Winter Work: A novel

Winter Work: A novel

by Dan Fesperman
Winter Work: A novel

Winter Work: A novel

by Dan Fesperman


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An exhilarating spy thriller inspired by a true story about the precious secrets up for grabs just after the fall of the Berlin Wall—from the acclaimed author of The Cover Wife

“Fesperman accurately depicts the corrosive effect of life under a surveillance society, debasing both the watchers and the watched.... Most Cold War spy novels focus on the Manichaean ideological struggle between East and West; this one successfully explores a grayer era.” —Ben Macintyre, The New York Times

On a chilly early morning walk on the wooded outskirts of Berlin, Emil Grimm finds the body of his neighbor, a fellow Stasi officer named Lothar, with a gunshot wound to the temple and a pistol in his right hand. Despite appearances, Emil suspects murder. A few months earlier he would have known just what to do, but now, as East Germany disintegrates, being a Stasi colonel is more of a liability than an asset. More troubling still is that Emil and Lothar were involved in a final clandestine mission, one that has clearly turned deadly. Now Emil must finish the job alone, on uncertain ground where old alliances seem to be shifting by the day.

Meanwhile, CIA agent Claire Saylor, sent to Berlin to assist an Agency mop-up action against their collapsing East German adversaries, has just received an upgrade to her assignment. She'll be the designated contact for a high-ranking foreign intelligence officer of the Stasi, although details are suspiciously sketchy. When her first rendezvous goes dangerously awry, she realizes the mission is far more delicate than she was led to believe.

With the rules of the game changing fast, and as their missions intersect, Emil and Claire find themselves on unlikely common ground, fighting for their lives against a powerful enemy hiding in the shadows.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593321607
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/12/2022
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 463,824
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

About The Author
DAN FESPERMAN served as a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, based in Berlin. His coverage of the siege of Sarajevo led to his debut novel, Lie in the Dark, which won Britain's John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for best first crime novel. His subsequent books have won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for best thriller and the Dashiell Hammett Prize from the International Association of Crime Writers, and have been selected by USA Today as the year's best mystery/thriller novel. He lives in Baltimore.

Read an Excerpt


February 1990

In winter, the forest bares its secrets. Hill and vale are revealed through disrobing trees. Mud and bone arise from dying weeds. Woodpeckers, taking notice, pry deeper on leafless limbs and rotting logs. Their drumbeat goes out like a warning.

Emil Grimm, out for a morning walk, exulted in all of it. Being a German of a certain age, he loved getting into the woods, and as a professional keeper of secrets he was impressed by any display of full disclosure.

The trouble was that this year’s unveiling hadn’t confined itself to the trees. His employer—indeed, his country—was being stripped as bare of its cloaking as the oaks and beeches. All because a concrete wall in Berlin had been knocked to the ground a few months earlier, a shocking act of defiance that had set people loose in ways forbidden for nearly thirty years.

Freedom of movement was fine by Emil. Long overdue, in fact. But the attendant bustle and bother were letting light and air into places not built to withstand scrutiny. Inquisitive people had begun unlocking cabinets and closets that, for good reason, had long remained undisturbed.

Soon enough, Emil, too, would be flushed from cover. In a few weeks he would receive his last paycheck from the HVA, the foreign intelligence service of the Ministry of State Security, or Stasi, as everyone now seemed to be calling it. Weeks earlier, the ministry’s headquarters complex—five city blocks of hulking gray buildings—had been emptied of its seven thousand employees, Emil among them. He wasn’t even allowed back in to clean out his desk.

Protesters had already ransacked one building, tossing documents out the window like ticker tape for a capitalist parade until police finally intervened. Foreign intelligence services, friendly and hostile, were eagerly lining up for a look at the leftovers. Some were offering money for the slightest glimpse.

Just thinking about it made Emil queasy. Certain secrets had always been toxic in the German Democratic Republic. Turn them loose now, with the two Germanies preparing to reunite, and there was no telling what might climb off the pages. Figuratively speaking, a plague was at hand, with no cure available. Although Emil was working on that.

He had other worries, too. In the West German capital of Bonn there was talk of prosecuting the East German spymasters who had outwitted them for years. Treason, they were calling it, as if East Germany had never existed as a separate nation. Emil’s name was said to be high on the list of targets, and at the age of fifty-­seven prison was an especially daunting prospect. As borders were opening for his countrymen, his were closing. Should he flee? Hire a lawyer? Go into hiding?

In the meantime, he had taken refuge with his wife at their woodland dacha north of Berlin, near the rural village of Prenden, where an hour ago he had set out on his favorite trail. It looped uphill along a mossy path before descending through beeches to a loamy circuit of a small, pretty lake, the Bauersee. His plan was the same as on every other morning: Clear his head by listening to the birds as they reported in from their dawn patrols; keep an eye out for fox, deer, and boar. Breathe deeply, stretch his legs, find out what had happened overnight. Nature was the only realm still offering free rein to his curiosity.

