The Czar Bomb
October 30, 1961
Soviet Air Force Major Andrei Durnovtsev knew that he and his crew had been given a 50-50 chance of surviving the thermonuclear blast from the 30-ton superbomb slung awkwardly beneath his TU-95V “Bear A” bomber. They could be incinerated in midair inside a flying crematorium, the scientists had warned. On the other hand, he knew that there was a 100-percent possibility that if the bomb failed to detonate, they would all receive bullets to the brain. Such a failure could not be made public to tarnish the Soviet Union’s reputation for nuclear success.
After all, Nikita Khrushchev and the other Soviet leaders had meant for detonation of the largest man-made explosion in history to be not only a technological coup. It was to be a propaganda coup of the highest magnitude for Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
But Durnovtsev was a dutiful son of the Soviet Union, so bundled in a thick leather jacket against the icy, gray dawn of Olenya airfield in northern Russia, he meticulously inspected the 26-foot-long, silver-painted bomb. He paid particular attention to the bundle attached to the bomb’s tail. It held the 1,800-pound parachute that he hoped would be the savior for him and his crew. The huge parachute canopy would deploy as the bomb was released, in hopes of slowing descent to give time for the bomber and its accompanying TU-16 Badger observer plane to escape.
At least Durnovtsev had confidence in the plane and the skills of him and his crew. He had trained assiduously on the TU-95V, with its long, slim fuselage and swept-back wings. And this plane had been specially engineered to carry the bomb, code-named Vanya, that was to be tested that day.
The Bear A bomber with its 164-foot wingspan and 151-foot length was the only craft that could possibly carry the load. Even so, engineers had made major modifications to strengthen its structure. Durnovtsev meticulously inspected those modifications—the reinforced suspension, the sturdier release mechanisms, and the heavier bomb rack attached directly to the plane’s weight-bearing beams.
Also, the bomb was so large that the engineers had removed the bomb bay doors and slung the bomb beneath the plane. So even taking off with the massive load presented a huge risk, given that the bomb spoiled the bomber’s aerodynamic shape.
Even beyond its reinforcement, the technicians had further transformed the airplane for the flight. They had sprayed its gleaming metal surface with white reflective paint in hopes of preventing the plane from being seared by the blast that was to come.
But none of the engineers, technicians, scientists, or test supervisors had the guts to be on the flight to witness first-hand their success or failure. They huddled in the command post with Major General Nikolai Pavlov, Chairman of the State Commission. They would nervously drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and monitor the test, as Durnovtsev and his crew flew into history. Or to annihilation.
Durnovtsev and his crew climbed aboard the plane, donned their harnesses and oxygen masks, and meticulously went through their preflight checklist. That procedure accomplished, Durnovtsev ended the early morning calm by starting the four turboprop engines. They roared obediently to life, their contra-rotating propellers making the plane deafeningly loud.
He shoved the throttles forward and began the taxi. The plane rumbled down the runway for a seemingly interminable distance before finally heaving itself into the overcast sky. Durnovtsev banked toward the northwest and set a course for the Mityushikha Bay Nuclear Testing Range 600 miles away.
During the flight, the radio messages between his plane and the Badger were terse, as were the communications with the ground. The crews immersed themselves in their mission, trying to ignore the consequences of the potential holocaust that was to come. Or the consequences of failure.
Finally, the target slid slowly into sight 34,000 feet below—the snow-covered terrain of Novaya Zemlya Island. The next moments were totally out of Durnovtsev’s hands. The distant ground control transmitted the radio signal that automatically triggered the three bomber locks, releasing the bomb.
Freed of its load, the plane lurched violently upward, and Durnovtsev slammed the plane’s controls into a banking turn desperately racing for a safe distance, at least 30 miles. Thankfully, he saw the parachute deploy.
At 11:32 am Moscow time, a blinding flash lit up the clouds, its ethereal light expanding, causing the clouds to glow and become transparent. An immense, fiery orange ball emerged from a gap in the clouds—a sun born on earth, expanding, expanding, expanding.
Eight seconds later, the blowtorch of a blast wave slammed into the plane, driving it into a plummeting uncontrolled dive of more than half a mile.
Durnovtsev strained at the controls, fighting for the craft’s, and the crew’s, survival. Finally, he managed to recover the plane, and in the distance, he could see a rising, roiling mushroom cloud the magnitude of which no human had ever witnessed. It thrust relentlessly upward, reaching forty miles high into the stratosphere.
