MOSCOW, OCT. 22 -- "You know the cuckoo clock at the International Hotel?" Edward Lee Howard said over the clicking phone line. "I'll meet you under the cuckoo clock at 10:30."

And so once again, life imitates trash fiction.

Howard is the first CIA agent ever to defect to Moscow, and from the start of a four-hour interview at his house and a restaurant he seemed a strange vessel of a man, someone who reads his Len Deighton and then dons the trench coat. No doubt, by arranging a meeting with The Washington Post, Howard, and probably the KGB itself, were playing yet another clever game of "international intelligence." And yet it all seemed so ... dumb.

On Saturday morning, at the appointed hour exactly, beneath the monstrous clock with a squawking copper rooster on top, a man neither short nor tall, neither skinny nor fat, neither handsome nor ugly, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Hi. I'm Ed Howard. Good to meet you. Why don't we go."

The International Hotel, known locally as "the Mezh," is the one place in the entire Soviet Union that resembles America, Business Class. Upholstered "conversation areas," inside-out glass elevators, shops with stuff in them. Nothing like Russia, really. "I like it 'cause it looks like one of those malls back home," Howard said. "Sometimes I eat upstairs at the German beer place and I like the ice cream parlor a lot."

Howard headed toward the door. The lobby was filled with Westerners, businessmen mainly, tired-looking men who roamed the lobby waiting for the next meeting, aimless and bored as guppies in a bowl. Possibly one or more of them knew who Howard was, if only vaguely, as a distant scandal, a man who humiliated the FBI and CIA four years ago when he slipped through their cheesecloth surveillance in New Mexico and left for Soviet sanctuary. Possibly, possibly not. No one at the Mezh seemed to be paying him special attention.

How is it that a defector -- one suspected of selling secrets to the KGB -- can roam around in public? Isn't he afraid that someone from the CIA station at the U.S. Embassy here might try to grab him? Won't he be recognized by some computer chip salesman from Tacoma who all of a sudden points and says, "Hey you, aren't you ... ?"

"No way," Howard said. "If you asked 1,000 people on the streets in Washington, D.C., or in a normal American city, say Cleveland, Ohio, 'Who is Ed Howard?,' 999 would never know who I am, much less what I look like."

And the CIA?

"They have better things to do with their time."

Outside in the bleak Moscow light, Howard opened the back-seat door of a black Volga, the preferred car of countless mid-ranking Communist Party, military and KGB officials.

"We're going to the dacha," Howard said in mediocre Russian, and the KGB driver headed out Kutuzovsky Prospect toward the southwest outskirts of Moscow. After leaving the main road, the driver took a deliberately circuitous route toward Howard's place. He took every curve at stomach-turning speed. He kept glancing in the rear-view mirror. Splendid and somber. Like something in Len Deighton.

Howard rolled his eyes.

"On the way back, don't bother going this way," he told the driver. "After all, what's the point?"

One Day in the Life Of Ivan Ivanovich

Dacha-land, at least Howard's neck of it, is a mix of ordinary peasant houses and the soaring brick-and-glass sanctuaries of the Soviet power elite. Not far away from Howard's place, the antisemitic painter Ilya Glazunov lives in a multi-story brick monstrosity; elsewhere there are KGB officials, Communist Party men, retired generals. In a time of impudent democratic rebellion, living well is evidently the best revenge.

Howard asked to defect in 1986, a "walk-in" at a Soviet embassy in Eastern Europe -- probably Budapest. But the CIA believes he began selling secrets to the Soviets three years before that, after he was forced out of the agency as a bad security risk for failing a series of polygraph tests about his private conduct. They say they are convinced he sold out a number of key "assets" in Moscow, including one aviation expert who was eventually executed for espionage. (Howard denies this. Though he did not speak in detail about what information he may have supplied his Soviet handlers, he said, "I am not responsible for anybody's death or anybody's arrest.")

