Sunday, 24 July 2016

A Lonely Vigil: Safehouses and their Keepers (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

I recently picked up The Anonymous Spy's Espionage Dictionary, and found this definition:

Safehouse: A house or apartment used for clandestine meetings between case officer and agent ... The person who lives in the safehouse ... is called the safehouse keeper. He is usually paid for the use of the safehouse. The safehouse keeper is a kind of support asset.

Support Asset: An agent who provides services to support an agent or case officer but does not necessarily provide intelligence information. Support agents may be safehouse keepers, couriers, live drops, etc.

It occurred to me that, in game, Directors and players alike often treat safehouses as disposable one-shots, somewhere to rest your head for a few hours before going on to the next thrilling chase scene or shootout. But in doing so we miss a chance to have some fun. A safehouse has a separate existence, and its keeper has her own concerns.

The main book says that 'ideally, a safe house also has several inobvious exits and good lines of site. Some spy agencies maintain houses or apartments complete with deep-cover minders who ask no questions, but provide alibis and explanations to curious neighbors. Others use heavily-travelled (but private) rooms in establishments like brothels, rehab clinics, or seedy hotels, trusting their agents to fit the pattern of anonymous visitors.'

Depending on the circumstances, those heavily-travelled (but private) rooms can throw up unexpected complications. In Spielberg's movie Munich, for example, the Israeli kill team have to bed down with PLO terrorists thanks to the machinations of their French criminal contact Louis. But the truth is the agent never really knows what to expect from these clandestine low-rent safehouses. Anything could go wrong. Their belongings could be stolen, their vehicles hijacked, and if they're quite so incautious as to use the wifi, well ...

Then again, what's good for the spy is good for his vampire opponent too. The Dracula Dossier points out that Dracula has several safehouses in London, and it's a safe bet that London isn't the only place Vlad keeps safehouses. Moreover while Dracula can afford well-stocked and protected safehouses, his minions probably have to settle for those same seedy and well-travelled  hovels that the protagonists might use.

It's one thing to be a Mossad agent unexpectedly having to share a cigarette and sleeping quarters with the PLO, something else again for a vampire hunter to discover the rehab clinic she's hiding in for the night is temporarily inhabited by one of the bloodsuckers she's been hunting. Or Renfields. Or people smugglers working within the Conspiracy. Or ... but you get the point.

As Director you could switch this around and make the safehouse the focus of the story, perhaps even setting an entire mini-campaign around a group of safehouse keepers. After all, if Christopher Eccleston can do it, I see no reason why a player character shouldn't have a go. If the Director goes that route I'd recommend setting the safe house somewhere evocative and useful; Bucharest, say. It's doable in London, but doesn't quite have that same zing. There's a lot of merit in setting this safehouse, as with Eccleston's, in a remote rural or semi-rural area, for added isolation; but it could work just as well in an urban or suburban setting.

With all that in mind, let's kick around some example safehouses and their keepers, for use in an ongoing campaign. For each example I'm going to include the Ability that leads to this safehouse, and I'm going to start with the ones used only by the desperate, without the backing of a larger agency.

Military Science: This military base, first built back in the 1960s, had family housing on site that nobody uses any more. The cash just isn't there for maintenance, the roof leaks, and the electricity supply's wonky at best. However the right Cover and some judicious palm greasing gets you in, and you can stay so long as you don't draw attention to yourself.

History: You can get to the catacombs via this sewer outfall or abandoned building. As for what's down there, that's an open question; but martyrs, resistance fighters and revolutionaries have bedded down with the bones of saints ever since the catacombs were first dug. Not a bad place to hide a cache, either. Just don't expect power cables, sanitation or a decent wifi signal.

High Society: You know Selena? Well she's seeing Riff Raff right now so she's in the States. Or maybe the Bahamas. Anyway, she's not here, and that's the important thing. You can crash at her apartment for a few days. Just remember to feed the plants and if someone comes by asking about a cocaine stash, you don't know anything.

Occult Studies: This Parapsychological Society has been going since the 1890s, with minor interruptions during the World Wars, and keeps an apartment in its headquarters for visiting scholars. It's just above the library. Perfect for late night research, even if it feels incredibly lonely up there with nobody else around.

Streetwise: The local mafia uses this love hotel as a drop-off for people and narcotics smugglers; it's very conveniently placed, so close to the border and to rail and road networks. It's within an hour's drive of the ocean too, perfect for that last-ditch escape across the Channel. Normally you're only allowed to stay for three hours maximum, but with your Streetwise you know the code the mafia uses to allow their people to stay longer. Don't stay too long, though; the neighbors aren't that pleasant, and if you overstay there's a good chance the mafia will turn up to ask who's hogging the safehouse.