But as Emil began his descent he realized that even this frontier was now at risk of closure. The voices were the first sign—a grim mutter of officious males, punctuated by bursts of static from a walkie-­talkie. He paused on the hillside to listen, breath misting, nose running, right knee aching from an old injury best left unexplained.

Peering through the branches toward the lakeshore, forty yards downhill, he saw a cordon of yellow plastic tape. Near it were three men in dark greatcoats—no, four—moving to and fro like foraging ravens. The overcast lighting of a forty-­watt sun turned them into silhouettes, but the gloomiest sight was the body that lay among them at the water’s edge, a man’s, sprawled facedown across tree roots glassy with ice.

Beside the body was a bright orange watch cap. Emil knew this cap, and knew its owner. The man’s name rose to his lips on a gush of nausea and then died before he could utter it. He swallowed with difficulty, tasting bile, and tried to regain control of his emotions. Perhaps the hat belonged to someone else—a thread of hope that began to unravel the moment he grasped it.

He held still, hoping no one had seen him. Then he sighed, because they had. One of the four men—the one in charge, a tall fellow in his early forties—began tramping up the hill toward him.

“Grimm. I was thinking you might turn up.”

“How did you know that was even possible?”

Dieter Krauss shrugged, a gesture freighted with meaning: We are state security and so are you, so of course we are familiar with your usual movements.

“Your dacha is near here, yes? Not far from Wolf’s?”

“Near enough, but Wolf is gone.”

“So I’ve heard.”

Markus Wolf, they meant—Emil’s former boss, now retired. Wolf’s reputation as the Stasi’s most renowned spymaster ranked him higher on the Bonn hit list than Emil, so he had recently fled to Moscow. From Emil’s vantage point you could see the chimney of Wolf’s A-frame poking just above the treetops. There had been no smoke from it for weeks. Maybe he was gone for good.

“What have you found down there? What’s happened?”

“Come see.”

Krauss led him down the path as the three other men stepped aside to reveal more of the scene. The victim had tousled silver hair. He wore loden wool pants and one of those British waxed cotton jackets with a corduroy collar. Nearby, tossed aside with the orange cap, was an old-­fashioned hiking cane covered with tin badges of all the places its owner had been. For Emil there was no longer any doubt.

Krauss halted on the hillside and spoke again.

“I regret to say that we believe it is your neighbor and colleague, Lothar Fischer. You will assist us in making a positive ID.”

Emil knew it would be best to react with shock and sorrow, and nothing more. But by pausing to collect himself he squandered the opportunity, so he simply nodded, poker-­faced.

“I’ll do what I can.”

Krauss held out a hand to help steady him on the muddy path. Emil waved away the gesture and surged forward as Krauss fell into step behind him.

“I’ve always thought it was odd the way so many of you HVA people ended up here in Prenden.”

“Odd? You talk like we’re a coven of witches. We just happened to work together.”

But Krauss wasn’t the first person to have noted the unlikely concentration of spies in this patch of woods, twenty-­five miles north of central Berlin. As with Wolf and Fischer, Emil’s main residence was an apartment in the city, even though he hadn’t been there in weeks. There was an HVA safe house nearby as well—roomy and well furnished, the nicest dwelling on the lake if you didn’t mind the concealed microphones and surveillance cameras.

“Who found him? And why did they call you first?”

Krauss, ignoring the questions, flipped open a notebook and began scribbling. Emil stooped beneath the tape without asking permission and moved closer to the body. Where was Lothar’s dog? The man almost never went walking without his shepherd, Gretel. Unless, of course, he had gone out on a woodland chore that even an animal couldn’t be trusted to witness.

Lothar’s hair was matted with blood around a black hole near his right temple. His right arm was outstretched with a gun loosely in hand, the forefinger poking through the trigger guard. It was a Makarov, or Pistol-­M, the compact service weapon they’d all been issued on their first day as Stasi officers. A suppressor was screwed onto the end of the barrel.

“Well?” Krauss sounded impatient.

“It’s him. It’s Lothar. A suicide?”

“Is that what you think?”

Emil shrugged. Two other high-­ranking members of the Stasi had killed themselves in the past month. Witnessing the collapse of everything you’ve devoted your life to could have that effect. Even Markus Wolf’s son-­in-­law had tried to take his own life, shortly after turning down a West German offer of half a million deutschmarks for telling them everything he knew.

“Anything’s possible, I suppose.”

“That’s one way of avoiding an answer.”

