Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Cool War

The two men stood staring at the bench. Thirty years had not been kind to the bench or to them. Rot had set in, the wooden slats slumped, the iron legs twisted. Faux Banksy graffiti on the high wall behind the bench was partly hidden by leafless saplings.

Nikolaev nudged Archer’s shoulder. “Instead, I buy you coffee.”

Shoulders back military-style, they followed a path through a grim Bernauer Straße park to an almost empty café on Strelitzer. Both ordered black coffee. Both ignored it when it arrived.

Archer kept picturing the Berlin Wall as he remembered it. Designed to create fear and despair, it had succeeded. Only scraps of the Wall remained, like memories of meetings with Nikolaev on that bench. Archer had heard the Russian now spent dull days in Moscow’s Sledstvennyi Komitet, the equivalent of America’s FBI, flipping through unsolved murder cases as cold as the office building. In the 1980s, Nikolaev and Archer had been stationed on either side of the Wall. A rising investigator with the Russian police, the Militsiya, Nikolaev had been posted to East Berlin to teach new techniques in tracking criminals. “Torturing bad guys’ families for information on fugitives was, as you say, old learning.”

“Old school,” Archer had replied. In his late 20s, ambitious, Archer had been on secondment from the London Metropolitan Police to the British military. Berlin had been his idea. In London he was just another member of the Gangs Squad, prowling sink estates, nicking teenage crims. To get ahead in the Met, he needed to be in Homicide Command. Twice he had been rejected. The British Military Police and multiple bodies in deadly, divided Berlin would boost his career, or so he hoped.

That was then. Now he crisscrossed Europe as a security adviser to wealthy clients: “Don’t travel with real jewellery. Pack the paste.” Best hotels, best restaurants and invoices that were always paid. Archer hated the life.

Hunching forward, he moved the coffee cup to the side. “Are you going to give me a clue what this is about?’

“Once we shared clues. Today too.”

Archer nodded. They had colluded on murder cases, a Cold War crime in itself. If discovered, Nikolaev would not have made it to the steps of a Moscow-bound aircraft to face trial. His colleagues would have shot him where he stood. Archer would have found himself demoted to tucking parking tickets under windscreen wipers along the Embankment.

Instead, with Nikolaev’s Militsiya badge and his ability to move back and forwards across the East-West border, they met in secret in Bernauer Straße and traded information. Killers who thought they could escape justice by slipping over, under or around the Wall would be collared and bundled back home to a court or firing squad. Then: two years of real successes. Now: what seemed to Archer like 30 years of a life filled with something that only resembled success.

Nikolaev’s left hand twitched. A magician’s trick to distract a watcher’s eye. His right hand slid forward and Archer felt a strip of paper being forced into his palm. He closed his fingers, slipping the paper into his trouser pocket.

Looking down at the cool coffee, Nikolaev wondered aloud about the café’s rules on smoking. Archer shook his head.

“The happy days are gone,” said Nikolaev.

Archer raised an eyebrow.

Nikolaev mirrored the gesture. “If not happy, what is the word, satisfying? On the paper are a name, an address and a date. Do you know our offices on Bauman Street near the Kremlin? No? I am sort of a murder historian there. I take an old file. I sit. I look. I search for new ways to track down the bad guys.”


“Boring. Well, usually boring.”

Archer was tempted to reach into his pocket. “Whose name is on the paper?”

Lifting the coffee cup, Nikolaev held it just high enough to cover his mouth from sight. “I’ll tell you a name that is not there: Sir James Montague.” The cup came down. “Interested?”

“I’m no longer a cop.”

“You are far too well dressed these days to be one. Rich clients, rich picklings.”


“Exactly.” Leaning across the table, Nikolaev ran his thumb and forefinger down the lapel of Archer’s Savile Row overcoat. “No one will even think you are a policeman.”  

“But you are. Do your superiors know you’re here, talking to me?”

Nikolaev’s shoulders rose and fell. Archer could not tell if it was a shrug or a prelude to a sigh.

“Potentially,” said Nikolaev. He spoke softly, quickly. A week ago he had been sorting Sledstvennyi Komitet files, each relating to Jack the Ripper-style murders in West and East Berlin in the winter of 1988. Six prostitutes, six days apart, in locations forming the Roman numeral “VI” on the city map. The two men already knew the details. “666, the Devil’s number,” Archer had said to Nikolaev as they sat on that bench after the sixth body had been found on the Western side of the Wall. “How theatrical,” the Russian had said, looking pleased with both the prospect of an unpredictable case and his use of the word. “For you to be involved, the suspect must be in the British Army.”

He was wrong. Archer’s person of interest was someone who thought himself untouchable. Someone with a pedigree: Sir James Montague, a grandee of the diplomatic corps based in the concrete box-like British embassy in Bonn. Over the years, whenever Archer thought about Montague, he pictured the man as still glossy, still aloof, still beyond reach.

Perhaps no longer. According to a December ‘88 note in fading typewriting in a file Nikolaev had unearthed, Montague had been suspected by East German investigators of being, in the words of the normally unflappable Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper: “Der Metzger von Berlin” (The Butcher of Berlin). The note stated flatly that the Englishman was possibly a serial killer but definitely a spy for the Russians.

Nikolaev looked pleased. “The file also contained a witness’ name.”

“The name on the paper?” asked Archer.

Nikolaev nodded. “She saw him commit the sixth murder.”


“She was 17. The daughter of the Madam who ran the brothel where the murder took place.”

“And you want me to track her down?”

“No, Mr Archer. I want you to take her to dinner. The date is on the paper. Come, we will walk and talk.’

The pair stepped out into the damp street. On the nearest corner, a car sat facing the café. Archer titled his head back, squinting, trying to make out the two shapes in the front seats.

This time Nikolaev’s shoulders did shrug. “Predictable. My colleagues have alerted the locals. No matter. This is a new beginning of a beautiful friendship.” He touched Archer’s arm to steer him away from the car.

“Are you armed?” Archer asked.

“No. Why would I need a gun?”

Archer knew it was not Nikolaev’s first lie. But he wanted Montague – alive or dead. Preferably the former so Archer could personally make him the latter.

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Copyright 2017 GREG FLYNN

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