Raelynn Hillhouse Rift Zone

ISBN 13: 9780765348906

Rift Zone

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9780765348906: Rift Zone
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A woman who smuggles, spies and lies, Faith Whitney can run just about anything through the seemingly sealed borders of Eastern Europe. Now powerful people want to use her skills to carry out a small part of a massive conspiracy. One fateful day the East German secret police kidnap Faith and make her an offer she can't refuse. If she smuggles a single package into Moscow, the Germans will tell her everything she's always wanted to know about her mysterious father. If she doesn't, she'll be exterminated. As Faith navigates the shadows and back alleys of Berlin and Moscow, she realizes she is being used as a pawn by two nations with very different goals, and her life is not the only thing at stake. Thrown into a plot that may change the course of history, Faith must use every bit of skill and contact she's accumulated through the years to find a way out of this deadly Rift Zone.

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About the Author:

Raelynn Hillhouse has run Cuban rum between East and West Berlin, smuggled jewels from the Soviet Union and forged Eastern bloc visas. From Uzbekistan to Romania, she's been followed, held at gunpoint, and interrogated. Two of the world's most notorious intelligence services--the Libyans and East Germans-attempted to recruit her as a spy. They failed.
A former professor and Fulbright fellow, Hillhouse has not only faced the barrels of Kalashnikovs, but has also been caught in the crossfire of border guards' snowball fights.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER
 
