Copyright © 2008
At 3:10 a.m., Rolf crouched in the shadow of a doorway on the abandoned Muhlenstraße. The Grepo patrol passed along the riverbank for the third time, and he watched the pair of border guards until the echo of their boots faded into darkness. They were precise; each round trip along their section of the barricades took exactly twenty minutes. His life depended on those twenty minutes.
Quickly he discarded his boots and jogged across the street, thick wool socks muffling his footsteps. When he reached the barricades bordering the embankment of the River Spree, he dropped to his belly and wormed under the barbed wire that looped in generous spirals around steel frames. He kept his head down, chin scraping the ground. A barb caught the back of his shirt and he stopped and unhooked it carefully, then inched forward again. When his legs were clear of the wire, he rolled down the incline toward the water without a sound.
A three-quarter moon rippled on the river’s surface. The night was clear, unlucky for his mission. A cold rain would have disguised his movements in the water, and also made the border patrol less conscientious. But he hadn’t the leisure to wait for rain.
At the water’s edge Rolf stopped, listening for bootfalls. Nothing but silence and the barking of a dog in the far distance. He took wire cutters from his pocket and clamped the handle in his teeth. Spirals of barbed wire lay submerged in the river, a deadly deterrent for East Berliners who might dare to swim toward freedom. With one last glance in the direction the Grepos had vanished, he murmured a benediction – Gott hilf mir – and sank into the frigid water.
After the initial shock, the chill that crept through his clothes felt good against his sweaty skin. The exertion of swimming would keep him warm. The Spree was wide here, nearly a hundred meters, but it was safer than trying to cross the border near Unter den Linden, where the river was narrow but the guards more numerous. Rolf took a deep breath and submerged, pushing off from the bank.
The river at night was ink black. With one hand stretched in front of him to check for obstacles, he made forceful strokes with his legs. He kept going, making good progress, until his lungs ached for air. Then he rolled onto his back and rose slowly so that only his nose and mouth breached the surface. He took a deep, silent breath and sank again.
He was a good swimmer and confident in the water. As a boy he had been on the school swim team and had visions of training for the Olympics – he and his friend Wolfgang.
He thought now of Wolfgang, once closer than a brother, who had become a Party member and a Volkspolizist. If Wolfgang were patrolling this street tonight and saw Rolf escaping, would he shoot? Their lives and their political paths had split apart when they were pre-teens. After the war they’d renewed the friendship as students at the university, but no amount of late-night debate could change either of their minds about the merits of communism.
The first thirty meters was easy. He took another breath, careful not to create ripples, and swam on.
This time, in the liquid darkness, he saw the faces of his wife and baby son. The image cut him. When would he see Trudy and Stefan again? Or his aging mother who had no other family left? But he’d had no choice; to stay would have put them all at risk. He’d known it might come to this, ever since that muggy August night last year when he’d watched East German troops barricade the borders and erect the despised Wall. The show of Russian military force that backed them up had chilled his blood. East Berliners had felt the vibrations of change for weeks, but nobody expected a Wall. Not even Rolf, with his ear constantly tuned to political winds. In the last days before the border was sealed, hundreds had fled to the Western sectors with nothing but the belongings they could carry. If he and his family had joined the exodus, he wouldn’t be swimming these dark waters now.
He should have known. Should have packed them up and fled. But Trudy was pregnant that summer, and she’d already had two miscarriages. She was under doctor’s orders to stay calm and not exert herself. Rolf did not suspect anything so barbaric as a wall that slashed Berlin in half. Even after it happened, he’d thought the boundary couldn’t stand. He’d tried to work from within to help liberate his city, but protests and political appeals failed. So he’d established an underground organization that helped twenty-three people escape to the West before he was identified.
In the end, even Trudy understood that he had to flee. If he stayed, he would be imprisoned, or accidentally shot.
In the dark waters before him, Rolf’s hand struck the anticipated barbed wire. He almost smiled. His breath running out, he took the cutters in his right hand and carefully groped for the wire with his left. There. It was cut. But there would be more; he had to stay alert. He pumped his legs and rose toward the surface.
As he pushed upward, something sharp caught his trousers and sliced his leg. His lungs burned, but the wire would not let him reach the surface. He cut it quickly. His leg stung and was probably bleeding, but it was free.
Clutching the cutters, he lunged upward, only to be struck sharply across the back of his neck with another spiked strand. The barbs ripped down his spine as he struggled to swim out from under the tentacles. The wire clung to his torn shirt, but he was only inches from a life-saving breath now and he pushed again.
He broke the surface in a rush and sucked air.
Pain striped his leg and his neck. The wire still tore at his back. He must dive again quickly; he had made too much noise. Water streamed into his eyes and blurred his view of the riverbank, but he couldn’t wait for it to clear. He took a deep breath and submerged.
The wire held fast to his shirttail and he could not reach it with his cutters. Finally his fingers closed around the wire behind his back and he wrenched hard, jerking it free. He tried to calculate how long he had been in the water – maybe ten minutes. He must hurry. He was less than halfway across and more wire would be waiting in the water ahead.
