It was the end of the season and most of the hotels on the Riviera, including the Grand H™tel Cap Ferrat, where I worked, were already closed for the winter. Not that winter meant much in that part of the world. Not like in Berlin, where winter is more a rite of passage than a season: you're not a true Berliner until you've survived the bitter experience of an interminable Prussian winter; that famous dancing bear you see on the city's coat of arms is just trying to keep himself warm.
The Hotel Ruhl was normally one of the last hotels in Nice to close because it had a casino and people like to gamble whatever the weather. Maybe they should have opened a casino in the nearby Hotel Negresco-which the Ruhl resembled, except that the Negresco was closed and looked as if it might stay that way the following year. Some said they were going to turn it into apartments but the Negresco concierge-who was an acquaintance of mine, and a fearful snob-said the place had been sold to the daughter of a Breton butcher, and he wasn't usually wrong about these things. He was off to Bern for the winter and probably wouldn't be back. I was going to miss him but as I parked my car and crossed the Promenade des Anglais to the Hotel Ruhl I really wasn't thinking about that. Perhaps it was the cold night air and the barman's surplus ice cubes in the gutter but instead I was thinking about Germany. Or perhaps it was the sight of the two crew-cut golems standing outside the hotel's grand Mediterranean entrance, eating ice cream cones and wearing thick East German suits of the kind that are mass-produced like tractor parts and shovels. Just seeing those two thugs ought to have put me on my guard but I had something important on my mind; I was looking forward to meeting my wife, Elisabeth, who, out of the blue, had sent me a letter inviting me to dinner. We were separated, and she was living back in Berlin, but Elisabeth's handwritten letter-she had beautiful SŸtterlin handwriting (banned by the Nazis)-spoke of her having come into a bit of money, which just might have explained how she could afford to be back on the Riviera and staying at the Ruhl, which is almost as expensive as the Angleterre or the Westminster. Either way I was looking forward to seeing her again with the blind faith of one who hoped reconciliation was on the cards. I'd already planned the short but graceful speech of forgiveness I was going to make. How much I missed her and thought we could still make a go of it-that kind of thing. Of course, a part of me was also braced for the possibility she might be there to tell me she'd met someone else and wanted a divorce. Still, it seemed like a lot of trouble to go to-it wasn't easy to travel from Berlin these days.
The hotel restaurant was on the top floor in one of the corner cupolas. It was perhaps the best in Nice, designed by Charles Dalmas. Certainly it was the most expensive. I hadn't ever eaten there but I'd heard the food was excellent and I was looking forward to my dinner. The m‰itre d' sidestepped his way across the beautiful Belle Epoque room, met me at the bookings lectern, and found my wife's name on the page. I was already glancing over his shoulder, searching the tables anxiously for Elisabeth and not finding her there yet, checking my watch and realizing that I was perhaps a little early. I wasn't really listening to the m‰itre d' as he informed me that my host had arrived, and I was halfway across the marble floor when I saw I was being ushered to a quiet corner table where a squat, tough-looking man was already working on a very large lobster and a bottle of white Burgundy. Recognizing him immediately, I turned on my heel only to find my exit blocked by two more apes who looked as if they might have climbed in through the open window, off one of the many palm trees on the Promenade.
"Don't leave yet," one of them said quietly in thick, Leipzig-accented German. "The comrade-general wouldn't like it."
For a moment I stood my ground, wondering if I could risk making a run for the door. But the two men, cut from the same crude mold as the two golems I'd seen by the hotel entrance, were more than a match for me.
"That's right," added the other. "So you'd best sit down like a good boy and avoid making a scene."
"Gunther," said a voice behind me, also speaking German. "Bernhard Gunther. Come over here and sit down, you old fascist. Don't be afraid." He laughed. "I'm not going to shoot you. It's a public place." I suppose he assumed that German speakers were at a premium in the Hotel Ruhl and he probably wouldn't have been wrong. "What could possibly happen to you in here? Besides, the food is excellent and the wine more so."
I turned again and took another look at the man who remained seated and was still applying himself to the lobster with his cracker and a pick, like a plumber changing the washer on a tap. He was wearing a better suit than his men-a blue pinstripe, tailor-made-and a patterned silk tie that could only have been bought in France. A tie like that would have cost a week's wages in the GDR and probably earned you a lot of awkward questions at the local police station, as would the large gold watch that flashed on his wrist like a miniature lighthouse as he gouged at the flesh of the lobster, which was the same color as the more abundant flesh of his powerful hands. His hair was still dark on top but cut so short against the sides of his wrecking ball of a head it looked like a priest's black zucchetto. He'd put on some weight since last I'd seen him, and he hadn't even started on the new potatoes, the mayonnaise, the asparagus tips, the salade nioise, sweet cucumber pickles, and a plate of dark chocolate arranged on the table in front of him. With his boxer's physique he reminded me strongly of Martin Bormann, Hitler's deputy chief of staff; he was certainly every bit as dangerous.
I sat down, poured myself a glass of white wine, and tossed my cigarette case onto the table in front of me.
"General Erich Mielke," I said. "What an unexpected pleasure."
"I'm sorry about bringing you here under false pretenses. But I knew you wouldn't have come if I'd said it was I who was buying dinner."
"Is she all right? Elisabeth? Just tell me that and then I'll listen to whatever you have to say, General."
"Yes, she's fine."
"I take it she's not actually here in Nice."
"No, she's not. I'm sorry about that. But you'll be glad to know that she was most reluctant to write that letter. I had to explain that the alternative would have been so much more painful, for you at least. So please don't hold that letter against her. She wrote it for the best of reasons." Mielke lifted an arm and snapped his fingers at the waiter. "Have something to eat. Have some wine. I drink very little myself but I'm told this is the best. Anything you like. I insist. The Ministry of State Security is paying. Only, please don't smoke. I hate the smell of cigarettes, especially when I'm eating."
