Safe Houses

Safe Houses

by Dan Fesperman


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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 she overhears a meeting between two people unfamiliar to her speaking a coded language that hints at shadowy realities. Before the day is out, she witnesses a second unauthorized encounter, one that will place her in the sight lines of the most ruthless and dangerous man at the agency.

What she has witnessed will have 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525436003
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/18/2019
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 314,392
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

DAN FESPERMAN's travels as a journalist and novelist 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.

Read an Excerpt


Berlin, 1979

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?”

“Of course.”

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 . . . ?”

“Of course.”

“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—controllingthe 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.

She had arrived at the house shortly after 2 p.m., dressed in maid’s clothing and carrying a mop and bucket to minimize curiosity from the neighbors, although she already knew enough about their work schedules to be confident that the block would be empty, apart from the usual scattering of Kinder und Hausfrauen.

After entering, she proceeded by her customary routine. Locks and latches? Check. General cleanliness? Better than last time, at least. No more mouse droppings beneath the sink, which in this neighborhood was all you could hope for. Refrigerator? Well stocked, nothing gone sour or moldy. Liquor supply? Ample and safe in its usual hideaway, off-limitsto the cover tenant.

Last on her checklist was the taping system. She always tested it by walking from front to back downstairs while reciting a favorite poem from Rilke. Sometimes she declaimed in German. Today, in English. She spoke the opening lines while standing in the parlor near the front door.

How can I keep my soul in me, so that
it doesn’t touch your soul? How can I raise
it high enough, past you, to other things?

Noting the cleanliness of the carpet and the furniture, she began stepping slowly toward the back of the house. Passing the stairwell into the dining room, she spotted a smudge on the wall to her left; above, a crack in the celling. But she never stopped speaking:

I would like to shelter it, among remote
lost objects, in some dark and silent place
that doesn’t resonate when your depths resound.

She entered the kitchen. Rilke had named the poem “Love Song,” but for Helen the words never brought to mind any man, past or present. It instead made her reflect on this strange profession of hers, this realm where it was risky indeed to touch the souls of others or, sometimes, even to try and shelter them in some dark and silent place—like this house.

Helen uttered the final lines while peering out the back window into the small garden with its bare plum tree.

Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin’s bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
Oh sweetest song.

With the words still resonating in her head, she climbed the stairs. Her routine was to rewind the tape and play it back, listening carefully to make sure the microphones had picked up every syllable. If no tweaks or repairs were needed, she erased it and was on her way.

Today she’d heard the key in the front door just as she was reaching for the stop button. Heart beating fast, she’d moved to the window. That’s when she saw the older man, the key holder.


Excerpted from "Safe Houses"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Dan Fesperman.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Safe Houses: A novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings What an interesting book. This is a combination historical fiction, mystery/thriller and this was one of those books that you had to read closely for many reasons. For one there is a large cast of characters and some of them have two names as they are spys, field agents or have identities for one reason another. You also have to read closely to make sure you know who works for whom and what side they are on. One thing that made me realize that I was really into this book and loving it, was my wonderment if any of this was based in truth. I love when I go into a book with little back story and wonder the whole time if there is any truth behind the book - such a good feeling! I wondered if the Sisterhood and almost hoped that there was some truth for these women in this moment in time had each other as a support system in this crazy male centric job field.
nfam More than 1 year ago
Espionage and Murder Follow a CIA agent for Thirty-five years Helen Abell is a junior CIA agent in Berlin in 1979. She joined the agency thinking of adventure. Instead, she’s given the job of overseeing the safe houses. These are the places where agents and their sources can meet to exchange information. Helen hates the fact that she’s been given a job deemed suitable for a woman, but things change one day while inspecting her houses. Helen is upstairs checking out the recording equipment when someone, unknown to her, enters. A meeting ensues and Helen never shuts off the recorder. Her much older lover, Baucom, tells her that she must get rid of the recording. She returns to the safe house late at night and witnesses another encounter between an agent and his source. This one spells present danger. Thirty-five years later, Helen and her husband are murdered by her son. He’s slow, but has always been gentle. Anna, Helen’s daughter, returns for the funeral. She’s unable to believe her brother committed the murder without a reason. She enlists a neighbor, Henry Mattick, as a sounding board and to find out what happened. Was this crime related to Helen’s past? If you enjoy espionage thrillers, this is a good one. Helen is a sympathetic character, particularly the way she chafes against her proscribed role in 1979. Anna, her daughter is another strong character. In spite of what she might find, she wants to know what happened to her mother. I enjoyed the scenes of Berlin in 1979. For me it was the best description in the book. The other areas were more briefly described. The forte of this book is the characterization and dialog. Both are very well done. The story is told between two time periods, Helen’s in 1979 and Anna’s in 2014. Both are realistic. The plot is filled with twists that will keep you guessing. I received this book from Knopf for this review.
Katie__B More than 1 year ago
3.5 stars I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed this book given I don't typically read very many CIA based thrillers. Now I can't say how realistic it was but it definitely held my interest from start to finish. The action goes back and forth between 1970s Berlin with Helen Abell who oversees the safe houses for CIA agents and 2014 when she along with her husband are murdered on their farm in Maryland and their daughter is desperate for answers. What I found fascinating was given the time period of the 1970s and the "good ol' boy" type culture of the CIA, the book was able to explore a bit the unique challenges a female would have faced back then. Helen was an appealing character because she was just this ordinary woman but with this crazy, secretive job. The only real criticism I have of the book was there were a few instances in which I got that "why did the character do that?" type feeling. It's my pet peeve in thrillers when I think even I'm not that stupid to do what the character did. Overall though it was a good thriller and I definitely recommend. I won a free copy of this book from the publisher but was under no obligation to post a review. All views expressed are my honest opinion.