Krauss smirked. Maybe he had picked up on the same detail Emil had already noticed, although Emil doubted it. More likely was that Krauss was trying to project an air of threat, of superiority. Emil outranked him, a colonel to his major, but Krauss’s Stasi unit, the Spezialkommission, had long ago carved out a powerful role in all investigations involving “political sensitivity,” and he had never hesitated to press this advantage. But now that the entire ministry was going out of business, why was Krauss even here?

Emil scanned the ground around the body, trying to make sense of all the footprints. Krauss’s men had made quite a mess. Emil wasn’t helping either, he supposed. He turned and carefully made his way back beneath the tape.

“Have you determined which direction Lothar was coming from?”

Krauss eyed him carefully, as if deciding whether Emil merited an answer. He nodded to one of his men, who supplied it.

“That way, from up there. That’s what we’re putting in our report.”

The man pointed toward a hillside path diagonal to the one Emil had just descended. Emil knew where it led. Now he had a pretty good idea of why Gretel wasn’t here.

“Is that his usual walking route?” Krauss asked.

“Lothar was not a man of rigid habits.”

“No? Hardly the impression I had. Well, you can come away from there now. My men have work to do. Schalk! Check the coat pockets.”

The fellow who had pointed uphill moved back inside the tape and stooped toward the body. He reached into a pocket of Lothar’s jacket and withdrew a small plastic pouch.

“Here’s something, sir!”

“A bag of dog treats,” Emil said. “Yes, a major breakthrough.”

Krauss frowned in irritation.

“Keep looking. Check the lining!”

They were interrupted by the sound of voices from the other end of the lake. Three men were approaching. Two wore the peaked caps and belted, gray-­green overcoats of the Volkspolizei—cops, not secret police, the fellows who probably should’ve handled this matter from the beginning. Leading them was a young plainclothesman, late twenties, with windblown hair. Emil recognized him as Lieutenant Marius Dorn, a detective inspector from the district headquarters in Bernau. They had met a few years earlier through another, lesser matter.

“Gentlemen,” Dorn called out. “We meet again. Hopefully this time our affairs will end in better order.”

Emil lowered his voice and turned to Krauss.

“You two have also worked together before?”

“That’s one way of putting it. I’ll set this right.”

Dorn preempted him with a shout.

“You will clear your men from the premises, Major Krauss. This is our case now.”

Krauss stepped up the path to block his way.

“You don’t seem to understand, Herr Dorn.”

“Lieutenant Dorn.”

“The victim is a high-­ranking officer of the HVA. I am countermanding your jurisdiction for reasons of national security.”

“The only relevant security issue is where you’ll be working a month from now. A major issue for you, certainly, but quite private in nature, yes? Whereas my men and I will be keeping our jobs, maybe even long enough to close this matter. Clear your people from the perimeter.”

Krauss drew up his chest. He looked ready to throw a punch. Then some of the air began to squeeze out of him as the reality of Dorn’s words sank in.

Emil could barely suppress a smile.

The standoff might have lasted longer if Emil hadn’t decided to move things along. He lifted the yellow tape and motioned for Krauss’s men to leave. They glanced at one other and then at Krauss, who nodded forlornly.

Emil turned toward Dorn and bowed like a maître d’.

“Your case, Lieutenant.”

Krauss belatedly fired back.

“We’ll see if you’re still smiling when I’ve finished interrogating you, Grimm.”

“Colonel Grimm will answer my questions first, Major Krauss. I’ll need to question you as well, of course, since you seem to have been among the first on the scene.”

“Don’t be an ass!”

“Oh, I plan to be the biggest possible ass. Or a major pain in yours, anyway. You and your men will wait until we’ve processed the scene. You will then accompany me to headquarters.”

But Dorn’s new authority had its limits. Krauss whistled, and his men fell into step behind him as he shouldered past the policemen and set off down the path. Dorn, trying to save face, called out after them.

“I will meet you in Bernau.”

Krauss answered over his shoulder without breaking stride.

“If you wish to see me, come to my office on Normanenstrasse.”

It would have been a fine parting shot if all of them hadn’t known the building was padlocked, which raised the question as to where Krauss and his men had come from to begin with. Who had summoned them, and where were they going now? Emil marveled at the strangeness of it all. Not even as a young boy during the horrible years of the war and its bleak aftermath had he ever felt as disoriented as he had in these past few months. Up was down, down was up, and the future was a ledge staring off into fog.

Then he glanced again at poor Lothar, and his sense of baffled wonder gave way to despair. So many years of working together, of sharing drinks and meals, here and in Berlin. Lothar had never exactly been a close friend, but professionally they had trusted each other with their deepest secrets, right to the end. And it was their final collaboration that now gave Emil his greatest cause for worry. Perhaps that, too, was dead.

Dorn’s voice jolted him from his reverie.

“What do you know about this, Colonel Grimm? How long have you been here?”

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