Serial fiction is back. What was standard publishing procedure in the 19th century, episodic storytelling is trending, with Amazon offering serialized fiction on its Kindle readers and writers like Margaret Atwood publishing new material in serial form. So for those of you who want to sit down with a cup of tea and a story for 10 minutes on a Friday afternoon, what follows is the first installment of The Berlin Files, a thriller inspired by growing up in East Berlin.
THE BERLIN FILES
The border running between Czechoslovakia and West Germany is patrolled by armed guards in watchtowers who survey the no-man’s-land of mines, barbed wire, and anti-tank blockades that separates East from West. Beams of light from the towers cut through the night and criss-cross the expanse in a continuous sweeping motion. On the ground, armed militia with German Shepherds track through the snow, shining flashlights deep into the pine forest that runs along the border.
Half a kilometer from the dense woods, a guard in his outpost checks his watch. It is 22:53. The transistor radio on the small wooden table in the hut crackles out KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way” from the Czech Hit Parade. The guard looks through his binoculars and scans the area. Nothing. He places the binoculars on the table and reaches for a thermos. He pours half a cup of black coffee into a mug and then pulls out a small bottle of whiskey from the breast pocket of his coat. There is a tenseness to his movements, as if he has been wound just slightly too tight. He tops up the coffee with the whiskey and checks his watch again. 22:55. As he takes a drink, sirens blast the still winter night. The guard throws his cup away, grabs his binoculars, and peers into the blackness.
Five men run through the thick pine forest trying to make their way to a clearing up ahead. The muffled sound of barking dogs and the shouts of the militia behind them grow louder. Suddenly, a mine explodes, tearing apart the body of one of the escapees. Without looking back, the four other figures continue their run to freedom. From the watchtower, the guard has one of the figures within his target. He shoots.
On the ground, the three remaining men continue their flight. Thorny branches and fallen trees obstruct their path. One man stumbles over the protruding roots of a tree long dead. He falls. His cry for help goes unheeded. As the two men ahead of him approach the clearing, they pause only momentarily as the sounds of dogs with a kill reach their ears.
Sprinting across the clearing toward the river in the distance, the two men dodge bullets and blockades. From the other side of the river, a figure is standing on its banks watching everything through binoculars. His eyes follow the haphazard darting of the two men making their last dash for freedom. One of the men runs straight into a nest of barbed wire, paralyzing him. Soaked with blood, the man screams. Behind him, the steady viewfinder of a machine gun locks him into target and spits out a rain of bullets. The body collapses, dead.
Finally reaching the banks of the river, the sole survivor dives into the icy waters. His arms crawl forward, dragging the exhausted body with them. From behind, militiamen are barking orders and shining flashlights into the darkness of the water. They spot their target and take aim. They shoot. The man in the water winces at the pain of the bullets and goes under. The lone figure on the other side throws down the binoculars and dives into the water, searching for the wounded man. He finds him and pulls him up to the surface. He fights the pain of the freezing waters, swims to the river’s edge, and pulls the man onto the riverbank. They both collapse onto the soft sand. The patrol guards on the other side watch in silence. Their job is done.