Major Eberbach gave the photostats a brief but intense scrutiny. “These seem to be legitimate.”
“Now what do we do?” Z asked, trying not to let his nervousness show. He might still be the “baby” – the alphabet’s newest member, there for less than a year – but he was going to act like a professional.
The Major pocketed the photostats and they continued walking, not making eye contact with anyone they passed. “It’s too hot to keep with us. Not when we won’t be leaving for three more days.”
“Why, what else do we have to do here?”
“I’ll tell you when it’s time,” the Major snapped, and Z fell silent, abashed. “We’ll have to create a dead drop,” the Major said after a moment. “Do you know how to do that?”
“I haven’t done one yet.” Z judged that the safest reply. His training had included dead drops, of course, but Z had already encountered the Major’s opinion of spy-school techniques.
“Of course not. See that store? Go in there and buy some tabasco sauce, or whatever they have that’s closest. Make sure you get a bag with it. Plastic if they have it.”
Z complied. It wasn’t the first time Iron Klaus’s instructions had seemed on the surreal side, and he knew better than to argue.
The clerk was a dour middle-aged man who did not even look up when Z entered. The only other customer was an old woman who shot Z a suspicious look before scuttling up to the counter with some cans, paying for them quickly, and hurrying out. Z swallowed. Was she KGB? An informant? Had he done something that had gotten him made?
He moved quickly through the rows of dusty, mostly empty shelves. He had already learned to hate Communist stores; they were dingy and had a pathetic selection. There were two bottles of American tabasco sauce. Through the coating of dust, Z could see that the sauce had turned brown around the top. He would guess that the “sell-by” date had passed before he went to university.
He took the bottle whose contents were a lighter brown to the clerk and paid. “Could I have a bag?” he asked when none was offered.
The clerk looked at him as if he had requested sauteed peacock tongues, but after a minute rummaged under the counter and came up with a very wrinkled plastic bag with the name of a shoe store on it. Apparently the stores here reused bags. Z took it, depressed, and went out to find the Major. The clerk hadn’t uttered so much as a grunt.
The Major was a few yards away, smoking. Z reached him and they walked on.
“Major,” he said in a low voice, “there was an old woman in the store. I think she might have been an informer.”
“She looked at me like she thought I was going to snatch her purse, and she hustled out the instant I went in.”
Iron Klaus sighed, and Z suddenly noticed how old his superior looked. There were lines of weariness around the man’s jade-colored eyes. “How many times have you been to East Germany, Z?”
“This is my second time.”
“Everyone in Communist countries is suspicious of everyone else. You’ll get used to it.” He glanced around. “Give me the sauce. You keep the bag. You see that dead squirrel in the road? Go get it.”
Z couldn’t help staring at his superior. “You want me to pick up roadkill?”
“Use the bag, idiot. Don’t touch it with your hands.”
Wonderful. Iron Klaus had finally lost his mind, and Z was the only one with him. Z handed over the bottle of sauce, put his hand inside the bag and picked up the dead squirrel, using the bag as a makeshift glove. He turned the bag inside out and carried the squirrel in it as they kept walking.
Z considered asking his superior what this was about, but wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
“This will do,” the Major said suddenly, and turned. Z followed him and found they were in a nineteenth-century graveyard.
While Z watched, still holding his bag of roadkill, the Major chose a spot – at random, as far as the younger man could tell – and knelt down. With his hands he cleared the dead leaves away, then found a stick to dig a shallow hole with. In went the photostats. He buried them and covered the spot with leaves.
“Give me the squirrel,” he ordered. It wasn’t the sort of order Z had ever anticipated getting in the line of duty. Z handed it over and took the tabasco sauce when his superior handed it to him. He watched as the Major dumped the squirrel on top of the leaves. “Give me the sauce back.”
Z watched stupefied as his superior opened the bottle and poured some tabasco sauce on the dead squirrel.
“That should do it. Let’s go.” The Major stood up briskly and they were on their way. Eventually they passed a trash can and both bag and sauce were dropped in.
“I think I understand the squirrel part,” Z said at last.
The Major shot him an inquiring look. “Do you?”
“The dead squirrel is both a marker for whoever we send to pick the photostats up, and a deterrent so that casual passerby won’t happen to find it. No one is going to touch a decaying rodent if they can help it.”
“What I don’t get is the tabasco sauce.”
The Major almost smiled. “The problem with using dead animals as markers is that other animals tend to eat them before an agent can make the pickup. Then it’s hard to find the spot.”
“The use of tabasco sauce is what distinguishes humans from the animals.”
“Animals won’t eat it?”
“They won’t even go near it.”
Z fell silent, contemplating this.
“Welcome to the glamourous world of international espionage,” the Major added.
Z laughed. It was the first joke he’d ever heard the Major make. “Who are we going to send to pick it up?”
This time the Major really did smile. “We should make our allies share the burden, don’t you think? I’ll request Agent Lawrence of the SIS.”
Author’s note: this is a real-life spy technique, honest.