He sank down, down, hoping to swim beneath the wires. His stockinged foot touched something slick and alive, pinning it to the riverbed until it jerked away. He pushed off and swam, staying deep.
The darkness was disorienting. What if he surfaced and found he had gone the wrong direction? All he could do was swim hard toward what he thought was the western bank. He stayed deep until his chest cramped and his eyes bulged. Then he began a careful ascent, feeling above him for the treacherous wire.
He did not catch it with his hand. He had moved upward through a loop so that when his thigh brushed past, pumping hard for the surface, a barb caught him viciously and ripped a long gash. His mouth opened and the cutters fell from his teeth. He grabbed for them in the blackness and miraculously caught his left thumb between the handles. Lunging upward, he broke the surface in a rush, gasping.
They were waiting for him.
He felt the impact of the bullet before he heard the rifle’s crack echo across the water. There was no pain, just an awful deadness in his left arm and shoulder. The cutters were gone. He gulped air and sank.
He pumped hard with his legs and right arm. His left shoulder was numb. He had not even seen who shot him.
A strange warmth washed over him and made him think of sleep. He saw Trudy’s face in the water, the brave and angry and betrayed face he had left behind only hours ago.
I am not beaten yet. I can swim with one arm.
He was moving slower now, afraid to surface although he knew he must. This time he would wipe the water from his eyes and see how far he had to go. He had scouted a clump of low-hanging trees on the western bank where he could pull himself from the water without being seen. One more breath. If he could just get one more breath he was sure he could make it to the West. He had come so far.
The sleepiness was a dangerous sign. He must surface now, quickly check his location, and make it across without another breach. And he must do it without splashing.
He felt the coolness of air on the crown of his head and rose just far enough to uncover his mouth. Moving his hand slowly, he wiped water from his eyes. On the eastern bank, the two Grepos and another dark, squat figure, stood watching for him. They were looking downstream too far. He turned his head and saw the clump of trees, a shadow, far to his right. Perhaps thirty meters away. They might expect him to surface there, but it was the only possible cover.
He had submerged again, his lungs bulging with fresh air, when the delayed pain speared his left shoulder. He doubled up in the water and waited for the pain to subside. It did not subside, but he adjusted and started swimming again.
His legs were leaden now and his one good arm could barely propel his weight. Kick. You must kick. He sent the message consciously to his feet. Kick and pull; kick and pull. He was losing blood from the bullet wound and moving too slowly. He would not make it across without breathing again.
Kick and pull. Finally he knew he must breathe or lose consciousness, and he rolled painfully onto his back, exposing only his mouth and nose above the water. He lay that way a moment, resting, and he could hear the voices of the men on the bank. He expected gunfire at any moment. But the shots did not come and he sank again, forcing his limbs into motion.
Kick; pull. It couldn’t be much farther.
Kick; pull. God, let it be there on the next pull. One more. Just one more pull.
And then his dragging foot touched the bottom. He crouched on the riverbed and began to crawl up the slope. He felt ahead of him with his good arm, found the tree branches and grasped one in his hand. He was there!
He opened his eyes just below the surface and saw the overhanging branches silhouetted against the sky. He groped his way under the trees and crawled up the bank, water streaming from his body. His right hand struck something sharp in the darkness. He looked at his hand and saw blood, black in the shadows. The western bank had been covered with broken glass. It crushed beneath his knees and cut into his palms.
Thorough bastards. His face twisted in a smile.
He brushed away glass and lay panting on the bank under the willows. His clothes, his hands, his left side were covered with blood.
Too much blood.
Apparently the guards had not seen him. He raised his head and tried to see them. He blinked hard but his vision was cloudy and he could not focus on the opposite bank. It wasn’t safe to rest here; at any moment the guards might empty their rifles into the trees.
He ignored his serrated knees and palms and crawled up the slope below the brush and over the edge of the embankment. He rolled down the other side, oblivious to the pain, and pulled himself along on his stomach.
Rifle shots exploded behind him, riddling the trees and the riverbank. He flinched and laid his head on his arms, breathing hard until the shooting stopped. He had left the trees just in time.
He crawled on his belly, dragging the useless left arm, toward a deserted building on the western side. He looked down the quiet street. There were no policemen patrolling here, no soldiers. Rolf gritted his teeth.
He looked behind him and saw in the darkness a long smear of blood like the sticky trail of a slug. His heartbeat felt faint in his throat. An irresistible sleepiness pulled at him. He thought of the softness of his baby son, sleeping in his crib.
Rolf laid his head on his arm and wept.
A dark pool collected beneath his shoulder. He dipped his finger into the blood and wrote a message on the wall of the building: Trudy, endlich frei.
Trudy, finally free.
From the book Trudy’s Promise by Marcia Preston. Copyright 2008. ® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A. For more information go to http://www.eHarlequin.com.