The blast’s ionization of the atmosphere blocked radio communication for forty minutes, so Durnovtsev could not report their survival or determine the fate of the Badger observer plane. Finally, to his relief, he heard a report from the Badger that it had survived, and he contacted the ebullient and relieved scientists, engineers, and party officials.
He eagerly anticipated what would come next: immediate promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel, being named Hero of the Soviet Union, and very, very large quantities of vodka.
Although the bomb detonated at 13,000 feet, the rock-strewn terrain of the island beneath it was scorched for miles by the thermonuclear inferno.
The village of Severny 34 miles from the blast was completely destroyed, even its brick houses leveled. More than 100 miles distant, wooden houses were flattened and stone dwellings lost roofs and doors. Witnesses 170 miles away felt the heat of the blast, and windows were shattered in Norway and Finland, hundreds of miles distant. The light flash was visible more than 600 miles away. The shock wave circled the Earth three times.
An American observation plane nearby, scorched by the blast, managed to measure its size, at the equivalent of 58 megatons—million tons of TNT.
Later, the Soviets would revise that figure to 50 megatons, making it by far the largest man-made explosion in history—1,500 times larger than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
January 16, 1963
Still exulting in the successful thermonuclear detonation more than a year earlier, Nikita Khrushchev announced with great fanfare that the Soviet Union had constructed an even more powerful 100-megaton bomb. He declared that it was hidden somewhere in East Germany. The Soviet people proclaimed their new superweapon, “Tsar Bomba,” the Czar Bomb.
Khalid Rasul pushed his way warily through the brush on top of the broad hill, his AKM assault rifle at his side, scanning the surrounding thick German woods. He didn’t like forest. He was used to the broad rocky expanse of the Middle Eastern desert, where he had so often stalked and killed the enemy. At least the forest was quiet, except for the dull thunk of picks and shovels, as his crew dug into the earth below. He had chosen where they were to dig, identifying the most likely spot to expose an entrance to what might be hidden beneath the hill the size of a warehouse.
The crew did not speak, as they had been so instructed. Voices would carry in the silent woods, and Rasul did not want visitors to their project. The crew was silent because they were loyal to Rasul and his friend and master, Iraqi shipping magnate Saadallah bin Shadid. But they were also quiet because they knew that Rasul was perfectly capable of instantly silencing any who disobeyed. Permanently.
Rasul knew he could not count on his disguise in the coveralls of a German railroad worker to allay any suspicions on the part of intruders. His swarthy features, thick beard and dark, curly hair marked him as not a German. And his muscular physique was distinctly different from the doughy form of so many Germans.
He had planned his response to intruders. He would greet them warmly, find out if they were alone, and slash their throats. Cleanly, expertly, silently, as he had done so many times before in the service of his master.
But he didn’t expect any interference with the crucial assignment with which he had been entrusted by bin Shadid. The closest people—the staff of the Stasi Bunker Museum half a mile away—had been warned to keep away because the supposed railroad construction crew might be blasting in making improvements on the right of way. It was a very useful fiction.
Fortunately, it was a fiction Rasul did not have to sell to the railroad. He had bribed the middle-aged local stationmaster of the Leipzig-Dresden railway line to clear the way for him and the crew to do their work. It took only a satchel containing approximately ten times the stationmaster’s annual salary, and a subtle threat.
He moved to overlook the crew below, also disguised in railroad coveralls, as they hacked their way through the root-clogged earth into the slope closest to the nearby railway line. The workers, smuggled from Iraq, had already chopped through decades of thick overgrowth. Working from historical records, Rasul had located the hill and identified it as an artificial feature, possibly the resting place of their prize. The hill was distinctly different from its surroundings. No trees grew on it, only brush, probably because some structure beneath the soil prevented their roots from taking hold.
Suddenly, rose the faint clank of metal against metal, followed by an excited, hushed babble from the men. Rasul descended from the hill, commanding them in Kurdish to concentrate their digging at that point. He curtly dispatched one of the workers to the top of the hill to take over the watch.
The workers’ redoubled their exertions, and in an hour, sweating and panting, they had excavated a section of what appeared to be a huge steel door.
Now mindless of the noise with the prize so close, Rasul summoned the backhoe that had been unloaded from the flatbed truck out on the main road. The men slumped against nearby trees, drinking water, devouring fat German meat loaf sandwiches from backpacks, and dozing.
After half an hour, its engine growling, the machine advanced ponderously through the brush, crushing bushes and flattening small trees. It began to claw large chunks of damp earth away from the hillside, revealing the full extent of two rusting steel doors. They were encrusted with soil from decades of being buried.
