The man’s eyes bored into me as I stood on the train platform in Bad Aibling, inspecting me from head to toe. The intensity of his attention made me sick to my stomach. What caught his interest, I couldn’t imagine. I was neither pretty nor fashionable and nothing I wore spoke to great wealth. Perhaps I was too obviously American with my backpack instead of the typical leather school satchel.
I dared a brief glance in his direction, committing his description to memory. Heavyset, dark mustache, mole on the right cheek. In spite of the warm day, he wore an overcoat that just screamed KGB, or at least spy. Of course, what the KGB might be doing in this bit of Bavaria was anyone’s guess.
Usually, I felt safe on German trains. I spent a lot of time on them, traveling back and forth to school. But this time, I was nervous.
I was going to meet a friend in Rosenheim. We were taking an Italian class together. What made things worse was, school had let out early because of the heat, so I would reach our meeting spot an hour before Marianne arrived. Usually, I wouldn’t mind. I enjoyed roaming the area around the train station. Hopefully, my observer was traveling in the opposite direction.
The train pulled in with a sharp screech. Climbing aboard, I found a seat. I quickly regretted the spot I’d chosen, an empty seat facing another empty seat, as Mr. KGB slid into the spot opposite me. I ignored him, refusing to look up and meet his gaze.
Instead, I reached into my backpack and pulled out the first book my fingers encountered. I opened it, then looked at the page and panicked. My Russian textbook. Just what I wanted Mr. KGB to see me studying. Well, too late to change it now. I risked a quick glance at his face. His eyes were fastened on the cover of my book. Textbook of the Russian Language, it said in Russian.
He cleared his throat. “Du lernst also Russisch.” So, you are learning Russian. His use of the informal address rankled me, a sign that I had adapted to my surroundings. Six months ago, I would have hardly noticed.
My father’s voice echoed in my mind, warnings he had given before I traveled to Germany on my exchange year. “If the Soviet Union invades, don’t tell anyone who your father is. Find your way to Switzerland. I’ll meet you there.” Heavy instructions when you’re fifteen going on sixteen. Especially when you’re an imaginative fifteen. Suddenly every shadow held KGB agents.
I shrugged. “Was geht es Sie an?” What’s it to you? It was more polite in German than in English. I emphasized the formal address, establishing some distance between us. Eyeing the woman sitting across the aisle, I hoped to convey my discomfort. She gave an understanding smile.
The train stopped in Rosenheim a scant twenty minutes later and I hurried out, determined to escape. The small gift shop inside the station seemed like a safe public place to wait for my friend. Mr. KGB found me at the postcard stand. I can’t remember what he said. His Russian was well beyond my level of study. Maybe this KGB thing wasn’t just my imagination after all.
At last I saw Marianne coming up the steps. I darted past Mr. KGB and out the door. When I glanced over my shoulder, there he was. “Mari, let’s go fast. That man is following me! He speaks perfect Russian, and doesn’t he look just like a spy?”
We hurried down the street. Every so often, I looked back. Each time, I saw him puffing and trotting along about a block behind us. Then it was half a block. When we came to a McDonald’s, we ducked inside and were quickly absorbed by a friendly crowd. The man walked past the door, looking in, but he didn’t enter. I breathed out a sigh of relief. We had a little time before we had to get to our class. We ordered sodas and fries, had a seat, and tried to relax, always keeping an eye on the door.
At ten minutes to two, we had to be on our way. We looked both ways before stepping fully out the door, just to make sure he wasn’t still nearby. We arrived at our Italian class without any further excitement. For the next hour, we were too busy conjugating verbs to worry about international intrigue.
Marianne walked me back to the train station. She offered to wait with me, just in case. “No,” I told her. “I’ll be fine. I haven’t seen that guy anywhere since we lost him in the McDonald’s”
“OK. Bis nächste Woche!” She waved, then hurried away.
A few minutes later, I felt someone staring at me. I turned to see Mr. KGB. He was practically breathing down my neck. Eyes darting side to side, he grabbed my arm before I could walk away, then spoke in heavily accented English. “Please, not to scream. I promise, not hurt you. I must to talk with you.”
My train pulled in. I glared at him. He let go of my arm. “There. You have choice. Talk or go. Is up to you.”
All my instincts screamed at me to go, but before I could board, a small voice in the back of my mind told me to stay and hear him out. You might think I was crazy, but I listened to that voice. What if it was a nudge from God? “I have to be on the next train, or my friends will be looking for me. And we have to stay in a public place.” I pointed to a bench several yards away. “We can sit there.”
Heaving a sigh, he nodded. “Yes, is good enough.”
We sat. I put my backpack on the bench between us, a meager barrier, but it made me feel safer. “All right, what did you want to talk about?”
He cleared his throat. “To begin, say to me why you learn Russian language.”
