It’s a pleasure to join the blog tour for Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman today! My thanks to Abby Endler at Knopf for the invitation to join and for providing the fab extract I’ll be sharing with you, right after I tell you what Safe Houses is all about.
Author : Dan Fesperman
Title : Safe Houses
Pages : 416
Publisher : Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date : July 3, 2018
West Berlin, 1979. Helen Abell oversees the CIA’s network of safe houses, rare havens for field agents and case officers amidst the dangerous milieu of a city in the grips of the Cold War. Helen’s world is upended when, during her routine inspection of an agency property, she overhears a meeting between two people unfamiliar to her speaking a coded language that hints at shadowy realities far beyond her comprehension. Before the day is out, she witnesses a second unauthorized encounter, one that will place her in the sightlines of the most ruthless and powerful man at the agency. Her attempts to expose the dark truths about what she has witnessed will bring about repercussions that reach across decades and continents into the present day, when, in a farm town in Maryland, a young man is arrested for the double murder of his parents, and his sister takes it upon herself to find out why he did it.
The older man sat down at the kitchen table in the back of the safe house and recited the words for a second time. His monotone made it sound like a lesson, or maybe an incantation— some spell he was trying to cast over his listener:
“To swim the pond you must forsake the bay. You may touch the lake, but you must never submerge, and you must always return to the pond.”
The younger man, with his arms crossed, nodded.
“And the zoo?”
“Dry. To all of us, anyway. The pond is also dry, to the zookeeper.”
A pause, a wheezing intake of breath. “All of their people believe it to be long since drained, and its waters shall forever be invisible. Except of course to those of us with special eyewear. And that’s what we’re offering, if you’re interested.”
“So to speak. A new way of seeing. And access, opportunity. More than you’ve ever dreamed of.”
The older man poured some whiskey. He swallowed and set down the glass sharply, like he was knocking for entry.
“You don’t understand a word of it, do you?”
“Some of it. Not all.”
“We’re inviting you in. But before that can happen we have to dry you off.”
“From my swim in the bay?”
The younger man frowned and shuffled his feet. But the tilt of his head, the narrowing of his eyes, betrayed heightened interest. He uncrossed his arms and spoke again.
“First you have to tell me more.”
“No. First you have to tell me the route you took to get here.”
“Just like you said.”
“You were alone? No shadows, start to finish?”
“You saw the finish. There was no one at the start, either.”
“Positive? Even on the S- Bahn?”
“I took every precaution. The route was clean. I have done this before, you know.”
A long pause, followed by another gurgle of whiskey, a second knock of the glass.
“Come here, then.” The wheeze, yet again. “Sit down.”
The younger man took a step forward and then stopped, as if something else had just occurred to him.
“What if it’s no sale? This isn’t one of those things where if you tell me then you have to kill me, is it?”
The older man laughed, choppy notes from an old accordion.
“Come. Have a drink.”
“Was that a yes or no?”
“It wasn’t a yes-no question. Sit down and I’ll explain. People are dying out there, Lewis. They’re drowning with no one in the whole damn bay to save them, and you can change that overnight. As that Polish girl of yours likes to say, time’s a- wasting.”
“How do you know about her?”
“Rule one, Lewis. Always assume we know more than you think.”
Upstairs, in the room with the equipment, Helen Abell took note of the name “Lewis” as she leaned forward on stocking feet, straining to listen through the headset. A cryptonym, no doubt, but something about it was familiar. He wasn’t part of Berlin station— or, as the old-timers still called it, the Berlin Operations Base, or BOB—but maybe she had come across his name in a memo, or the cable traffic.
For the next few seconds all she heard was the sound of the younger man’s footsteps crossing the kitchen floor—clop, clop, clop, as loud as a Clydesdale— and the scrape of a chair as he sat at the table. It made her recall his polished black shoes, clunky, like the ones the East Germans wore.
The men had arrived a few minutes earlier. Helen had peeked out the window the moment she heard the rattle of a key in the lock, and she’d spotted them on the doorstep out front. Unexpected visitors, and neither looked familiar. But the mention of “Lewis” was a thread she could work with.
The wheels of the tape recorder kept turning, twin planets in rotation, absorbing every word. She was afraid to move lest the floor creak, giving her away. Too late to announce her presence. Was she wrong to leave the recorder on? To be listening at all? Probably. Undoubtedly. The whole thing was almost certainly way above her clearance. But she’d never heard any conversation like it.
From her brief observation she’d discerned that both men carried themselves with an air of competence and seniority—experienced hands in a special order, one which she aspired to join. It was like eavesdropping on a conversation of the gods. Nonetheless, she was off-limits and it was time to bow out. She should switch off the recorder, remove the headphones, and quietly wait for them to leave.
With a sigh, she reached for the off switch.
Then the needles flicked on the dials as the younger man spoke, and her hand stopped in midair. He’d lowered his voice, and Helen, unable to help herself, squinted in concentration to make out the words.
“Do the effies know?”
“Not a thing, or not since Jack kicked the bucket in ’72.”
“Jack? You mean . . . ?”
“He was a friend?”
“Of a sort. The enemy of my enemy, that whole business. Last of his kind. Here, drink up.”
A splash of whiskey, then silence.
Helen was transfixed. What in the hell were they talking about? The effies. The zoo. The pond, the bay, and the lake. And now a reference to a former power figure named Jack— probably another cryptonym. Everything about the conversation was baffling, and not just because she didn’t know the lingo.