At Rasul’s command, the workers roused themselves and finished clearing the soil around the doors. They brushed away the final clods of dirt on the doors’ surface to reveal the thick chain that had been wound around its handles, secured with a rusted lock.
One of the workers brought up a cutting torch taken from the backhoe. He donned a welding helmet and ignited its blue flame, applying it to the chain. With hissing and sputtering, the flame cut its way through the rusted metal. After only minutes, the chain parted, dangling from the door’s handles. The workers ran a thick steel cable from one of the door’s handles to the backhoe.
With a roar of its engine, the backhoe lurched back tightening the cable. With groaning metallic complaint, the door slowly gave way, opening up a crack.
Holding a flashlight, Rasul squeezed his way inside. He coughed at the musty, dust-filled air that likely had not seen ventilation for decades. The flashlight played about the chamber, revealing it to be a huge steel-reinforced concrete bunker holding only a metal boxcar resting on rails.
Rasul circled the boxcar, playing the flashlight beam over its surface, inspecting it. At first glance, it looked like any other boxcar. But on closer inspection, it was unlike any other he had ever seen. Its doors were not really doors, but door-like panels welded to heavy metal walls that were designed to be lifted completely away. The boxcar had a multi-sectioned roof fastened by heavy latches, so they, too could be completely removed. He smiled in satisfaction when he saw that its sides were stenciled with Cyrillic characters. This was a Soviet boxcar!
He climbed a ladder at the end of the boxcar, peering across its curved roof. He could see no access hatch. He would have to lift one of the roof sections to see what was inside. He shone his flashlight upward to see mounted on the ceiling a hand-operated crane. It would allow him to lift a roof section. Things were looking promising!
Lowering himself back to the floor, he found a ladder in one corner of the chamber and climbed it to reach the top of one of the boxcar’s side walls. He was about to pull one of the roof latches open, but abruptly stopped, his brow knitted in suspicion. Any ordinary thief would not have hesitated to open the latch, lured by the prospect of stealing the gold or other valuables the thief would believe were locked in this elaborately hidden bunker. But Rasul was no ordinary thief. He had not survived as a street urchin on Baghdad streets mined with buried IEDs without an acute sense of danger.
Shining his flashlight at the latch, he could see that it was fitted with electrical contacts, as were the others. He smiled wryly at the cleverness of those who had hidden the boxcar.
He called two of his most trusted guards into the chamber, cautioning them about the electrical contacts and dispatching them to carefully scout the bunker. They moved off, their flashlight beams playing over the gray concrete walls and ceiling.
Rasul launched his own exploration, and after ten minutes he had discovered the wiring leading to the electrical contacts on the latches. The wires led down to the concrete floor of the bunker and ran along the inside of the steel rails on which the boxcar rested.
A call from one of the guards brought him to the other side of the bunker, his flashlight revealing a row of small black boxes spaced out along where the wall and floor met. The boxes ringed the bunker, each attached to wires connected to the ones Rasul had discovered.
He instructed the men to leave. He would be the only one to die if he made an error. His leader bin Shadid would want to know of the circumstances of his death.
He gently pried open the lid of one of the metal boxes to see it filled with blocks of black material labeled with “PVV-5A.” Each block had a wire running from it, and the wires were gathered in a sheaf joined to a single wire running to a battery in the box. The brown case of the battery was encrusted with white crystals, having corroded away over decades entombed in the bunker.
He took a deep breath, bracing himself for whatever was to come. His master badly wanted the device that was believed to rest in this bunker. He would get it for him, or die trying. He reached down and ever-so-gently pulled the leads off the battery.
He blew a sign of relief, sat down on the cold concrete floor, and whispered “Alhamdulillah,” the Muslim prayer of thanks. He proceeded from one metal box to the other, kneeling and detaching the battery leads. With each act, he braced himself for a blast and oblivion.
Finally, he had disarmed all the boxes. He hauled himself back up the ladder. He took a deep breath and unlatched the first latch holding one of the end roof segments to the boxcar wall. Again, no explosion!
He continued the process, one by one opening the latches holding down the roof. He called the guards back in and mounted the roof, directing them to crank down the crane’s cable and attach the cable’s hooks to the four rings on the roof segment. As the guards cranked the segment up, he shone his flashlight down into the boxcar’s depths. The light revealed a bulky object, shrouded in gray canvas, nearly filling the boxcar. He lowered himself into the boxcar and lifted back the canvas. He gasped and uttered once more “Alhamdulillah!”
