Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'The Company We Keep'

The Company We Keep

Super sleek, slick and cosmopolitan, Geneva is a rare breed of city. It's one of Europe's priciest. Its people chatter in every language under the sun and it's constantly thought of as the Swiss capital — which it isn't. This gem of a city superbly strung around the sparkling shores of Europe's largest Alpine lake is, in fact, only Switzerland's third-largest city.

Geneva, Switzerland: DAYNA

In the van's rearview mirror, I watch a woman come down the sidewalk. She's in a cream linen pantsuit and crocodile mid-heeled sandals. She's accompanied by a black Labrador retriever on a retractable leash. When the two come to the Hilton grounds, she gives the dog slack, and it bounds over a low hedge and onto the lawn. After a couple minutes the woman tugs the leash, the dog jumps back across the hedge, and they continue down the street. Who walks her dog in a cream linen pantsuit at seven in the morning? I wonder how it is the Swiss are so put together.

I've been sitting in this van every morning for a week now. The shops all open precisely at eight-thirty, not a minute before or after. Unerringly, the owners come out with a bucket of soapy water and a stiff broom to wash the sidewalk. They follow it by a quick polishing of the window, and then a stepping back to check the window displays.

Swiss orderliness would just be a curiosity, but it's a bane for anything we try to do here. A couple of months ago we put a concealed camera in the suit pocket of a man's jacket hanging in a car. It worked fine parked in a two-hour zone for a couple of days. But then one day we were thirty minutes late getting back to feed the meter, only to find the car had been towed. A 200 Swiss franc fine later we had our car back. The police didn't find the camera, but
we learned our lesson about the Swiss.

It's hotter and more humid today than it was yesterday, a soupy haze rising off the lake. You can't even see the mountains. I never guessed it could get so muggy in Geneva. Every other time I've worked here, it was either fall or winter, when the place can really turn on the charm. There's that cosmopolitan allure combined with the feel of a small town on a beautiful lake.

Frankly, the tediousness of the job is starting to get to me — moving the van from parking place to parking place, sitting and watching. It doesn't help that I've yet to see the Russian mobster we're supposed to be on. Our inside officer assures us he's in Geneva, working out of an office at 14 chemin du Petit- Sacconex. But I'm starting to question whether he really exists. The only thing I can think is that if the Russian leaves his office, he's doing it in the middle of the night after we stop watching him. We've thought of testing that hypothesis, but the Genevois police would notice someone sitting in a van at night when most people are off the street.

I get to drive the van for the same reason I got the motorbike in Athens: girls are less threatening. They can sit in a car all day, adjusting their makeup, exploring their purses, fiddling with the radio, and no one thinks twice about it. Alan, an ex-Marine from Texas, was going to spot me this morning, but showed up in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. Jacob sent Alan back to the OP, the observation post, because the way he was dressed, he wasn't about to go unnoticed. So Alan gets to spend the day in an air-conditioned suite on the seventh floor of the Hilton. Not that he's doing anything a whole lot more interesting than watching the street through a pair of binoculars.

Maybe this whole gig is bad karma punishing us for our down-time last month. We dubbed our latest swing around Europe the "Tour de Bally," in honor of the midsummer shoe sales at the high-end store.

Then, in the rearview mirror, I see a car pull out of the drive at 14 chemin du Petit-Sacconex. The angle's wrong to see whether our Russian is behind the wheel, but Jacob or Alan, whoever is on the binoculars, will have clear view from the 7th floor. I look at the radio crammed between the seat and the gearshift. Come on, guys, I whisper under my breath. Is that him? I pick up the radio and key it twice. Nothing. This time I hold the key down and ask, "Did you catch that?" No answer.

I make a half turn to get a look back down the street, but a delivery truck blocks my view. I look at the radio again. Why hasn't anyone called it out? Even if it's not the Russian, they should have said something.

Then the car goes right past me, and my heart pounds. It's the Russian for sure, the first we've seen of him in two weeks. What's going on? "Where are you two!" I half scream into the radio. I need backup, but there's no way I'm waiting another half month to latch on to him again.

