In this high-intensity military thriller, a female US Army Corporal evades Stasi assassins with the help of a Russian Junior Sergeant after their duty derails in Germany in 1988.
SG Cardin Online
Somewhere in East Germany
Spies. Espionage. Danger. The Berlin duty train hinted at it all as it carried the four allies between the West and occupied Berlin. Corporal Sharon Cates was high on the potential thrill, but her military common sense kept her anchored to the fact that hints rarely ever gave way to facts.
She walked through the doors and into the duty train’s dining car, wearing her class “A” uniform. It was relatively empty. A lone concession window was open selling coffee and brötchen. She bought a cup and sat down next to a window. It was dark outside, and she couldn’t see much. The train itself felt old with its dull, gray cars wearing cracks in its paint like an old woman’s age lines. Glancing at her watch, she saw that it was two o’clock. Sharon knew she should be asleep, but she was too excited. Soon she’d be in Berlin, and she was thrilled. Going to Berlin would be stepping into living history. She put her briefcase on the table and took out a guidebook to Berlin, thumbing through it as she drank her coffee. There were so many places to see, but none she wanted to see more than the Brandenburg Gate. It stood in proud, yet silent testament overlooking West Berlin as if offering hope to all.
A faint creak pierced the air breaking her thoughts. When Sharon looked up, she spied a Soviet soldier also buying a cup of coffee. A warm shiver slid down her spine. After all, she knew the Soviets also used the duty train; she just thought she’d never see one. He was tall and filled out his uniform well. From the markings on his uniform, she gathered he was a non-commissioned officer, but that was all. To her surprise, he approached her booth.
“Good morning, Corporal. I am Junior Sergeant Dimitri Nagory of the Soviet Army. May I join you?”
Sharon looked up. He was talking to her—in English! She motioned to him to have a seat.
Dimitri sat down and smiled. “If you don’t mind my asking, what’s your name, Corporal?”
“Sharon,” she answered, as distantly as possible. She never thought she’d meet a Soviet soldier on the Berlin Duty Train. This felt like a page out of a LeCarre spy novel. “Sharon Cates.”
“Is this your first time on the duty train?” he asked.
Sharon stared at him. Nosey Soviet. Cpt. Heathers had cautioned her about them during her security briefing.
“Because it is the first time I have seen you,” Dimitri continued, sipping his coffee.
“Ah, yes,” Sharon finally answered.
Should she finally entertain those hints of espionage and secret spy scenarios? “It’s my first trip to Berlin,” she added.
“I see. Are you attending the Berlin Orientation Tour?”
“How did you know?”
“Most of the Americans I see on the train travel to Berlin for that purpose,” Dimitri explained, grinning.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why are you on the train?” Despite the desire to keep her composure, her lips curved into an inquisitive smile.
“I work in the Soviet embassy in London. My headquarters are in East Berlin. I travel between London and Berlin every two weeks,” he answered.
“And you can tell me that?” she asked, raising a surprised eyebrow.
“It’s common knowledge,” he added.
“Do you make it a habit to talk to Americans on the train?” Sharon asked.
“No, I don’t. I usually sleep in my train car, but I haven’t had much to eat today so they let me out to do that,” he replied.
“Touché,” she said curtly. “So, Jr. Sgt. Nagory, what do you do in your army?”
“I am a translator for my superior, Major Orlov. I’m fluent in German and English. And you?”
Sharon felt mildly inadequate, but she had to admit this was thrilling, in a forbidden way. “I studied French in high school, but I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in it.”
“Languages aren’t for everyone. What do you do? I notice you wear the cross pistols on your lapel. Are you military police?”
Sharon pursed her lips. “Yes, I’m with the military police,” she said simply. She couldn’t take it any further. He didn’t need to know she guarded nuclear weapons at a remote American kaserne in West Germany. “How long have you been doing…this?” She pointed aimlessly with her hand out the window. “Translating?”
“Four years,” said Dimitri. “And you?”
She chuckled. “A little over three years.” He seemed sincere, but was it possible that a Soviet soldier could be curious as opposed to inquisitive? The way he smiled at her, he must be curious. But why? Why would he start a conversation with her – an obvious stranger to him.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why did you join the military?”
“I wanted money for college,” she answered flatly. “Why did you join?”
“I was conscripted.”
“Of course—conscripted. That’s like being drafted, isn’t it?” said Sharon.
“Yes, it’s like a draft.”
“America did away with the draft after Vietnam, I believe,” she added.
The Soviet took a sip of his coffee. “Your accent, I can’t place it. Where are you from in America?”
His question caught her off guard. So much for small talk.
“Maine. It’s in New England,” she stammered, wrinkling her brow.