He had found it! He had done his master and friend the great service of finding it! He quickly snapped off photos with his cell phone, replaced the canvas, and climbed out of the boxcar. He had to make sure that none of the workers saw inside the boxcar. He directed the guards to replace the roof, instructing them to make sure that no worker got a look inside. He tapped his assault rifle, an unspoken instruction about the consequences of such a transgression.
After taking more photos of the dimly lit chamber interior, he followed the path of the rails on which the boxcar rested out of the chamber and into the afternoon sunlight. He directed the men to begin digging along the path outside the chamber. Again came the clank of metal shovels striking buried metal. They were rails. The builders of the structure had laid the rails leading to the main line in a shallow depression, so they could be buried once the railroad car was in place. To hide the connection to the spur line, the builders had removed only the section of rails connecting at the main line.
So, it would be an easy task to reconnect the spur to the main line and remove the boxcar. He would post his trusted guards on the site overnight. Over the next days, the crew would dig out the rails and reconnect to the spur line. The bribed stationmaster would be persuaded to route a freight engine along the spur line to connect the boxcar and route it to its destination. Rasul dispatched one of his trusted lieutenants to obtain the necessary paint and identifying information to disguise the boxcar as an ordinary German freight carrier. In a few months, the pudgy German stationmaster would be found murdered, amid evidence that he had been a drug smuggler.
To further erase any sign of the operation, Rasul would then bring new batteries, reconnect the explosives and detonate them to bring down the structure. Should anyone figure out what the bunker had held, they would believe that it had been buried beneath tons of rubble.
As the crew dug their way along the rails, uncovering their length, Rasul took out his cell phone and coded the images he had taken, transmitting them.
He sent with the images a text message in Kurdish that said simply, “We have found Vanya.” He found grim satisfaction that he had given his master the instrument of revenge for the soul-crushing horror he had suffered. Americans had killed his family. Millions would pay the price.
Wenzel Fischer sat in the armchair sipping his tea, his bony hand trembling slightly, his walker beside him. He liked to take afternoon tea in the corner of the small German storefront community center and watch the elderly ladies at their knitting. They sat at the long wooden table, their crafts piled before them gossiping and making the baby booties, shawls, and other items to sell.
But today he was not at his ease. Today, the anxiety over the newspaper article gnawed at him. He had said too much to the reporter. He had showed the reporter his wooden box full of the yellowed pages from his time as a supply clerk for the East German Stasi.
He cursed his stupidity! True, he had asked the reporter not to put anything in the article about his role in the mysterious construction project in Machern. But the reporter did, anyway.
Frau Richter had noticed his worried expression and come over to comfort him. “You are all right, Wenzel?” she had asked, patting his stooped shoulder. “You look uncomfortable.”
He merely nodded, so she had asked him what was causing his worry. He told her that the article brought attention to a part of his life he would rather forget. Then he pointedly went back to his tea. She smiled and understood that he wished not to talk further, and went back to her knitting.
But he couldn’t forget that time. He sat and took his tea and remembered ordering the huge amount of cement and steel reinforcement for the project. And the explosives, the large amount of explosives. Since he worked for the Stasi, none of the suppliers ever questioned the orders.
He remembered particularly the massive steel doors he had been tasked to order. As with the other suppliers, the owner of the foundry knew better than to question the order.
But Wenzel Fischer was curious, as young men are. He remembered going to the site during construction and telling the foreman he only wanted to check whether the materials were being delivered properly. He was sent away with an ominous warning not to return. But he realized that things were not right when he heard the workers speaking Russian.
This was not a German crew, and he suspected that the guards were KGB. In fact, it was a Russian-accented guard with a Russian Tokarev submachine gun who had threatened him.
Still, he was so curious that when the supply orders had stopped, and he was sure the construction was complete, he had sneaked out to the site at night. He had made his way through the thick woods, until his flashlight revealed a massive mountain of new compacted soil. He had circled it, looking for some sign of a structure, but there was only the mountain. He had climbed to the top. He only realized that he was standing on a buried structure when he had picked up a stick to dig down in the dirt, which had been planted with grass, and it struck concrete.
He was making his way back through the woods, when another discovery revealed the horror of what had happened at the site. Taking another route back, he had come upon a clearing in the woods. His flashlight revealed an area of freshly turned earth maybe ten meters long and ten meters wide. He stood puzzled for only a moment when the realization struck him. It was a mass grave!
As he sat in his chair decades later, he still shuddered at the recollection. A voice brought him out of his reverie.