"I'm not hungry, thanks."
"Of course you are. You're a Berliner. We don't have to be hungry to eat. The war taught us to eat when there's food on the table."
"Well, there's plenty of food on this table. Are we expecting anyone else? The Red Army, perhaps?"
"I like to see lots of food when I'm eating, even if I don't eat any of it. It's not just a man's stomach that needs filling. It's his senses, too."
I picked up the bottle and inspected the label.
"Corton-Charlemagne. I approve. Nice to see that an old communist like you can still appreciate a few of the finer things in life, General. This wine must be the most expensive on the list."
"I do, and it most certainly is."
I drained the glass and poured myself another. It was excellent.
The waiter approached nervously, as if he'd already felt the edge of Mielke's tongue.
"We'll have two juicy steaks," said Mielke, speaking good French-the result, I imagined, of his two years spent in a French prison camp before and during the war. "No, better still, we'll have the Chateaubriand. And make it very bloody."
The waiter went away.
"Is it just steak you prefer that way?" I said. "Or everything else as well?"
"Still got that sense of humor, Gunther. It beats me how you've stayed alive for this long."
"The French are a little more tolerant of these things than they are in what you laughingly call the Democratic Republic of Germany. Tell me, General, when is the communist government going to dissolve the people and elect another?"
"The people?" Mielke laughed, and breaking off from his lobster for a moment, placed a piece of chocolate into his mouth, almost as if it were a matter of indifference what he was eating just as long as it was something not easily obtained in the GDR. "They rarely know what's best for them. Nearly fourteen million Germans voted for Hitler in March 1932, making the Nazis the largest party in the Reichstag. Do you honestly believe they had a clue what was best for them? No, of course not. Nobody did. All the people care about is a regular pay packet, cigarettes, and beer."
"I expect that's why twenty thousand East German refugees were crossing into the Federal Republic every month-at least until you imposed your so-called special regime with its restricted zone and your protective strip. They were in search of better beer and cigarettes and perhaps the chance to complain a little without fear of the consequences."
"Who was it said that none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who believe they are free?"
"It was Goethe. And you misquote him. He said that none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free."
"In my book, they are one and the same."
"That would be the one book you've read, then."
"You're a romantic fool. I forget that about you, sometimes. Look, Gunther, most people's idea of freedom is to write something rude on a lavatory wall. My own belief is that the people are lazy and prefer to leave the business of government to the government. However, it's important that the people don't place too great a burden on those in charge of things. Hence, my presence here in France. Generally speaking I prefer to go hunting. But I often come here around this time of year to get away from my responsibilities. I like to play a little baccarat."
"That's a high-risk game. But then you always were a gambler."
"You want to know the really great thing about gambling here?" He grinned. "Most of the time, I lose. If there were still such decadent things as casinos in the GDR I'm afraid the croupiers would always make sure I won. Winning is only fun if you can lose. I used to go to the one in Baden-Baden but the last time I was there I was recognized and couldn't go again. So now I come to Nice. Or sometimes Le Touquet. But I prefer Nice. The weather is a little more reliable here than on the Atlantic coast."
"Somehow I don't believe that's all you're here for."
"So what the hell do you want?"
"You remember that business a few months back, with Somerset Maugham and our mutual friends Harold Hennig and Anne French. You almost managed to screw up a good operation there."
Mielke was referring to a Stasi plot to discredit Roger Hollis, the deputy director of MI5-the British domestic counterintelligence and security agency. The real plan had been to leave Hollis smelling of roses after the bogus Stasi plot was revealed.
"It was very good of you to tie up that loose end for us," said Mielke. "It was you who killed Hennig, wasn't it?"
I didn't answer but we both knew this was true; I'd shot Harold Hennig dead in the house Anne French had been renting in Villefranche and done my very best to frame her for it. Since then the French police had asked me all sorts of questions about her, but that was all I knew. As far as I was aware, Anne French remained safely back in England.
"Well, for the sake of argument, let's just say it was you," said Mielke. He finished the piece of chocolate he was eating, forked some pickled cucumber into his mouth, and then swallowed a mouthful of white Burgundy, all of which persuaded me that his taste buds were every bit as corrupt as his politics and morals. "The fact is that Hennig's days were numbered anyway. As are Anne's. The operation to discredit Hollis really only looks good if we try to eliminate her, too-as befits someone who betrayed us. And that's especially important now that the French are trying to have her extradited back here to face trial for Hennig's murder. Needless to say, that just can't be allowed to happen. Which is where you come in, Gunther."
"Me?" I shrugged. "Let me get this straight. You're asking me to kill Anne French?"
"Precisely. Except that I'm not asking. The fact is that you agreeing to kill Anne French is a condition of remaining alive yourself."
I estimated once that the Gestapo had employed less than fifty thousand officers to keep an eye on eighty million Germans, but from what I'd read and heard about the GDR, the Stasi employed at least twice that number-to say nothing of their civilian informants or spylets who, rumor had it, amounted to one in ten of the population-to keep an eye on just seventeen million Germans. As deputy head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke was one of the most powerful men in the GDR. And as might have been expected of such a man, he'd already anticipated all my objections to such a distasteful mission as the one he had described and was ready to argue them down with the brute force of one who is used to getting his way with people who are themselves authoritarian and assertive. I had the feeling that Mielke might have grabbed me by the throat or banged my head on the dinner table and, of course, violence was a vital part of his character; as a young communist cadre in Berlin he'd participated in the infamous murder of two uniformed policemen.
Copyright © 2017 by Philip Kerr. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.