“I am from Leningrad. I do not have an accent,” he said.
“You speak with a British accent,” she replied, now befuddled. Enough was enough.
“I do not!”
“Jr. Sgt. Nagory, with all due respect, isn’t this getting kind of personal? We just met. Why would you ask me these questions? Are you trying to get information from me? Here we are in a dining car on the duty train between Bremerhaven and Berlin and we’ll probably never see each other again.”
“No, I am not trying to get information out of you for military purposes. We may never cross paths again, but maybe this would be a nice story to tell my grandchildren—how I met an American on the duty train and that the Americans are not the evil people the government believes them to be,” Dimitri replied smoothly.
“I’m sorry,” said Sharon.
“It’s fine. I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable, Corporal.”
Sharon realized she wasn’t uncomfortable with him, but with the principles his army uniform represented. She held out her hand. “Friends? For the night? Tomorrow, when we step off the train, we’ll be enemies again.”
“Friends…for tonight,” he confirmed, taking her hand.
Sharon was impressed with his firm handshake.
The train car violently lurched. After a brief pause, a loud crack filled the air and the train began to roll over, slamming into the ground end on end. Sharon plowed into the Soviet junior sergeant. At first she felt a searing heat surround her. She tried to look around, but the images that assaulted her eyes were blurry. The heavy metallic scent in the air made her gag. She felt as if she were soaring, and when she landed, her lungs exploded. Pain shot through her torso. The bright light that had dominated her sight was now replaced with cool blackness.
“Corporal? Corporal? Are you all right?”
Sharon stirred and struggled to sit up. “Yes, I think so.”
About 500 meters east of the train derailment, there was a fire. Faint voices from that direction filled the air. The night sky, once black, was now filled with gray smoke. As her vision came into focus, she found her dining companion kneeling next to her. The heavy lines of concern Dimitri wore surprised her. She clenched her fists, tensing, and was met by a pain twice as impressive as Dimitri’s concern. Her hand shot to her left side almost as quickly as the pain.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Feels like my ribs,” she grimaced.
“I think I landed on you when we were thrown from the train. I’m sorry,” Dimitri said.
Sharon nodded. What a way to start her trip to Berlin. They had already crossed the East/West German border and she had no idea just how deep they were into East Germany. “What happened?” she asked.
“There was an explosion on the train.”
She paused, letting his words sink in. This was serious. Was it an accident or an act of international sabotage? What could cause such a violent explosion? Trains in Europe were supposed to be one of the safest ways to travel.
“The smell of gunpowder is in the air,” Dimitri continued.
“This doesn’t bode well,” Sharon added.
“No, it doesn’t,” Dimitri affirmed.
Sharon reached over expecting to clutch her briefcase. Instead there was nothing. “Oh my God!”
“What?” asked Dimitri.
“Where’s my briefcase?” Sharon barked. She got on her hands and knees, squinting her eyes as she looked for her missing luggage, doing her best to ignore the throbbing pain in her side.
Dimitri put his hand on her shoulder. She stopped. Their eyes met.
“You need medical attention. What’s so important you have to find your briefcase?” he asked.
“My travel papers for Berlin are in there. I don’t want to be without them,” she replied.
“I’ll help you then,” said Dimitri, frowning.
Sharon nodded her head and they began to scour the immediate area. For the first time since she jumped out of an airplane, a sense of unflinching panic filled her. Cpt. Heathers stressed to her that she needed to keep her paperwork with her at all times. The Soviets or East German police wouldn’t hesitate to detain her if she couldn’t produce her travel papers.
Sharon’s eyes cut to Dimitri. He scoured the dirty ground just as determined as she was to find her briefcase. If only she had her mini Maglite on her, but she didn’t have any pockets big enough in her dress uniform, so she put it in her briefcase.
She got to her feet and stumbled to the nearby bushes. Maybe her briefcase landed in there. In the distance, she could see people scurrying around the train.
Dimitri joined her, pointing past the shrubs. “They’re searching for people,” he said. Several fire trucks, small from the distance, rolled onto the scene.
“Argh!” Sharon bent over, clutching her side. A sharp pain reminded her she was injured herself.
Dimitri stopped what he was doing and wrapped an arm around her, providing her with support. “You need a medic.”
“I need to find my briefcase!” she barked.
“Something isn’t right,” said Dimitri through tight, impatient lips. “I don’t believe this was an accident. I’ve ridden the duty train many times and nothing like this has ever happened. Stay here and wait for me. I’ll bring a medic to you.”
“No, I am not waiting for a medic. I need to find my briefcase first,” she replied hotly. Who was he to dictate orders? Her sense of urgency spiked.
“We’ll find your briefcase, but first you need medical attention. You can barely walk,” Dimitri replied calmly.