“You are the man in the newspaper article?” The questioner was a wiry man with a thin face in a hooded jacket, wearing a canvas knapsack. The man smiled, but his smile was as frightening as if he had pointed a gun at Fischer. And his eyes were dead, like those of a snake he had once seen at the zoo.
Incongruously, the man held in his hand a rag doll that he had apparently just purchased from one of the ladies. Despite his ingratiating purchase, they were all glancing suspiciously at him.
“Uh. . . I don’t want to talk about it,” said Fischer, putting down his teacup. As the man loomed over him, the wolfish smile still on his face, Fischer took up his walker, beginning the arduous process of pulling himself up. He had to escape this man.
“But it was fascinating that you worked for the Stasi. . . ,” said the man. “. . . that you helped them with construction. Could I ask you more about it? About your records?”
“No, I have to leave. I need to take my medicine.” With a grunt, Fischer hauled himself up and began to hobble away.
“Perhaps I could come to your apartment, and we could talk. Where do you live?”
“I need my medicine. I need to go.”
The man looked back at the women, who by now were staring at him with open suspicion. “Ah, well, perhaps later,” he said.
Wenzel Fischer fled as fast as his walker would allow. He had to get to his apartment. He had to get to the box that had rested under his floorboards for many decades. He had kept the box for so long because he had been haunted by that project and the mass grave. His conscience told him that he should keep those records to preserve the memory of whatever went on. He was only a minor player in that dark history, but no matter what happened to him, he felt a responsibility to preserve evidence of it.
And he knew how to do that.
The thief had quickly left the community center under the glare of the old women. Gossipy old women who would give him away if he showed up again. He didn’t want them to see him to following the old German, so he had walked out the front door, but circled the quiet block to enter the courtyard behind the building. The old man was slow, so the thief arrived in time to see which apartment he had entered.
It was late afternoon, so the thief went to a nearby Brauhaus to drink beer and have dinner. He really didn’t like this particular job. He was a thief, not a murderer, he persuaded himself, although he had killed two men in the course of his career. But those kills were in furtherance of a job, making them a necessity. So also would be this kill. So he was still primarily a thief, not a murderer really. Besides, the pay was very, very good.
He continued to nurse a mild unease over the job, as well as several beers until late in the evening. He checked that the community center was closed and the women gone. He picked up his knapsack and made his way back to the courtyard and up to the apartment door. All was quiet. Old people go to bed early.
He tried the door. It was locked, so he took his lock picks out of his knapsack and deftly picked the lock as he had done so many times before.
He stepped inside, waiting silently in the dark for any sign he had been detected. There was none. He reached into the knapsack and pulled out the small gas bottle and the attached face mask he had been given.
He stepped quietly into the small bedroom. The sound of rattled breathing told the thief the old man was asleep. In the dim light of the window, he could see the old man lying on his back on a little cot in the corner. He turned the valve on the gas bottle to start the flow of carbon dioxide.
Striding across the room, he straddled the old man, pinned his arms, pushed the mask over his face, and held it there.
He was surprised at the weakness of the response, as the old man writhed feebly beneath his weight. The old man grunted as he struggled, but fortunately, the sound was muffled by the mask.
The thief was also surprised how quickly that struggling ceased, as the old man died. A fetid odor arose from the body, causing him to gag, as the old man’s sphincter opened in death, and his bowels emptied. Enduring the stench, he held the mask on for another minute to make sure the old man was dead. Then, he climbed off the corpse, checking to make sure the thin blanket was arranged so as not to look like somebody had been crouched on it.
Now he had all night to find the box. Over the next two hours, he searched every possible hiding place in the small apartment. He thought his search had ended when he discovered the loose floorboards in the corner by the small coal stove. But when he pried them up, the niche was empty.
Alter wichser! The thief spat, cursing the old man. The box was not there! He would not get the other half of his fee, even though he had done most of the work for this job in killing the old man. His employers were ruthless and powerful, so he might himself be in danger!
He decided he would do the only thing possible. He would have to watch and wait. Maybe somebody in the community center had the box.
Benjamin Webber didn’t realize he had forgotten his umbrella on the trolley until he reached the steps of the townhouse. His mind was elsewhere, as he walked four blocks from where he had emerged from Berlin’s subway, the U-Bahn.
By then, the icy drizzle of the German winter had soaked his stocking cap into a cold slab that chilled his head, and his woolen sports jacket into a sodden shroud. He had been neglectful because he had been immersed in thought on the ride from the university to the townhouse rented for his sabbatical. Now he was immersed in rain.