ONE
 
 
old jewish quarter, east berlin
tuesday, april 18, 1989
 
 
The face of Stalin smirked at her from the bottom of a porcelain soup tureen as she bargained with an aging East German couple in the musty storage room of the Patschkes' millinery shop. A dozen mannequins peered from the shadows like faceless skinheads. She picked up a teacup by its awkward hammer-and-sickle-shaped handle. Before the communists, Dresden's master craftsmen had designed the world's finest china for European imperial courts. She cradled the cup and touched their humiliation. But it was a vintage piece, a testament to the pain of modern Germany and extremely marketable.
And Faith Whitney wanted it.
"You're a good customer, Frau Professor, so we'll make you a special offer. One thousand West mark. It's a complete service, immaculate condition, genuine Meissen." Herr Patschke's tiny round glasses slid to a stop on the hook of his nose.
Faith had only twenty-three minutes until a rendezvous, but reminded herself of Hakan's rule of negotiations: Slow business is good business. The Patschkes admired efficiency almost as much as she did, so she forced herself to lean back in the wobbly chair and sip gritty East German coffee.
"Only two sets were commissioned for Marshal Stalin's seventieth birthday." Frau Patschke took the teacup from Faith and wiped her finger-prints from it. "It is pristine."
"And this is the only complete set in existence. One night at his dacha, Stalin hurled the other at his Politburo," Herr Patschke said without a smile and then leaned over and whispered, "Rumor has it this marked the beginning of more purges."
Herr Patschke nodded to his wife, his double chin swelling like a pigeon puffing its neck. Frau Patschke pulled a skeleton key from the pocket of her housedress and waddled to a chest. She removed a mahogany box and set it on the table. An eagle was carved into the lid; the bird of prey's talons clutched a swastika. Frau Patschke flicked open the gold latch. Inside the silklined box, crystal goblets sparkled even in the light of the single bare bulb.
A sudden chill was all Faith needed to authenticate the Nazi stemware as she picked one up with a tissue. A frosted engraving was identical to the emblem on the box. She hated contaminating her apartment with fascist trash, but this set merited sealed bids. "As usual, your taste is exquisite, but I'm in Leipzig soon and I have luck finding merchandise there more within my budget. If there's nothing more, I'll have to excuse myself." She spoke in unaccented German and stood, compelling herself to look away.
"Bohemian crystal, very lovely, very special. They were a gift to the Führer for the liberation of the Czech lands." Frau Patschke held a goblet in front of Faith's face and flicked her middle finger against it.
Nothing with a swastika should ring so clear.
"Tell you what. I'll give you one thousand for both the plates and the glasses."
The Patschkes squinted at each other while Faith rummaged through her oversized purse. She removed a camera and stole a glance at her watch.
Frau Patschke raised an eyebrow. "Is that one of those American models that make the instant photos?" Herr Patschke slipped his arm around his wife's sizeable waist, pressed his cheek against hers and grinned.
"A real Polaroid." Faith snapped the picture and the camera spit out the photo.
The Patschkes huddled together spellbound as the image materialized. He pointed to the snapshot. "Look, Hilda! Amazing. Simply amazing. Do you realize the private photos we could make with this?"
"Fritz!"
"If you include this camera--" Herr Patschke began.
"And plenty of film," Frau Patschke said.
"Ja, ja. Both for one thousand, five hundred West," Herr Patschke said.
Faith pursed her lips. "One thousand, three hundred."
"Wonderful." Herr Patschke shook her hand and snatched the Polaroid. "Smile, Liebchen."
"I'd like you to use some special packing materials. Plus I need this to fit into three separate packages so it seems like I've got books. Bubble wrap, cardboard, then standard pink paper on the outside would be best." Faith placed a roll of imported bubble wrap onto the table.
Frau Patschke divided the Stalin service into two parcels while Herr Patschke measured a length of the coarse pink paper used in East German bookstores, but it ran out before he could finish the Nazi crystal. Frau Patschke handed him some newsprint with line drawings of vacuum tubes and slogans praising East German scientific advancements.
"Don't you have any more of the pink? I was counting on it." Faith fidgeted in her seat.
"I'm sorry. We are short right now."
Herr Patschke bound the two pink-wrapped boxes together and loaded all three onto a suitcase trolley Faith had brought with her. Like a child playing with a retractable tape measure, Herr Patschke stretched the bungee strap as far as he could, let go of it and then snickered as it snapped back.
He insisted on helping Faith with the packages. He pulled the cart through the labyrinth of their storerooms and removed the CLOSED sign from the front window. He paused with his hand on the doorknob and glanced back over his shoulder. "She didn't want me to say anything, but I believe you should know. Two men stopped by last week and inquired after you. They had no interest in what you buy--only in how you move things. Naturally, we told them nothing. Be cautious, Frau Doktor."
* * *
Privately run shops with brightly painted facades dotted the streets of the old Jewish quarter. A hunched woman with church-lady blue hair examined books in a display window of a Christian bookstore, one of the handful tolerated by the state. Her head moved as she watched Faith's reflection in the plate-glass window. Faith hurried away, invigorated by the sense of threat that permeated East Berlin like a foggy mist. Her blouse was damp from sweat and nerves.
She waited alongside two East German punks staring at the red pedestrian light and ignoring the empty street. Their purple hair stood straight up from their heads as though the hair itself were trying to escape their gaunt bodies. When she stepped from the sidewalk before the light turned green, they scowled at her. Not wanting to call attention to herself, she stepped back up and reassured herself she had three minutes before the window closed.
She dragged the heavy cart along the irregular cobblestones. The packages shifted off-center as it bounced along, making it difficult to maneuver, but she had no time to stop. She rushed past a long line of parked cars where a dirty Mercedes with red diplomatic plates stuck out among the tiny fiberglass Trabants.
One minute. Faith was watching the broken sidewalk ahead when she noticed a pair of legs. On cue, she stumbled. An African man tried to catch her, but she fell, raking her hand across the rough stones. She intentionally tipped the cart until the packages tumbled to the ground.
The man reached under her arm to steady her. The diamonds in his gold rings glistened. "So sorry, sister," he said in African-accented English. "You all right?"
"No major damage. Bruises add character."
"Let me have a look."
"Don't worry about it." She pulled her hand back. It burned so badly she hoped the muscle wasn't exposed, but only three scrapes crossed her palm.
In the commotion, another black man had climbed from the backseat of the Mercedes and stacked three pink packages back onto her cart.
"Hey, careful with those. They're extremely fragile."
"No worry. I do the job right." He winked at her.
Faith rolled her eyes.
* * *