Almost too calmly for Sharon’s tastes. After all, she could walk, her ability just wasn’t as pain free as before. What did she in his eyes? Concern? Yet it appeared laced with confusion and urgency. About what? Maybe she’d have better luck looking for the briefcase herself.
“Fine – go find a medic. I’m going to keep looking for my briefcase,” said Sharon.
“You’re exasperating,” Dimitri said.
“So are you. No wonder why our armies are enemies,” Sharon retorted.
“But we promised to be friends for the night,” he shot back.
Sharon went to say something, but nothing came out. For once, she couldn’t think of a thing to say. Dimitri smiled.
“I’ll be back shortly,” said Dimitri.
“Go,” replied Sharon.
She watched him quickly disappear from view, partially concealed by shadows, yet half in the light coming from the fire’s blaze. She walked across the clearing and stood next to one of the tree’s surveying the area, trying to find even a hint of her briefcase.
From her spot, she felt soothing warmth emanating from the blaze. Against the dark sky, the roaring fire stood out. The pungent, smoky aroma coming from the burning wood and metal kept taunting her to vomit. Still, she held onto her senses, despite the ache in her ribs. How could this have happened? This was a hell of a reward for winning Soldier of the Quarter.
Sharon quickly surveyed her clothes. Her class “A” jacket was gone, lost in the wreckage. Her pumps were scuffed, her nylons had runs in them, and her skirt was dirty. She wore a short-sleeved class “B” shirt, also dirty. Surprisingly, her ribbons hadn’t fallen off. An Army Commendation Medal (ARCOM,) two achievement medals, a good conduct medal, and the army service ribbon stood proudly displayed over her heart, along with a driving badge and her jump wings. On her right chest, the MP regimental crest was still there. As per regulations, her nametag, which would have been under the crest, wasn’t worn. Her corporal bars were still firmly attached to her shoulder lapel. What was going to happen now? She was worried Dimitri would return with the KGB. Oh, that was a foolish notion. What would the KGB want her for? She had very tight lipped about what she did for the army, and she blended in with every other American on the train.
Sharon closed her eyes and took a deep breath. What a way to cap off the past couple of months. Three months ago she had won Soldier of the Quarter for her battalion. This was a great accomplishment, but even more than that, it gave her legitimacy as a soldier, a good soldier. Her platoon sergeant recommended her for promotion. She did well on the promotion board and scored high. She’d only been back from the Primary Leadership Development Course (PLDC) a week, the month-long leadership school she needed for promotion to sergeant. On July 1, her company commander officially promoted her from specialist to corporal, a junior NCO rank. Her professional life was soaring, which she could hardly say about her personal life.
The separation had played havoc with her relationship to her boyfriend, Specialist John Eddington. That and the fact he was jealous of her professional accomplishments. They’d argued practically every day she’d been back. Then on Thursday, after a fierce argument in front of her platoon at the club, Sharon knew it was over. Now, here she was, waiting for a Soviet soldier to return with help. Her eyes probed the shrubs and bushes around her for her briefcase.
The four World War II allies rode the duty train. There were two trains, one that left from Bremerhaven and one that left from Frankfurt. She caught the train in Bremerhaven. After all, she was stationed in Osnabrueck, a city in northern Germany in the British zone of occupation. Bremerhaven was only two hours away. Frankfurt was three and a half hours away. When Captain Heathers gave her the security briefing on Friday, he told her she might encounter Soviet soldiers. Heathers’ voice still rang in her ears.
“It’s all a cat and mouse game with them. MI will debrief you when you get to Checkpoint Bravo. If you can find out anything of strategic value, do your best. If not, just keep any conversations with them casual. You can bet they’ll attempt to engage you…”
Meeting Soviet Junior Sergeant Dimitri Nagory was like meeting a nervous chatterbox. She wondered if soldiers in his army were like him—curious about Americans. She let him think she was a traditional police officer, but in the army the military police had several jobs, including physical security. She worked at a NATO site in the heart of British-occupied Germany. Her job was to guard short-range tactical nuclear munitions. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was important and it required her to be somewhat secretive regarding her work.
She sighed, as her eyes adjusted to the contrasts between fire and darkness. Her thoughts drifted to her relationship with John. It had been based on pure attraction. How could she think of John at a time like this? Was it because she feared Dimitri would betray her as John had? Certainly his motives would be understandable. He was the enemy, after all. John was an American. Even if he was a lousy boyfriend, he had to be loyal to his country. Didn’t he?
Her eyes cut to an unusual sparkle of light about twenty-five meters away in a tree branch that was just slightly higher than eye level. Could it be her briefcase? She took a deep breath and walked toward it.