He did have the presence of mind to instinctively clutch his leather briefcase close to his side, as if that would keep it dry. He had critical papers inside, along with his laptop.
He trudged up the stone steps, pausing at the door. He patted his pockets, realizing that unlocking the door would not be possible. His keys were likely still on his desk at the university.
Today, he had good reason to be absent-minded. As an historian, he had made a major discovery that would send his research soaring to a whole new level.
He knocked on the door and expected a considerable wait while Abby came to answer. But the door opened almost immediately.
She stood there grinning at him, holding her cell phone that she had used to track him. She was a pixie of a woman with long auburn hair swept up in an unruly bun, wide brown eyes, a pert nose, and lips upturned at the edges. She wore those ridiculous fat fuzzy slippers she loved to tromp around the house in. And, she wore a flower-bedecked house dress that didn’t quite conceal her pregnant belly.
“Benjamin,” she declared scolding. “You are one wet puppy.”
“Abigail,” he mirrored back, smiling himself with guilt. “I kind of forgot—”
“Come in here, right now, sir,” she commanded with amused officiousness. “We need to warm you up.”
He stepped inside the hallway and peeled off the wet cap, and she helped him off with his soaked jacket. Then she gave him a long delicious hug, embracing his taut form.
Her soft touch warmed him body and soul, and he breathed in her lovely aroma of shampoo and some undefinable womanly scent. He felt her growing baby bump against his stomach and reached down to pat it.
“How is Schnitzel? Is he a happy little guy?”
“Schnitzel was very busy today,” she said, patting her belly. “He was flippin’ and flutterin’ all day.” After learning a week ago that they were having a boy, they began jokingly testing the oddest names they could think of.
She had brought a towel and thoroughly rubbed his thick, curly, black hair and gently patted his face with its fine features. His face dried, they enjoyed a long kiss, which inspired him to ask, “Maybe we can postpone dinner?” He glanced significantly at the stairs leading to the second floor and their bedroom.
“Well, it will be postponed, but not for the reason you’d prefer, my love. We’re expecting visitors. I called to tell you, but you didn’t answer. I texted, too, about them. . . and to tell you to bring home milk.”
“Oh, Jeez, sorry, I had it on vibrate because I was in the Stasi Museum all morning. I forgot to turn the ringer back on when I went back to the office. Abby, I identified the central monster!”
“Oh my God, really?”
“Yes, he was a colonel in the Stasi Office of the Minister.”
“Tell me all about it after you’ve talked to the ladies. They’re due about now.”
“The one who called said she and her friends needed to see you about something very important. She asked if you were a kompetenter Professor. Competent professor. I told her you were prima.”
“Tip-top. The best. I also told her you were a pussycat.”
“You do make me purr,” he said smiling and hugging her. “Thanks for the buildup.”
She headed back to the kitchen to make coffee, and he went into his study off the entrance hall to unpack his briefcase and open his laptop. He had just finished the process when a faint knock at the front door brought him back out into the hall. He answered the door to see three women standing on the stoop with grave expressions.
“Herr Professor Webber?” asked one, a slim wrinkled woman with a gaunt, stern face.
“Ja, ich bin er,” he answered, opening the door to admit them. Bitte komm herein.” He helped them off with their matching gray raincoats and rain hats, including one clutching a scarred wooden box, and led them into the living room. It was sparely furnished with the simple, sturdy furniture installed in the townhouses assigned to visiting faculty. A small fire flickered in the ceramic-tiled fireplace.
Ben sat in one of the room’s two large armchairs, and the women sat solidly, impassively on the living room couch. The other two beside the slim woman were of the plump variety with short gray hair, who were commonly seen in markets trundling about filling shopping carts. All wore simple print dresses and black sensible shoes with low heels. The plump woman with the box clutched it tightly on her lap.
Abby appeared to offer them coffee or tea, and at her urging, they accepted. She left to fetch the drinks.
Ben smiled warmly, asking “Wie kann ich Ihnen helfen, meine Damen?”
The slim woman answered his question, introducing them. “Ich bin Frau Richter und das sind Frau Hoffman und Frau Haas. ”She then asked whether he would prefer that they speak English: “Würden Sie es vorziehen, dass ich Englisch spreche?”
Ben chuckled deprecatingly. “That would be extremely helpful. I can speak German if it’s easier for you, but I confess my German is still not what it should be.”
“We will then speak English,” announced Frau Richter with the finality of a stern German matriarch.
