like a blow to the stomach for Müller. For the second time in the space of a few months, it looked like she was going to be dancing to the Stasi’s tune. Instead of voicing her anguish, Müller gave another slight nod.
‘So,’ said Malkus, getting a folder from his briefcase and then picking up a ballpoint pen and clicking it. ‘Let me take you through some of the issues we face in this inquiry and our suggestions of how to deal with them.’ He looked up from his papers and stared directly at Müller. She suddenly realised – as the sun hit his face just as it had by the rail line – what it was about his eyes that looked so odd. They weren’t yellowy brown – more a startling, luminescent amber. Müller found them unnerving and had to fight to concentrate on the Stasi officer’s words.
‘The main concern,’ he continued, ‘is that we don’t want to cause panic. Of course we need to find the killer, the abductor of the babies. We need to find the missing baby . . .’ He paused to look down at his notes. ‘. . . Maddelena. Those should, of course, be priorities. But the avoidance of panic, the avoidance of Ha-Neu getting a bad name, well, that’s almost more important, I think you’ll agree. So, the main thing I must impress upon you is that there is to be no apartment-by-apartment search.’
She bristled. ‘But surely –’
‘It’s not a matter of negotiation, Oberleutnant. It’s been agreed at the highest level between the Ministry for State Security and the ministry in charge of the police, the Interior Ministry.’
Müller felt anger course though her body. This wasn’t how she imagined the meeting playing out. Her attempts to raise the important issue of a full search were being stonewalled. She made one last attempt to plead her case. ‘We are very unlikely to be able to find the girl, to find clues about her whereabouts, without conducting a thorough search of each flat, in each block, in each residential area. I still believe that is what we have to do.’
Malkus started shaking his head even before she’d finished her sentence. ‘You will have to use other methods. I’m sure you’ll think of something. And if the baby was being held somewhere, why would it be in one of the city’s residential apartments? Surely that would be too high a risk for the culprit? Anyway, as I say, this aspect of the investigation is non-negotiable. The second-most important thing is that I expect you to share information with us. When you get a new lead, let us know. If you want to take the investigation in a different direction, talk to us first. That way there will be no misunderstandings.’ Malkus put his pen down and rocked back in his chair, with his arms folded over his stomach. ‘I gather from Klaus that there were one or two such misunderstandings during your investigation earlier this year.’
Müller said nothing, and just returned the Stasi major’s stare.
‘Oh, and one other thing before you go. Klaus sends his regards. He was very sorry you turned down the chance to join him in his new job in the Main Intelligence Directorate. He’s been promoted to a full colonel now, and assigned to a post in Cuba. But perhaps you felt foreign travel’s not really your sort of thing. Not like your ex-husband.’
Müller sighed. It didn’t surprise her that the Halle branch of the Stasi knew everything about her. But she wasn’t going to give Malkus the satisfaction of knowing that he’d riled her, despite his deliberate attempts to provoke. Müller rearranged her skirt and got to her feet. ‘Will that be all for now, Comrade Major?’
Malkus waved at her airily from behind his desk. ‘Yes, yes, Karin. I don’t want to detain you. I know you’ve got work to be getting on with. Anything important, let me know. For the day-today issues, Hauptmann Janowitz will be keeping in close contact. Be careful to stay the right side of the captain. He’s not always as understanding as I am. You know your way out now, don’t you?’
She exited the room without saying goodbye. It had all been a show of power, she was aware of that. Nothing had been said by Malkus that couldn’t have been said earlier in the day at the railway embankment. The news that Janowitz would be ‘keeping in close contact’ was in no way reassuring. The opposite, in fact. The man in the Skoda – perhaps even the driver of the red Lada from the night before – had probably been one of Janowitz’s underlings.
As she made her way down the concrete stairs and back out towards the car park, escorted by the same plain-clothes operative, the sense of foreboding she’d felt for much of the Jugendwerkhof girl case settled over her again. Perhaps dealing with annoying hippies like Lauterberg at Keibelstrasse hadn’t been so bad in comparison after all.
From STASI WOLF. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bonnier Zaffre. Copyright © 2017 by David Young.