On that note, a very brief list of Unusual Hotels: Transylvanian Castles courtesy of the Kálnoky Estate, complete with walks in the countryside and an exploration of Transylvanian life.  H2tel Rotterdam, a floating hotel in the heart of the city. Shakespeare & Co in Paris offers a Tumbleweed program where people can stay in the bookstore on very easy terms, and it's probably not the only independent bookstore in Europe to do so. Or for the adventurous seafaring soul, a trio of Napoleonic sea forts in the Solent. However as this isn't a travel blog, let's move on.

Tradecraft: When the Cold War was still a thing, these canal boats were often used by spies as temporary lodging; nobody gives them a second look, and people come and go all the time. The old signal used to be a boat sticker marred in a particular way; look for one of those and, if you can find one, that means the owner's agreeable to letting his boat be used as a meeting place, if you know the sign and countersign.

Urban Survival: There's a bunch of trust fund anarchists living in a squat in a pretty decent part of town. So long as you can spout a few political slogans and have plenty of weed you could stay there a few days, and nobody will ask questions.  

OK, so those are some potential safehouse ideas for the spy on the run. But say you're running an Edom campaign, or that for whatever reason your group hasn't been burnt yet by its home agency. In that event the safehouses are going to be less risky, and have their own keepers.

So what's a safehouse keeper like? Well, it's someone who the home agency deems 100% reliable, for whatever reason. This probably means that the keeper has strong ties with the home agency's country or, better yet, the home agency's government. However this doesn't mean the keeper's trusted with Top Secret intel. Far from it; the keeper's purpose is to provide a safe, quiet environment, not to play at being Jason Bourne. The keeper probably has Tradecraft and may also have ancillary skills like Electronic Surveillance and Notice. That way the keeper can work out when people have been sneaking around the safehouse, and conduct a basic sweep for electronic listening devices. Given that part of the keeper's duties is to keep the neighbors from asking questions, the keeper probably also has Flattery, Reassurance and similar interpersonal abilities.

That said, the keeper isn't a spy, nor should she be treated as a spy.  She's not a crack shot, or some kind of low-rent ninja. The best way to design one is to pick an already existing template, like Civilian, and add the necessary Abilities to upgrade her. Director's discretion as to the template, but it's unlikely that a former Spec Ops badass is going to settle into the relatively sedentary life of a safehouse keeper. A former cop, on the other hand, is perfectly reasonable.

Moreover the keeper's cover is long term, and mustn't be blown. If the agents leave corpses on the lawn, that's bound to attract comment. Equally if they use her wifi signal to host a hack of the host government's computers, and that hack is traced back to the safehouse, there will be repercussions. The whole point of the safehouse is anonymity; if the agents break that anonymity the home agency will not be pleased.

With all that in mind, consider the following Edom safehouse in Bucharest:

Edom maintains an apartment in Lipscani/Old Town. This section of Bucharest was long neglected; its beautiful businesses and houses were owned by the bourgeois, and after the Communists cleansed the place few wanted to move into the vacant buildings. For decades the only people willing to live there were gypsies, many of whom still live in the Old Town. In the early 2000s Lipscani changed from a run-down slum to a trendy, youth-oriented entertainment zone, making it more attractive to development. Too attractive, some would say. The rush to build and flagrant disrespect for the law contributed to, among other things, a disastrous fire at Club Collectiv which killed 27 and injured many more. The lack of maintenance and the ever-present threat of earthquakes means that many of the older buildings here have the Red Disc sign, indicating that the structure is at risk of collapse.

The keeper is Charlotte Nickel, one of the City of London's Masters of the Universe who moved into government work. Officially she's liaising with the Romanian Government; perhaps she's an economic advisor, a lobbyist for an NGO charity like Heal the Children, or a science advisor of some kind. However she's been on MI6's books for over a decade now, ever since she took a job in Dubai and agreed to pass on information to a Cambridge school friend working for the intelligence services. As far as Charlotte's concerned she's still working with MI6; she doesn't know anything about Edom. However Edom took her on board thanks to her mother's Romanian background. Charlotte's grandfather was a refugee who escaped the country after the abdication of King Michael I during the Communist takeover. That's why she wanted to move to Romania in the first place, and Edom smoothed the way for her.

Charlotte gets a regular stipend from Edom that more than covers the rent on this third floor Red Disc apartment, which overlooks Boulevard Brătianu. It has a balcony as well as a roof terrace, and is within walking distance of several popular nightspots. The apartment has all the mod cons and wifi, as well as a somewhat creaky elevator. 

Charlotte: Electronic Surveillance, Notice, Reassurance, Tradecraft; Civilian template, with personal defense training and Alertness Modifier 0.

That's it from me! Enjoy.

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