Abby arrived and served the tea and coffee, then settled in the other armchair, adjusting her body to gain whatever comfort was possible, given her pregnant state.
Ben repeated his earlier question, now in English: “So, how may I help you ladies?”
“You study the Stasi?” asked Frau Richter. She hissed the last word, as did all Germans when mentioning the notorious East German secret police who had terrorized the populace during the Soviet occupation. “We asked at university, and they told us.”
“I do,” said Ben.
“Why?” asked Frau Richter. “Why would you want to study them?”
“They were one of the most brutal oppressive organizations in history, along with such groups as the Nazi SS, the KGB, and the Juntong in China. As an historian, I became interested in why they were so brutally effective. If we can understand that, we can understand how to fight them, to stop groups like them.”
“And you are finding why they are effective?” asked Frau Richter.
“I think so. I’m drilling down into the organizations to discover what I call the hidden monsters. Many times it wasn’t the most prominent leader that made these groups so effective. It was the lesser-known officers. It’s always been said that to kill a beast you cut off its head, but I think we can really undermine, even destroy these organizations by targeting these hidden monsters. Besides teaching at my university, I consult for the US government to help develop strategies to do that.”
“And you make Entdeckungen . . . discoveries. . . about Stasi?”
“Yes, in fact, today I just identified a major hidden monster in the Stasi hierarchy.”
Frau Richter looked questioningly over at the other women, and they nodded back in assent for her to continue.
“We will trust you with some Stasi records that we want to give to someone who can figure out what they mean.” Frau Hoffman, tightly clutching the wooden box, raised her eyebrows and peering at him over rimless glasses.
Ben raised his eyebrows, as well. An old box like that could hold important historical documents. “I have to ask, why did you come to my home? Why not my office. And how did you find out where I live?”
“When I tell you about the records, you will understand why we come here. And Frau Hoffman found your address. She is ein Hacker.”
Frau Hoffman shrugged in modest pride.
“So, tell me about them,” said Ben.
Frau Richter paused, clasping her hands in front of her. “Every day, we go to community center in our neighborhood. We have coffee, knit things to sell, just be together. We are mostly women, but one old man, Wenzel Fischer, came just about every day. He lived in an apartment behind the center. He never said much about his past, but one day, this reporter came. A newspaper reporter. He said that he had tracked Herr Fischer, because Herr Fischer used to work for Stasi. The reporter was doing an article on Stasi. Herr Fischer insisted he was not really Stasi, but only worked for them on projects. He said he was only clerk, ordering materials. The reporter interviewed Herr Fischer, and the article was in the newspaper about how he had ordered materials. He showed the reporter papers he had saved. From his time with Stasi. These papers.”
“So, what are the papers?”
“We have looked at them. They were records of a construction project at Stasi bunker in Machern. He told reporter Russians were there to help build it. But he became very frightened when he realized what he had said to the reporter. He begged the reporter not to mention the project or the papers, but it was in the article anyway.”
“Do you know why he was frightened?” asked Ben.
“No, but after article came out, a man came to our center. He asked Herr Fischer about the project. We all saw that Herr Fischer was frightened, and when the man saw how we disapproved, he left. That was when Herr Fischer came back and brought us his box. He said if anything happened, we were to give the box to someone who would know what to do with it.”
“So, can I ask Herr Fischer about the box?”
“No,” said Frau Richter. The women’s expressions grew somber. Frau Hoffman began to weep, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief.
“He is dead. We think. . . ermordet. She paused, looking for the word in English. “Murdered.”
Ben hunched his slim frame over the scarred oak desk in his study and pored over the papers from the box. The documents were brittle and yellowed, matching the era of the battered wooden box. As an historian, Ben was so accustomed to judging the provenance of historical documents that he did it almost unconsciously. Not only were the documents old, but the box showed decades of grime and scarring, likely secreted away under a bed, in a closet, or in some niche.
The contents seemed mostly prosaic; nothing more than invoices for building materials—including large amounts of concrete and steel girders. One invoice that stood out was for two large steel doors to be produced at a foundry in Leipzig. The most striking order, however, was for large amounts of the explosive, called PVV-5A, used by Soviets during the era.
The materials were to be delivered to someplace called “Stasi-Bunker Lübschützer Teiche” in Machern, a village near Leipzig. The translation of the location In English was the “Stasi bunker Lübschützer ponds.”
He opened his laptop and did a search of Stasi facilities. The bunker was a secret fallout shelter for elite Stasi, hidden away in the East German countryside. It had been built to look like a resort, and was so well disguised that it hadn’t even been discovered until decades after the Cold War ended.