I shrugged. I had always been a language nut and Russian fascinated me. The summer between ninth and tenth grades, I’d found a Russian textbook among my sister’s books and claimed it for myself. Over the next few months, I mastered the Cyrillic alphabet. But he didn’t need to know all that.
“I like languages,” I said, “and I like to travel.” Truthful and enough, at least for now.
His brow wrinkled and his eyes narrowed. “I hear of young Americans who think Soviet Union offers grand life. Are you among these?”
I shook my head. “No. I’m happy with home… I mean, I will be when I’m done with my exchange year.” I felt it prudent not to mention my interest in Eastern European mission work. I’d read all about Brother Andrew smuggling Bibles into Soviet Russia. When I wasn’t dreaming about being a missionary doctor, I entertained the idea of becoming a Bible smuggler.
He nodded slowly, his fingers tugging at the worn sleeves of his overcoat. “Good then. Maybe you are the one to help me.” His gaze darted around, and he lowered his voice to a whisper even though the only other people on the platform were an elderly granny and her two grandchildren. “I am Russian, and I wish to defect. I want to go to USA.”
My eyes just about popped out of my head when he said that. It was the last thing I was expecting. After all, I was just a teenager. How was I supposed to help Mr. KGB defect? But somehow I must have nodded my head or something because he pressed a rumpled manila envelope into my hand.
“Take this to the American consulate in Munich. Tomorrow is good. I knew daughter of Joe Haskell would help me. He said you are smart girl.” And with that, before I could scoop my jaw off the ground, he was gone, vanishing around the side of the station. I started after him, but when I went around the building, I couldn’t see him anywhere.
Even though curiosity was eating at me, I shoved the man’s envelope into my backpack and trudged back to the platform. I wanted to know what was in it, but it wasn’t my place. Was it? Maybe I should know if I was going to carry it into the consulate. What if he’d put something dangerous inside? Was he trying to pull me into a nefarious scheme, or did he really just want to defect? I didn’t even know his name.
The train finally arrived, and I climbed aboard, but my mind was still on that bench in Rosenheim, looking into the eyes of Mr. KGB. I wished I could draw a picture, but that wasn’t my talent. My gift was words, not art. Still, I could write a description. I pulled out a notebook and wrote down what I remembered. The overcoat, of course. The mole. Dark hair and mustache, but when I looked at him up close, I thought I saw gray roots. Green eyes that looked kind of lonely. I erased that last bit, my journalism teacher’s voice ringing in my head. Remember the difference between reporting and editorializing. In an editorial you state and defend your opinion. A report involves only the facts. All right, then. Green eyes. Heavyset. About five and a half feet tall. I laid my pencil down and closed the notebook. If only I could ask my dad for help. But this wasn’t the sort of thing one talked about over the phone. I would have to call from a phone booth at the post office, and anyone would be able to overhear my half of the conversation.
I straightened suddenly as an idea struck. I could call Dad and use our code word—all I had to do was mention Wile E. Coyote and Dad would be on the next plane over. I gazed out the window, watching as the train chugged past new-sown fields. Before these fields were harvested, I would be home, away from the envelope that was nestled in the bottom of my backpack. I was looking forward to that, and yet something about this adventure I’d been thrust into appealed to me. Maybe it wasn’t smuggling Bibles or curing disease, but it was helping someone. I sighed. Somewhere between Bad Aibling and Heufeld, I’d made up my mind to trust Mr. KGB. I wasn’t going to call my dad, either. No, I was going to go home, eat supper, do my homework, and in the morning I would catch the train to Munich and find my way to the American Consulate.
Karin insisted on going with me. She was my host sister. We were in the same class at school in Bad Aibling. I figured Karin would have my back at school so I wouldn’t get in too much trouble for cutting. That’s the only reason I told her what had happened. Well, that and I knew I could trust her. Her first response was, “Spinnst du total?” Are you totally insane? I told her this was something I felt I needed to do. Then she said it wasn’t the sort of thing she would let me jump into by myself.
When we packed our bags before going to bed, we made sure to tuck in our passports in case we needed them to gain admittance at the Consulate. In the morning, we rode our bikes to the train station at the usual time, and we got off the train at Bad Aibling with our friends. We’d agreed it was best to be at school when the day started. We could easily sneak out during the mid-morning break, and if we were really lucky, we would be dismissed early again because of the heat.
We got lucky. I’d never been so thankful for a heat wave. Karin’s parents had given permission for us to visit Hugendubel, an awesome bookstore in Munich, after school, so they wouldn’t expect us home at the usual time. We even had money for lunch, a rare treat. My host-mother took pride in preparing a home-cooked midday meal every day, and missing that wasn’t usually an option.
Karin had looked up the address for the Consulate in the phone book. When we got to the main train station, we consulted a map and figured out which U-Bahn would take us closest to Königinstrasse 5. “There.” Karin pointed to the map. “Odeonsplatz and Universität are both close. We’ll take whichever line comes first. From there it’s just a short walk to the Consulate.”
