Chapter 48, in which no news might be bad news
A MESSAGE AND A BOTTLE
The café on Jägerstrasse in East Berlin is nearly empty. Cliff Thompson sits in a booth by himself and drinks a cup of ridiculously awful coffee at the end of an uneventful day. A modest crowd will gather for beer and potatoes over the course of the next two hours, but for now Thompson and three other men, not including the bartender, have the small place to themselves.
A construction worker enters. He still has the grime from a day’s work on his thick hands and weather-beaten face. His denim overalls are dusty as are his work boots. A faded plaid shirt hangs loosely on his sturdy frame.
He catches Thompson’s eye as he enters the café. Thompson waves him off with a slight nod. The worker takes his dirty felt hat off and walks towards the small bar at the back of the café. As he passes Thompson he places a small slip of folded paper next to Thompson’s right hand. Thompson immediately covers the message with his hand. The worker continues to the back of the bar.
“Budvar,” the worker orders. The bartender pulls a bottle of the Czech pilsner from under the bar, opens it with a church key bottle opener tied to his soiled apron, and places the open bottle on the bar.
Thompson unfolds the slip of paper to read the message. It’s encrypted. Thompson pockets the message, throws a few east marks on his table, and leaves the café. He turns west out of the café and then north, heading for Unter den Linden three blocks away.
He picks out an empty bench on the south side of the wide boulevard. He sits and casually looks around to ensure he has caught no one’s attention. Satisfied on that point, he pulls a pocket-sized, paperback copy of Das Kapital from the breast pocket of his light blazer. Turning modern communism’s founding document into a serviceable code book satisfies his disdain for all governments, and, as always, he is unable to stifle a slight, ironic smile as he opens the book.
The decoded message is simple: “Lass Kropotkin leben.” It makes no sense to him. The translation is easy enough: Let Kropotkin live. Thompson recalls Nick Temple having talked about a Soviet killing machine by the name of Kropotkin, but other than that the message is a complete mystery. Since his role is limited to that of courier, the fact that the message means nothing to him is of no import. He’ll see to it that Arnie Miller gets the message and that’ll be the end of it so far as he’s concerned.
But Miller will have to wait. Too many cables and too many trips back and forth in too short of a time span will cause even the dullards at STASI to smell a rat. Thompson hopes the message can wait. Three more days should do it. Anything sooner invites increased scrutiny, and increased scrutiny equals unacceptable risk.