The Russian is two blocks ahead of me, merging into traffic. I don't think he's trying to lose me — it's just that he's a fast driver. He's switching lanes back and forth to pass, gaining distance on me. I need a red light to stop him. One does at the next intersection, and I nose into his lane, three cars behind him. That's enough cover for right now. But I need Jacob and Alan to take over. Otherwise the Russian's going to pick up on me. The innocent-girl-in-the-van act can only go on for so long.

I keep the radio in my lap and key it twice to let Jacob and Alan know I'm still up on the network. But there's nothing in the way of an answer. Only static.

"I'm eyes on, east on Route de Ferney," I say.


The light turns green. "Crossing Chemin de sous Bois," I say.


"I repeat. Crossing sous Bois."

I name each street as we pass them, hoping they're listening and will catch up. I know I can't hang on like this much longer, especially if this guy turns off onto a street with light traffic. He's an ex-intelligence officer, and there's no way he won't see me.

What I keep thinking is that this is our first break in two weeks. All headquarters wants us to do is to find out where he lives, or even goes. We'd settle for a nightclub, a bachelor's pad where he spends time with his mistress, the store where he buys his chocolate. Just as long as it's away from his office, neutral ground where later we can arrange for an operative to run into him. Recruiting a spy is a long, slow process, and my team and I are just the very start.

"Right on Giuseppe Motta," I say. "Hey, if you guys are out there, let me know!"

I take a left with the Russian. The street is deserted. It's just him and me. I can't follow any longer without getting burned, and make a right when the Russian takes a left.

I get back on the radio. "I'm heading back. I dropped him."


It has to be the radio, I think. The repeater's down or something. There's no other explanation.

I let myself into our room on the seventh floor and stare daggers at Alan and Jacob. Alan's got a pair of binoculars in his hand; Jacob is on the sofa.

"What the hell happened?" I ask.

Alan looks at me sheepishly. "Where'd you go?"

"I looked away for less than one minute and when I looked back you were gone," Jacob says, getting up from the couch.

"Yeah, uh, we looked away and looked back and you were gone!" Alan says, sounding just as stupid but also just as guilty.

I drop it and don't say anything. But that night over beers it comes out.

"It's Jacob's fault," Alan says. "I was watching you, and Jacob wouldn't stop about the topless women at the pool. I went over to take a look only to shut him up."

"The radio was in the room," Jacob says. "When we came back to check on you, you were gone."

It makes me feel better they're both genuinely repentant, and we all laugh at the same time.

I never tell our inside officer about the slipup — I wouldn't think of it. Someone's always making a dumb mistake like this. I have, and will make more too. But what it really comes down to is that I've worked with Jacob and Alan long enough to know that they're really good at their jobs. I can count on them for anything. We're like a close family. Although we don't stay in touch between assignments, and a lot of the time we're on opposite sides of the world, I know I can take them at their word. If we're in Singapore and agree to meet two weeks later at noon in the southwest corner of Rome's Piazza Navona, they'll be there.

I travel with Jacob more than with anyone else. We're good as a pair because we never get on each other's nerves, and on downtime we do our own thing. Jacob sits for hours in his room, fiddling with computers and cameras. I cruise the streets, window-shopping. At night we usually meet up for dinner at some out-of-the-way restaurant. Jacob's told me more than once that it's easier to make plans with me in some obscure part of the world than it is to plan a dinner out with his wife in Washington, D.C. At the same time we know that even if we were single, we aren't meant for each other.

This isn't to say that all relations in this makeshift family I live in are platonic. Affairs do go on, though they tend to be discreet. As I hear the guys say, if you can't carry on a secret, amorous liaison, you're not worth your salt as an operative. But some couples don't even bother hiding it. A pair I often work with actually fell in love, neither caring that the woman was already married and had no plans to divorce. No one complains, though, because they work so well together. There's nothing like a passionate embrace to cover up the fact that you're taking pictures with a concealed camera. Washington pretty much knows what's going on but looks the other way. It's the CIA's version of "Don't ask, don't tell."

From The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story by Robert and Dayna Baer. Copyright 2011 Robert and Dayna Baer. Excerpted by permission of The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Robert Baer and Dayna Baer