Faith dashed into the Ministry of Education, worried her tardiness had blown her lunch engagement. She almost had the Assistant Minister of Education sold on sponsoring her as a visiting professor at Berlin's Humboldt University. The professorship came with a coveted multiple-entry visa that would allow her free passage between Berlins and throughout the GDR. Free of the restrictions of one-day visas that confined her within city limits, the entire country would be hers to plunder at will. She had worked on a scheme for months, creating a fictitious Ozark University and even getting it listed in a college guide. The time had now come to close the deal before Neumann upped his price or talked too much.
The porter called Neumann on the house phone and within a few minutes he arrived to escort her inside. The last time she saw him, Neumann had been balding. Now he sported a mane of jet-black hair that looked as if a mangy animal were humping his head. The way it was sewn gave it an almost avian quality she couldn't quite pin down. She couldn't keep her eyes off it as she tried to figure out the species.
Their footsteps echoed in the corridor as they passed red bulletin boards filled with the latest Party directives. Faith expected an elaborate dining hall for the government elite, but the canteen was humid and cramped. Neumann handed her a metal tray dripping with water and they waited in line. Steam gusted from the kitchen, depositing a sheen of grease on Faith's favorite silk blazer. Definitely a schnitzel day.
He led her to a corner table away from the other patrons where an orange salt and pepper set complemented the brown synthetic tablecloth. She cringed at the sight of reusable plastic toothpicks.
Neumann straightened the aluminum fork. "I'm impressed that you speak Russian, Frau Professor. Seldom for an American."
"How do you know I speak Russian?" Faith sought eye contact, but he looked away.
"Cabbage is tasty today," he said, his mouth full of red kraut.
"That's nice, but how do you know about my Russian?"
"I assumed. You're a professor and..."
"And I looked the type."
"Yes, yes. You do look brilliant. You're probably interested in Gorbachev's reforms and why our government has been so resistant to them. Wait until the old man Honecker's gone and you'll see change. I can introduce you to some others who feel this way, Party members who talk about social--" He interrupted himself and shielded his lips with his hand and whispered, "democracy."
She glanced at the oval Party pin on his lapel. That particular model dated his membership to the Stalinist period. Faith didn't believe in born-again anything, particularly communists and Nazis. "Herr Neumann, your dissidents don't interest me any more than your Party does. It's your household arts that intrigue me, which brings me to the topic of the professorship." She rustled through her purse without looking down and handed him a small paper bag under the table. Neumann peeped inside and then shoved it into his vinyl briefcase.
"Sponsor me for the visa and I'll be able to bring over fruit like that. It's almost kiwi season and I bet you'd love them. They taste a lot like strawberries, only better."
"Strawberries are my favorite."
The way he eyed Faith as if she were a juicy berry herself made her want to pummel him with rotten fruit, but she smiled instead. "If I get a chance, I'll bring you some."
"Only once is a tease."
"With the visa I could drop by every now and then with a few vegetables as a gesture of my gratitude for pushing the paperwork through within the week."
"You do know we have plenty of apples, onions, potatoes. And do not bring cabbage--we need no more cabbage here." He picked up the bowl and slurped lentil soup.
"So am I going to be a visiting art professor or not?"
"The outlook's improving."
"But I see we're not there yet. Did you get a chance to look over the Ozark U. literature I gave you last time?"
"Such a clean campus. I'd love to visit there sometime--maybe for a semester."
"And we'd love to have you. If this year goes well for me, I'm sure we can work something out. So what is the status of my visa?"
"Undecided, but there is one small thing. Our computer is broken. It's a Western model and no one here can repair it. You could transport it to the West for service. It would speed our work along. We can be of mutual assistance to one another."
"Sorry, but I'm already schlepping around too much today." She patted her packages as she eyed the exit.
"If it's not fixed soon, our visa backlog will continue to grow."
"I understand. Sometimes it can take Ozark U. forever to process paper-work for foreign exchange scholars."
"We can arrange for someone to help you carry it and your packages to the checkpoint. You could take a taxi once you're over there. We have West marks to reimburse you."
Red flag.
"I'm afraid I'd have problems on the border." Like being arrested and coerced into spying. She stood, debating with herself whether to abort or play things out as far as she dared. "I didn't declare a computer on my way in."
"I'll write a letter with an explanation of everything."
She stepped away, but her investment in the project stopped her and she paused. "I know a few things about computers. Let me have a look inside."
* * *
Neumann whisked Faith past his secretary. His private office was a memorial to all things Soviet. Framed posters exalted the Soviet chemical industry. On his desk was a stack of recent issues of Izvestia, Pravda and other Soviet newspapers she didn't recognize. Neumann hurried to plug in a model Sputnik rocket with blinking lights trailing behind it.
"Frau Muster mixes herself into everything. She doesn't approve of women, let alone foreign ones, in my office," Neumann said in a low voice. "She's an old-timer. When I tell her about some of the things that come out about Stalin, she warns me to burn the Russian papers before it's too late."
"Maybe she knows something you don't."
"She's seen a lot. Her husband was a prisoner of war who never came home from the SU. Her kids weren't allowed into the university. But she's right that Gorbachev threatens a lot of powerful people."
"Let me have a look at the computer." Faith knelt in front of the metal case and flipped it on its side. "You have a screwdriver?"
"I don't. You might as well go ahead and take it as is." He moved closer to her while she fished a Polish Army knife from her purse. "I love women with wide cheekbones. You look so Slavic." He brushed the back of his hand against her face.
She slid away from the touch. He acted as if nothing had happened and left the room. She sighed as she wondered if anything was worth putting up with such awkward passes. She popped open the antique computer and stared inside.
No dust.
She wiggled the cables to test if they were seated on the motherboard. They weren't. The floppy drive wasn't even connected to the power supply. It wasn't a computer, but a jumble of broken parts. Faith fumed at the insult of such an amateurish setup, but she wasn't sure whether to direct her anger toward Neumann or the Stasi. He deserved it, but her gut nagged her. The Association's fingerprints were all over the machine.
Neumann returned, carrying a letter. "What are you doing?"
"This appears to be your problem." Faith picked a card at random and pivoted it until it released from its slot.
"Put it back and take the whole machine."
"The info I need is right here." She scrawled down numbers onto the back of a used U-Bahn ticket.
"Take it. I'll personally see your vi...

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