We purchased our subway tickets and took the escalator down to the platform. The orange line arrived first, so Universität it was. Soon, we emerged from the tidy station to see the pale spires of St. Ludwig’s Church towering over us. We walked down Ludwigstrasse past the Staatsbibliothek with its long row of arched windows. At von-der-Tannstrasse, we turned. The American Consulate was only a few blocks away. I’d been trying to plan what I would say and still hadn’t quite figured it out. I stopped suddenly and grabbed Karin’s arm. “Are they going to think I’m crazy?”
“Just tell them what happened and give them the envelope,” Karin advised. She had a practical mind, something I often coveted. “Let them deal with it from there.” She tugged me along. “Come on. If we get this over with quick enough, we’ll still have time for Hugendubel before we catch the train home.”
I breathed out an anxious sigh. “All right. Let’s do this.”
We stepped inside the security booth at the gate and presented our passports.
“What is the nature of your visit?” the guard asked.
“Uh…” This wasn’t part of my plan. I hadn’t expected I would have to explain anything until I was inside. Should I pull out the envelope now? I leaned in closer to the guard and lowered my voice to a whisper. “Yesterday in Rosenheim a man followed me. He’s Russian and says he wants to defect. He gave me an envelope and said to bring it here.”
The guard’s eyes narrowed. Did he think we were pulling a prank? “Show me the envelope.”
I opened my backpack, pulled out the requested item, and pushed it into the man’s hands. “I don’t know what’s inside. I haven’t opened it.”
He must have pushed an alarm button or something because suddenly a bunch of Marines came swarming in. One of them took the envelope and another ushered Karin and me out of the low-slung security booth and into the four-story building that sat behind it. He separated us and herded me into a small room with just a table and a few chairs. “Sit there and wait,” he ordered. My heart was pounding double-time. Had I been arrested? Was Karin sitting in another little room just like mine? I got up and tried the door. It was locked.
By my watch, I waited for two hours before the door opened again. So much for Hugendubel. A scrawny man dressed in a gray suit, a blue tie, and big glasses came in and sat across from me. He laid a manila folder on the table. “Good afternoon, Miss Haskell,” he said. “My name is Stone.” He paused for a second, then added, “Cultural Attache.” He opened the folder and took out a photograph, which he pushed across the table to me. “Is this the man who approached you in Rosenheim?”
I had all sorts of things I wanted to ask, but his steely gray eyes warned me away from anything but answering his questions. I looked at the picture. It was definitely Mr. KGB, but with red hair. I recognized the mole and those lonely green eyes. “Yes, that’s him.”
“Volkov.” His knuckles thumped on the photograph, then he looked at me. “It’s not his real name, of course, but everyone calls him the Wolf.” That’s when I realized Stone probably wasn’t this guy’s real name. He probably wasn’t a Cultural Attache, either.
“Of course,” I echoed.
“All right, tell me exactly what happened,” said Stone (or whatever his real name was).
And so, I told him the story, just as I’ve written it down here. Well, maybe a little more concisely. I wanted to get out of that room and back with Karin. She was going to be so mad at me for dragging her into this, though to be honest, she kind of dragged herself in. “I wasn’t sure what I should do with the envelope. I didn’t feel right opening it myself, and I was afraid he might have put something bad inside it.”
“You did the right thing.” This assurance was a big relief. I wasn’t going to be in trouble, then. “I’m sorry about making you wait so long, but we had to verify the information you brought.”
“It’s for real, then?” I shifted in my seat. “I mean… he really wants to defect?”
“It looks like it. We need you to carry our response back to him. He says he’ll be on the platform of the Bad Aibling station tomorrow morning at eleven thirty, and he insists that you are the only person he’s willing to meet with until arrangements are in place.”
“Me?” I swallowed hard. “Why me?”
“It’s something about knowing the kind of man your father is. ‘A man who believes,’ is what he said. I don’t know exactly what he meant by that.”
I thought I knew. My dad had told me about his travels in the Soviet Union. He’d usually bring a Bible with him and, whenever he found the most likely place in his hotel room to harbor a bug, he’d sit and read aloud from the Gospels. Once, another scientist approached him and asked, “You are Joe Haskell?” When Dad confirmed it, the man said, “I hear you are a believer. It is a good thing to believe.” That’s how Dad knew someone had been listening.
I sucked in a deep breath. Stone hadn’t offered me a choice, but I felt like it was important to voice my willingness to help. “All right. I’ll do it.” I felt like I was in the middle of a Mission Impossible episode. All I needed now was some cool spy gadget. Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt if Attache Stone looked more like Jim Phelps. Then again, I wasn’t exactly Cinnamon Carter.