As was his custom, he took handwritten notes on a yellow pad as he inspected the contents. Even though he had a computer, scribbling on paper was a way to work through a problem.
“Sweetie, you need to eat,” said Abby leaning against the study doorway, her arms cradling her belly, and with her puffy slippers crossed in mock impatience. “We three need to eat,” she added, patting her belly. “I made Currywurst and fries.”
He closed his laptop, replaced the sheaf of documents in the box, and followed her into their small kitchen, where they sat at the wooden table and ate the German sausage with its spicy curry ketchup. He washed his meal down with beer, and she drank Apfelschorle—a soft drink of apple juice and sparkling mineral water.
“So, what do you make of the ladies and their box and their murdered friend?” she asked.
“The box seems genuine,” he said. “The documents don’t seem all that unusual, but they certainly have significance, or he wouldn’t have hidden them. As for the murder, from what I can tell that’s just their theory. You remember, they said the police concluded it was a natural death. And when I asked about it, the ladies said he was found in his bed, and although his apartment was messy, it didn’t seem as if there had been a burglary.”
“More important, tell me about your hidden monster. And I’ll make you a deal. I’ll tell you about my hidden treasure.”
“I’d rather hear about yours first.” He always took great pleasure in hearing about her explorations as an art historian. It was such a relief from his own grim work. And it reminded him how they had met in Washington. She had asked his help in tracking down artworks stolen by the Nazis. Now she was exploring Berlin for public art neglected by the popular guidebooks, much to the absolute delight of the Berlin tourism bureau.
She spun out her story of discovery of a sculpture hidden away in the courtyard of a restaurant. And he told her of the Stasi hidden monster, as they continued their conversation over dinner. Afterward, he returned to the study and continued to examine the documents in the box.
He puzzled further over the kind of construction project that would require cement, steel girders, and huge custom steel doors. On a second pass through the documents, he also discovered a large order for railroad ties and rails. Why would a concrete-and-steel structure need railroad access? Even more puzzling was the order for explosives. Why would blasting be needed for a building?
He was pondering his notes about the papers when Abby padded in, leaned over, and placed her soft cheek next to his, her silky hair brushing his face. He expected to hear a sweet-nothing in his ear. Instead, in a breathy, sexy tone, she whispered.
He laughed and got up, hugging her. “Yes, dear. Right away, dear.”
He put on his raincoat, pulled a dry hat from a hook by the door, picked up Abby’s umbrella and opened the front door. He remembered he didn’t have his keys, so he left the door unlocked. He plunged into the gloomy, drizzly night, stepping carefully down the slick, wet steps, and headed for the neighborhood market two blocks down.
At the store, he bought a liter of milk from the young, bearded man at the counter and started back toward the townhouse. He kept the umbrella lowered in front of him to ward off a rainy breeze, glancing up only occasionally at the sidewalk ahead.
He was a block away when he looked up to see a dark figure emerging from their townhouse. It was hooded, and it rushed down the steps turned toward him, and then looked up. He saw only a flash of a surprised face and something clutched under its arm. It quickly reversed and ran away.
Puzzlement was giving rise to unease, then a growing dread. The figure had not behaved like an innocent person. He furled the umbrella and quickened his pace, then broke into a sprint. Reaching the townhouse, still grasping the milk, he plunged through the door, pitching the umbrella aside. Entering the warmth of the townhouse, he smelled a faint, unfamiliar metallic odor. His anxiety rose further, clutching at his chest.
“Abby?” he called. No answer. Then “Abby!” He looked into the living room, where she had gone to read, but she wasn’t there. Then he turned toward the study.
His breath deserted him at what he saw: Abby’s feet extending from behind the desk, one clad in a fuzzy slipper, the other bare, a slipper nearby.
With a shocked grunt, he dropped the milk and rushed into the room.
Abby lay on her back, her arms flung out, her eyes open and staring. Her head rested in a pool of blood that had flowed from a deep gash in the side of her skull.
His mouth gaped open in horror, but no words emerged; only a long, agonized moan. He collapsed to the floor beside her inert body, gathering her into his arms, not knowing what to do. He took her face in one hand, then tried to cover the wound, feeling the wet sticky blood that covered the side of her head.
What to do? What to do? He began to sob, as he felt her neck for a pulse. None! Tears filled his eyes, as he reached down to feel her chest for a heartbeat. None! Then he looked down to see her round belly, and loosed a searing, soul-deep scream.