David Young's chillingly intricate Stasi Child was A London Times “Crime Book of the Month” and a Telegraph Pick of the Week.
1975: When Oberleutnant Karin Muller is called to investigate a teenage girl's body at the foot of the Berlin Wall, she imagines she's seen it all before. But she soon realizes that this is a death like no other before it - the girl was evidently trying to escape from West Berlin.
As a member of the People's Police, Muller's power in East Germany only stretches so far. The Ministry for State Security, the Stasi, assures her the case is closed, all they need to know is the girl's name. Yet they strongly discourage her from asking questions. The evidence doesn't add up, and it soon becomes clear the crime scene has been staged. But this regime does not tolerate curious minds, and it takes Müller too long to realize that the trail she's been following may lead her dangerously close to home ...
About the Author
DAVID YOUNG was born near Hull, England andafter dropping out of Bristol Universitystudied Humanities at Bristol Polytechnic. Temporary jobs cleaning ferry toilets and driving a butcher's van were followed by a career in journalism with provincial newspapers, a London news agency, and international radio and TV newsrooms. He now writes in his garden shed and in his spare time supports Hull City AFC. He is the author of Stasi Wolf.
Read an Excerpt
February 1975. Day One. Prenzlauer Berg, East Berlin.
The harsh jangle of a telephone jolted Oberleutnant Karin Müller awake. She reached to her side of the bed to answer it, but grasped empty space. Pain hammered in her head. The ringing continued and she lifted her head off the pillow. The room spun, she swallowed bile and the shape under the blankets next to her reached for the handset on the opposite side of the bed.
'Tilsner!' The voice of her deputy, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner, barked into the handset and rang in her ears.
Scheisse! What's he doing here? She began to take in her surroundings as Tilsner continued to talk into the phone, his words not really registering. The objects in the apartment were wrong. The double bed she was lying in was different. The bed linen certainly didn't belong to her and her husband, Gottfried. Everything was more ... luxurious, expensive. On the dresser, she saw photographs of Tilsner ... his wife Koletta ... their two kids – a teenage boy and a younger girl – at some campsite,smiling for the camera on their happy-family summer holidays. Oh my God! Where was his wife? She could be coming back at any moment. Then she started to remember: Tilsner had said Koletta had taken the children to their grandmother's for the weekend. The same Tilsner who was constructing some tall tale at this very moment to whoever was on the other end of the phone.
'I don't know where she is. I haven't seen her since yesterday evening at the office.' His lie was delivered with a calmness that Müller certainly didn't share. 'I will try to get hold of her and, once I do, we will be at the scene as soon as possible, Comrade Oberst. St Elisabeth cemetery in Ackerstrasse? Yes, I understand.'
Müller clutched her pounding forehead, and tried to avoid Tilsner's eyes as he replaced the handset and started to get out of bed, heading for the bathroom. She wriggled about under the covers. It had been cold last night. Freezing cold. She'd kept all her clothes on, and her underwear now chafed at her skin under the tightness of her skirt. Before that, Blue Strangler vodka. Too much of it. She and Tilsner matching each other shot for shot in a bar in Dircksenstrasse; a stupid game that seemed to have ended up with them in his marital bed. She could still taste the remains of the alcohol in her mouth now. She wasn't entirely sure what had happened after the bar, but just the fact that she'd spent the night at Tilsner's was something she knew she could never let Gottfried discover.
Tilsner was back now, proffering a glass of water with some sort of pill fizzing inside.
'Drink this.' Müller drew her head back slightly, grimacing at the concoction and its snake-like hiss. 'It's only aspirin. I'll make some coffee while you tidy yourself up.' The smirk on his unshaven, square-jawed face spoke of insolence, disrespect – but it was her own fault for letting herself get into this situation. She was the only female head of a murder squad in the whole country. She couldn't have people calling her a whore.
'Hadn't we better get straight there?' she shouted through to the kitchen. 'It sounded urgent.' The words reverberated in her head, each one a hammer blow.
'It is,' Tilsner shouted back. 'The body of a girl. In a cemetery. Near the Wall.'
Müller downed the aspirin and water in one long swallow, forcing herself not to retch it back.
'We'd better get going immediately, then,' she shouted, her voice echoing through the old apartment's high-ceilinged rooms.
'We've time for coffee,' Tilsner replied from the kitchen, clanging cups and pans about as though it was an unfamiliar environment. It probably was, except on International Women's Day. 'After all, I've told Oberst Reiniger I don't know where you are. And the Stasi people are already there.'
'The Stasi?' questioned Müller. She'd moved in a slow trudge to the bathroom, and now studied her reflection with horror. Yesterday's mascara smudged around bloodshot blue eyes. Rubbing her fingers across her cheeks, she tried to stretch away the puffiness, and then fiddled with her blonde, shoulder-length hair. The only female head of a murder squad in the whole Republic, and not yet in her thirtieth year. She didn't look so baby-faced today. She breathed in deeply, hoping the crisp morning air of the old apartment would quell her nausea.