Stone handed me a small envelope. It felt like there was a cassette tape inside. “Get to the Bad Aibling station before 11:30. You will see a bench with a wet paint sign. When you see the Wolf, set this envelope on the bench and walk away. Do not say anything. Then your part in the process will be finished.”
“That’s it?” It all sounded way too easy.
“What did you expect?” He arched his eyebrows. “Secret codes and super spy gadgets? This isn’t television, you know.” He got up and moved toward the door. When he opened it, he waved me through ahead of him. “Your friend will meet you at the entrance. Thank you for your assistance. Good day.”
Karin and I were quiet as we walked back to the U-Bahn station. She was grouchy because it was now too late for Hugendubel, and we’d missed lunch. I was exhausted. It always surprises me how much energy you can expend just being anxious. The envelope from Stone was hidden away in my backpack, right where Volkov’s envelope had been earlier. We boarded the train that would take us home, then rode our bikes to our house. I smiled at the aroma of Nudelauflauf as we stepped in the door.
We pulled off our shoes, put on our slippers, and stepped inside. “Mama, wir sind hier!” Karin called.
Renate came out of the kitchen as we entered. “Kinder, grüsst euch! Finally, you are home! Take your bags upstairs and put them away. It’s almost time for supper.”
My stomach growled. Renate’s noodle casserole was delicious. Upstairs in our shared bedroom, we put our things away. Homework could wait till Sunday afternoon. I pushed my backpack under my bed. Karin set her satchel on the chair by her desk.
“Kinder! Essen kommen!” Renate called up the stairs. We ran back down and took our places at the dinner table.
After a good meal, Karin’s mood improved. We were upstairs in our room, listening to a Chris de Burgh album. About the time he started crooning Lady in Red, I decided it was time to talk to Karin about my plans for the next day. “I have to go meet him again tomorrow. 11:30 at the Bad Aibling station.”
Karin’s forehead puckered. I expected my practical host-sister to say that it was awfully dumb to get further involved with this. But a minute later, her features smoothed. She shrugged a shoulder. “I’ll go if you want.”
Her willingness surprised me. I had thought she’d be put off by our experience at the Consulate. Then again, I still didn’t know what had happened to her. “Did they question you or anything?”
“No.” She pulled a brush through her tangle of red curls. “They just told me to wait and then said I could leave. But I told them from the start that I just came to keep you company.”
“Oh.” I sighed in relief. “Thanks. And I’m sorry about the bookstore and lunch.”
She shrugged. “It wasn’t that terrible. I got all my homework done while I waited.”
Sleep came hard that night. When I finally did doze off, I dreamt about a wolf chasing Karin and me through the woods, nipping at our heels. Around midnight, I carried my blanket and pillow out to the balcony. The heady fragrance of lilacs wafting up from the garden calmed me and I was finally able to sleep. I woke up in time to watch the sunrise over the wheat field across from our house. “I think I’m doing what you wanted, God,” I murmured. “Please go with me today.”
After breakfast, Karin and I rode our bikes to the train station. I didn’t talk at all on the train. I was too busy fighting off a case of the jitters. Images from my dream kept coming back to me—the snarling wolf’s bared fangs, his low growl. The thought flitted through my head that we didn’t have to get off in Rosenheim. We could stay on the train, reach Kufstein within twenty minutes, Innsbruck in just over an hour. But I had given my word. That had to mean something. When the train pulled in at Rosenheim around 11:15, I glanced at Karin.
She smiled. “This is the easy part,” she reminded me. “Yesterday was the hard part, and you got through that just fine.”
We found the bench as Attache Stone had described and waited close by. Volkov arrived ten minutes later. He didn’t acknowledge me at all. I pulled the envelope out of my bag, set it on the bench, and walked away with Karin beside me. The train that would take us home arrived five minutes later. We climbed in, took our seats, and were on our way.
It was all rather anticlimactic. No frantic, heart-pounding chase scenes. No getting kidnapped or shot at. No continuing intrigue or answers to my myriad of questions. Just hand over this envelope and you’re done. Maybe adventures are that way more often than not. You do what you have to and then it’s over and you go home and eat leftover noodle casserole for lunch. I had done my part, and that was the important thing.
The next couple of months passed in a whirlwind, but without intrigue. During the Pentecost holidays, we spent a week relaxing at a villa near Florence, Italy. The most exciting thing that happened there was getting chased by a herd of sheep. Then it was back to school until my exchange year came to an end in mid-July. My host family and I said tearful goodbyes at the airport before I boarded my plane.
Marianne and I traveled together as far as New York. “Remember that man who followed you?” she asked as I slid into my window seat. “Did you ever see him again?”
“Just once,” I said. “But he didn’t say anything to me. Just walked right past me without so much as a glance.” Then I opened my Russian textbook. I had a lot to learn if I ever wanted to join the CIA.
–Melinda K. Busch