Istanbul Passage

by Joseph Kanon

Istanbul Passage

Paperback, 404 pages, Pocket Books, List Price: $16 | purchase

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NPR Summary

The big war is over, and the Cold War has just begun. Leon Bauer, an American tobacco man, and his wife, Anna, a German Jew, made it to Istanbul just before World War II began. His U.S. passport and fluency in German and Turkish made him useful to Allied intelligence. But before he assumes a more peaceful life, Bauer is given a last big job — slip Alexi, a Romanian defector with important Soviet secrets, out of Istanbul. Alexi's secrets might help old allies — but the defector once helped massacre Jews in Romania. Bauer is being asked to help a man in this new war who represents what he fought in the last one.

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Excerpt: Istanbul Passage

1

The first attempt had to be called off. It had taken days to ar­range the boat and the safe house and then, just a few hours before the pickup, the wind started, a poyraz, howling down from the north­east, scooping up water as it swept across the Black sea. The Bospho­rus waves, usually no higher than boat wakes by the time they reached the shuttered yalis along the shore, now churned and smashed against the landing docks. From the quay, Leon could barely make out the Asian side, strings of faint lights hidden behind a scrim of driving rain. Who would risk it? Even the workhorse ferries would be thrown off schedule, never mind a bribed fishing boat. He imagined the fish­erman calculating his chances: a violent sea, sightless, hoping the sud­den shape forty meters away wasn't a lumbering freighter, impossible to dodge. Or another day safe in port, securing ropes and drinking plum brandy by the cast-iron stove. Who could blame him? Only a fool went to sea in a storm. The passenger could wait. Days of plan­ning. Called by the weather.

"How much longer?" Mihai said, pulling his coat tighter.

They were parked just below rumeli hisari, watching the moored boats tossing, pulling against their ties.

"Give it another half hour. If he's late and i'm not here—"

"He's not late," Mihai said, dismissive. He glanced over. "He's that important?"

"I don't know. I'm just the delivery boy."

"It's freezing," Mihai said, turning on the motor. "This time of year."

Leon smiled. In Istanbul's dream of itself it was always summer, ladies eating sherbets in garden pavilions, caïques floating by. The city shivered through winters with braziers and sweaters, somehow surprised that it had turned cold at all.

Mihai ran the heater for a few minutes then switched it off, bur­rowing, turtlelike, into his coat. "So come with me but no questions."

Leon rubbed his hand across the window condensation, clearing it. "There's no risk to you."

"Wonderful. Something new. You couldn't do this yourself?"

"He's coming out of Constancia. For all i know, he only speaks Romanian. Then what? Sign language? But you—"

Mihai waved this off. "He'll be German. One of your new friends."

"You don't have to do this."

"It's a small favor. I'll get it back."

He lit a cigarette, so that for a second leon could see his grizzled face and the wiry salt-and-pepper hair on his head. Now more salt than pepper. When they had met, it had been dark and wavy, styled like the Bucharest dandy he'd once been, known in all the cafés on the Calea Victoriei.

"Besides, to see the rats leaving—" he said, brooding. "They wouldn't let us out. Now look at them."

"You did what you could." A Palestinian passport, free to come and go in Bucharest, to beg for funds, leasing creaky boats, a last life­line, until that was taken away too.

Mihai drew on the cigarette, staring at the water running down the windshield. "So how is it with you?" He said finally. "You look tired."

Leon shrugged, not answering.

"Why are you doing this?" Mihai turned to face him. "The war's over."

"Yes? Nobody told me."

"No, they want to start another one."

"Nobody I know."

"Be careful you don't get to like it. You start enjoying it—" his voice trailed off, rough with smoke, the accent still Balkan, even now. "Then it's not about anything anymore. A habit. Like these," he said, holding out his cigarette. "You get a taste for it."

Leon looked at him. "And you?"

"Nothing changes for us. We're still saving Jews." He made a wry face. "Now from our friends. No visas for Palestine. Where should they go, Poland? And i'm helping you talk to a Nazi. A wonderful world."

"Why a Nazi?"

"Why all this? Some poor refugee? No, someone who knows the Russians, I think. And who knows better?"

"You're guessing."

"It doesn't matter to you? What you deliver?"

Leon looked away, then down at his watch. "Well, he's not com­ing tonight. Whoever he is. I'd better call. Make sure. There's a café."

Mihai leaned forward to start the car again. "I'll pull around."

"No, stay here. I don't want the car—"

"I see. You run across the road in the rain. Get wet. Then you run back. Again, wet. To a waiting car. That will be less suspicious. If anyone is watching." He put the car in gear.

"It's your car," leon said. "That's all."

"You think they haven't seen it by now?"

"Have they? You'd know," he said, a question.

"Always assume yes." He made a turn across the road, pulling up in front of the café. "So do the expected thing. Stay dry. Tell me something. If he had come, your package, was I going to drive him to—wherever he's staying?"

"No."

Mihai nodded. "Better." He motioned his head to the side win­dow. "Make the call. Before they wonder."

There were four men playing dominoes and sipping tea from tulip glasses. When they looked up, leon became what he wanted them to see—a ferengi caught in the rain, shaking water from his hat, needing a phone—and he flushed, a little pulse of excitement. A taste for it. Had Mihai seen it somehow, the way it felt, getting away with something. The planning, the slipping away. Tonight he'd taken the tram to the last stop in Bebek and walked up to the clinic. A trip he'd made over and over. If he'd been followed, they'd stay parked a block away from the clinic gates and wait, relieved to be snug, out of the rain, know­ing where he was. But just past the big oleander bushes, he'd headed for the garden side gate, doubling back to the Bosphorus road where Mihai was waiting, feeling suddenly free, almost exhilarated. No one would have seen him in the dark. If they were there, they'd be smok­ing, bored, thinking he was inside. This other life, just walking to the car, was all his own.

From Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon. Copyright 2012 by Joseph Kanon. Excerpted by permission of Pocket Books.

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