Müller knew she had to clear her head. Take control of the situation. 'If the body's next to the anti-fascist barrier, isn't that the responsibility of the border guards?' Despite the reverberations through her skull, she was still bellowing out the words so Tilsner could hear down the corridor. 'Why are the Stasi involved? And why are we –' Her voice tailed off as she looked up in the mirror and saw his reflection. Tilsner was standing directly behind her, two mugs of steaming coffee in his hands. He shrugged and raised his eyebrows.
'Is this a quiz? All I know is that Reiniger wants us to report to the senior Stasi officer at the scene.'
She watched him studying her as she pulled Koletta's hairbrush through her tangled locks.
'You'd better let me clean that brush after you've used it,' he said. Müller met his eyes: blue like hers, although his seemed remarkably bright for someone who'd downed so much vodka the night before. He was smirking again. 'My wife's a brunette.'
'Piss off, Werner,' Müller spat at his reflection, as she started to remove the old mascara with one of Koletta's make-up pads. 'Nothing happened.'
'You're sure of that, are you? That's not quite how I recollect it.'
'Nothing happened. You know that and I know that. Let's keep it that way.'
His grin was almost a leer, and she forced herself to remember through the hangover muddle. Müller reddened, but tried to convince herself she was right. After all, she'd kept her clothes on, and her skirt was tight enough to deny unwanted access. She turned, snatched the coffee from his hand and took two long gulps as the steam rising from the beverage misted up the freezing bathroom mirror. Tilsner reached around her, grabbed the mascara-caked pad and hid it away in his pocket. Then he picked up the brush and started removing blonde hairs with a comb. Müller rolled her eyes. The bastard was clearly practised at this.
They avoided looking at each other as they descended the stairs, past the peeling paint of the lobby, and walked out of the apartment block into the winter morning. Müller spotted their unmarked Wartburg on the opposite side of the street. It brought back memories of the previous night, and his insistence that they return to his place for a sobering-up coffee – Tilsner seemingly unconcerned about his drink-driving. She rubbed her chin, remembering in a sudden flash his stubble grazing against it like sandpaper as their lips had locked. What exactly had happened after that?
They got into the car, with Tilsner in the driver's seat. He turned the ignition key, his expensive-looking watch shining in the weak daylight. She frowned, thinking back to the luxurious fittings in the apartment, and looked at Tilsner curiously. How had he afforded those on a junior lieutenant's salary?
The Wartburg spluttered into life. Müller's memory was slowly coming back to her. It had only been a kiss, hadn't it? She risked a quick look to her left as Tilsner crunched the car into gear, but he stared straight ahead, grim-faced. She'd need to think up a very good excuse to tell Gottfried. He was used to her working late, but an all-nighter without warning?
The car's wheels spun and skidded on the week-old snow that no one had bothered to clear. Overhead, leaden grey skies were the harbinger of more bad weather. Müller reached out of the car window and attached the flashing blue light to the Wartburg's roof, turning on the accompanying strangled-cat siren, as they headed the few kilometres between Prenzlauer Berg and the cemetery in Mitte.
The two detectives were still barely on speaking terms as they parked the Wartburg in Ackerstrasse, the street that bisected the two neighbouring graveyards of St Elisabeth's and Sophien parishes – both abutted by the anti-fascist barrier to the northeast. Tilsner nodded towards the entrance of the former, and Müller followed him through the gate, with its metal arch overhead. The cemetery, with dark headstones and monuments jutting up from a blanket of white, had a tranquillity at odds with the rest of the city. Green-winged angels guarded some of the graves, their once shining bronze turned verdigris after too many Berlin winters.
They walked to the area of the cemetery where the body lay. Stasi officers and border guards surrounded the girl's lifeless form, which was shrouded by a canvas cover. A man in a raincoat – who had been down on his knees, hidden by the headstone of a grave – raised himself to his full height. Under the coat, Müller could see a civilian suit, but from his bearing she guessed this was the Stasi officer mentioned in Tilsner's phone call. The man turned and smiled. He looked to be in his mid-forties, with fashionable sideburns and sandy hair worn slightly long. He could have passed for one of the West German newsreaders that her husband Gottfried was so fond of watching, despite her protests.
She didn't recognise the man, but evidently he knew her.
'Comrade Oberleutnant. Thank you for joining us. Oberst-leutnant Klaus Jäger. I'm glad we were able to finally get hold of you.' He took her gloved hand in his and gave it a firm squeeze, before doing the same as he introduced himself to Tilsner. There appeared to be genuine warmth in the greeting. 'Please come with me a moment, both of you, and I will fill you in on some of the details.' He placed his hand lightly on her back and guided her and Tilsner towards a snow-topped wooden gazebo, where mourners no doubt sat in quiet contemplation of their departed loved ones. Müller attempted to look over her shoulder at the body, but Jäger didn't seem interested in showing it to them just yet.
They sat in a row on a bench, sheltered under one side of the hexagonal structure, Jäger flanked by the two Kripo officers. Müller could smell his aftershave: it seemed to her an expensive, western fragrance. Her own perfume, she suspected, was pure Blue Strangler, forty degrees proof. She hoped he couldn't smell it.