For starters, why speak in code? The whole point of a safe house was to make you feel secure enough to dispense with the mumbo jumbo. You kicked back, put your feet up, traded all the secrets you wanted in the plainest possible language. Safely, and with absolute confidence. That’s how she’d rigged these houses, four of them in all across the zones and neighborhoods of West Berlin, available at any given moment for privileged access and secret consultation. Each house was clean, unobtrusive, and practically soundproofed against the curiosity of neighbors, due mostly to her own efforts during the past year.
She was particularly proud of the job she’d done at this location, a crumbling brick townhouse a block south of Alt-Moabit. She had labored zealously to craft the most secure possible environment for the Company’s case officers and their agents, or for whoever else among their friends might temporarily need shelter from the cold and lonely hazards of their profession.
Why, then, this strange collection of buzzwords? Unless it wasn’t so much a code as a special language— and, yes, there was a difference—an exclusive lexicon for some obscure fraternity of operatives. Perhaps for someone with a higher security clearance this would be no mystery at all.
She also wondered how the men had gotten a key. Helen knew the identities of all six key holders for this house. Someone had given them a key without telling her. That in itself was a serious breach of security.
In addition, the meeting was unscheduled. When people wanted to use one of her facilities—okay, one of the Agency’s facilities—the rules said they were supposed to provide at least six hours’ notice, so she could ensure that no one else would barge in on them, and that conditions would be welcoming and ready. Before she took over, embarrassing run-ins and overlaps had been infrequent but not at all unheard of, a state of affairs that the chief of station had seemed to accept as an occupational hazard. Helen had taken pains to eliminate such snafus. It was all in the details— controlling the leaseholders, managing traffic, making the places easy to use, clean, and functional.
She had carefully vetted the current cover tenant for this house, a Pan Am stewardess with Agency connections whose work schedule meant she was home only on Wednesdays and Sundays, and even on those days could clear the premises at a moment’s notice.
There were contingencies for unannounced meetings, of course, and also for use by operatives and agents who weren’t regular customers. Espionage emergencies were hardly uncommon in Berlin. But the meeting Helen was hearing downstairs had none of the snap or crackle of an urgent rendezvous.
This chat was unrushed, collegial, and despite the age difference she suspected that these men were on roughly equal footing, meaning it probably wasn’t a meeting between a case officer and his local agent. Their English was flawless, no trace of a foreign accent. They were either American or very practiced at pretending to be American.
Of course, technically speaking, Helen wasn’t supposed to be there, either. That was the rub, and the reason for her deathly silence. Unbeknownst to the Agency, she had begun making surprise weekly inspections of her four properties. It was the most efficient way to uncover shabby upkeep and lax practices. She kept the visits off the books or they wouldn’t have worked. Yet another way in which she went the extra mile, a trait she’d become known for since her arrival in Berlin fourteen months earlier.
The job certainly hadn’t been her top choice. Not even close. She’d always suspected that the chief of station, a randy old mossback named Ladd Herrington, made the assignment to demean her, to put her in her place.
“You’re only twenty-three?” he’d said on that first day, peeping above the frames of reading glasses as he pawed through her file. His eyes wandered quickly from her face to her breasts, where he let them rest long enough to make her uncomfortable.
“You do know you’d be happier as an analyst, don’t you? In the long term, anyway. Much better prospects for advancement. For marriage, too, although perhaps that doesn’t interest you. Here, on the other hand . . .”
He flapped a hand dismissively, as if they were assessing her chances of discovering a new comet, or of recruiting Leonid Brezhnev as a double agent. Analyst. The default assignment for any Agency female, except the ones exiled to records, or to some other “special branch” of this or that department as long as it was well behind the scenes.
Hardly any made it into the field. Nonetheless, there she’d been, arriving on Herrington’s doorstep with only two years of experience for a posting to the city that had defined the Cold War, and he’d responded by slotting her in a position that until then had been largely clerical, staffed by someone two steps below her pay grade. To make it sound less offensive, or perhaps to heighten the joke, he’d come up with a new title: Chief of Administration for Logistics, Property and Personnel Branch, Berlin Station.
Helen had sulked for a week before deciding to make the most of it. She explored and then exploited the job’s opportunities, which turned out to be more expansive than anyone had realized. She revetted the tenants, rescouted the locations. Finding all of them lacking, she replaced them several months ahead of the usual rotation. She tightened hiring practices for support staff, upgraded the facilities at minimal cost, and instituted greater accountability among users. Overlaps and screwups disappeared, as did the mice and bedbugs. Complaints from field men dwindled. She made connections, widened her niche, found a lover, and settled in to Berlin’s cold, grim majesty with a sardonic viewpoint worthy of a lifer.
And now, here she was, caught in the middle of one of her surprise inspections, silent and still and, for the moment, trapped upstairs on a gray October Monday at mid- afternoon as she wondered what the hell she’d stumbled onto.
Well, I don’t know about you but I’m very intrigued! If you are as well and you’d like to read more, Safe Houses is available to buy!
Dan Fesperman’s travels as a writer have taken him to thirty countries and three war zones. Lie in the Dark won the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain’s John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for best first crime novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows won their Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for best thriller, and The Prisoner of Guantánamo won the Dashiell Hammett Award from the International Association of Crime Writers. He lives in Baltimore.
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