Jäger gestured towards the taped-off area, where official photographers and forensic officers were busy at work. 'Nasty business. A girl. Mid-teens, we think.'
'Murdered?' asked Müller.
Jäger nodded slowly. 'We think so.'
'Murdered how, Comrade Oberstleutnant?' asked Tilsner. 'And why do you need the help of the People's Police criminal division if the Ministry for State Security is already investigating it?'
'Yes, why is State Security involved?' added Müller, before the Stasi officer had time to answer her deputy. 'Surely, Oberstleutnant Jäger, as the site is so near the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier, this is a job for the border force?' She looked out beyond the activity around the body, towards the first wall of the barrier. There was rumoured to be a minefield on the other side, before a second wall – the whole thing stretching for kilometre after kilometre around the western sector. The stems of searchlights sought the heavens, spaced out every fifty metres or so like overgrown sunflowers. In the daylight, with the snow-covered graveyard in the foreground, it looked relatively benign to Müller, despite the occasional bark of patrol dogs. At night, it took on a very different character. But if its defences deterred Republikflüchtlinge – those who would risk an escape attempt to reach the West rather than stay and build a fairer Germany – well then, that was just fine by her.
Initially Jäger failed to fill the silence, but then gave a gentle laugh. 'That's a lot of questions, and I can't answer them all. What I can tell you is that you have been instructed by your superior officer, Oberst Reiniger, to assist me, at my request. And although, officially, I will be in charge, to all intents and purposes you will be the investigating officers. It may be a difficult case – you will have gathered that already – but it will be your case. Up to a point. I do not want the Ministry for State Security's involvement widely known.' Jäger pulled both his raincoat sleeves up slightly, as though readying himself for work. 'What I can tell you is the reason that we are involved. The girl was apparently shot from the West – possibly by western guards – while escaping into the East.' The Stasi lieutenant colonel paused and looked directly into Müller's eyes. 'It is – I admit – an unusual scenario.'
Müller was aware of Tilsner, next to her, whistling through his teeth at this news. In shock, or disbelief?
'So she managed to scale one four-metre high wall,' asked Müller, 'cross the control strip, evade the dogs and the Republic's border guards, and then scale another four-metre wall – while being shot at from the West?' She hoped her incredulity hadn't become all-out sarcasm.
'That is the official – and preliminary – Ministry for State Security account of events. I have enlisted the help of yourselves, the Kriminalpolizei, to discover the identity of the girl, and to find evidence to support this account.' Jäger again held Müller's gaze, with a seriousness that made her give a small shudder. 'Should you find evidence to the contrary, I would suggest you keep such evidence tightly controlled. And bring it straight to me.' Müller nodded slowly. 'Unterleutnant Tilsner?' he asked, turning to her deputy. 'You too understand what I am saying?'
'Of course, Comrade Oberstleutnant. We will maintain absolute discretion. You can be sure of it.'
Sighing, as though already wearied by the case, Jäger rose to his feet and beckoned them forward. 'I'd better show you the body. I warn you, though: it's not a pleasant sight. For reasons that will become obvious in a moment, identification will prove very difficult.'
Müller grimaced as she and Tilsner began to follow the Stasi officer. She didn't enjoy examining dead bodies at the best of times. That of a young girl – where identification would prove 'very difficult' – sounded particularly distasteful.
Ice and frozen snow crunched and popped underfoot as they followed the cemetery path back to the scene of the body, Müller stamping hard with each stride to work some blood and warmth into her feet. She lagged behind the other two, a sense of foreboding settling over her. Something here was awry.
The handful of officers from the various ministries parted to let the three of them get in close. Jäger gave a nod, and one of the men pulled the shroud away.
Müller looked at the body: a girl, face down in the snow. One leg apparently lacerated – by the barrier's barbed wire? – the other at a crazy angle to the rest of her body. Wounds in her back, evidenced by a blood-besmirched white T-shirt, partially showing through a top covering of torn, black material, which looked as though it had once been some sort of cape. She didn't appear to have been dressed for the winter weather. The regular pattern of the injuries suggested automatic gunfire, and the body was facing away from the protection barrier, towards the Hauptstadt. At least that fitted with the official account. She looked back towards the Wall, the searchlights, watchtower and the buildings of the capitalist West on the other side, adorned with their garish advertisements. From where exactly had she been shot? How had she managed to struggle so far?
'Verdammt!' exclaimed Tilsner suddenly, from his vantage point behind the girl's head. Müller watched Jäger raise his eyebrows, but there was no formal admonishment. 'There's no way we'll be able to identify that. The face is a complete mess.'
This time Jäger did intervene. 'Her face please, Unterleutnant. She wasn't some inanimate object. And someone, somewhere, will be missing her. But yes, unpleasant. The cemetery gardener discovered her at dawn, but a stray dog had apparently got there first.'
Excerpted from "Stasi Child"
Copyright © 2015 David Young.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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