Besides traveling abroad frequently -- he even brags about trips to the West -- Howard said he spends nearly all of his time at the two-story brick dacha outside Moscow. The grounds are surrounded by a seven-foot fence. A retired couple live in a small cottage on the grounds; the woman cooks and cleans for Howard; the man tends the garden, growing apples, strawberries, roses and potatoes. The couple call Howard "Ivan Ivanovich," the Russian equivalent of Joe Blow, Mr. Nobody. In the back yard there is a guard booth where two young KGB men keep a round-the-clock watch on Howard. Inside the gate there are infrared devices to signal intruders. There are two car sheds in the yard, one for the Volga, the other for Howard's own Volvo.

Howard, who also has a spacious apartment just off the Arbat in downtown Moscow, was quick to mock his landlords. He pointed to the second-floor window and said, "They never finished the construction up there. Typical. They probably ran out of money three-quarters the way through."

Inside, the house is set up with well-made, if wan, Soviet furniture and top-of-the-line Western video and audio equipment. There are two bedrooms, a large living room, a deck and a study. The ceilings are 25 feet high and a kitschy painting of a dead fowl and an open shotgun hangs over the fireplace.

Howard keeps few books: "Lenin: His Life and Work," the Bible and "Russian for Everybody." And Len Deighton. Howard said he picks up USA Today and Newsweek on his trips downtown, and the KGB bought him subscriptions to National Geographic, Money and Computer World.

In the study, an aerie that overlooks the living room, Howard keeps two computers. He uses them for his "economic consulting work" at a "major" institute and at a Soviet bank where he works in currency trading and gold deals. Howard also loves to play computer games for hours: "My favorite is this one, 'SDI,' " he said. It is American-made. "The premise is that the KGB has taken over the country and is going to attack the West. So you fight the KGB. I always win. But my friends always lose."

In a country where collapse is the word of the moment and tens of millions of people live in dire poverty, Howard lives like a pasha, mainly at KGB expense. "Oh, I'm comfortable," he said, sounding like a periodontist trying to downplay the expense of his new rec room. Howard said he earns 500 rubles a month at his institute job and some "paltry" hard-currency commissions at the bank. He has access to the well-stocked diplomatic stores where Westerners buy their groceries. But he denies the KGB ever paid him major sums of money for information or for his simple presence as a defector-trophy.

"When I got here I had one suitcase of clothes," he said. "Basically, when I got to work, they said make sure the boy has some good clothes. That's what {KGB Chief Vladimir} Kryuchkov said. They gave me an allowance to buy clothes. Maybe a couple thousand rubles. ... Also, the first three months until I could work out my situation they gave me some money, some rubles. It wasn't a big amount. I don't want to specify how much."

To pass the time after work, Howard plays chess with his guards or watches one of his 300 videocassettes. When he goes to the theater, he goes with a friend or a guard or both. When he first arrived in Moscow, the KGB told him he also needed a "cultural attache" to accompany him to the theater, restaurants, "that sort of thing."

All the guards and tails don't seem to bother him much. "The KGB is responsible for my security. They take it seriously. Sometimes I get lectures from them about 'Why do you not take your security seriously' and so on," he said. "But it's my decision. I made the decision on my own to take you out to the dacha today. Kryuchkov said, 'It's your decision.' They don't like it but they said I was responsible.

"We have a good relationship and I respect them in regard to the security they are providing. ... As long as they give me the freedom to operate -- well, 'operate's' a bad word -- but the room to move around, to associate with who I want, to do what I want, it's okay. And they do."

Howard said he is even free to make his own travel decisions. In the past four years, he said, he has wandered East Europe, Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico, France and Canada -- "for fun." Asked why he'd want to fly all the way to travel, at great risk, to Cuba, Howard flashes his cool:

"Well, they've got some awfully nice beaches. Have you ever been to Cuba and seen those beaches?" (Will this and the claims to have dodged the CIA in the West cause hand-wringing in Langley Undoubtedly, this is the intention. It was, after all, the KGB press department that helped set up this interview in the first place.)

Last year, another American defector, Glenn Souther, committed suicide in Moscow and was buried with a glowing tribute from the KGB. Howard admitted that in his first two years he too was depressed, and he reacted to the Souther suicide with "sadness and understanding. ... Defectors are a crazy breed. The first year or two are tough. But then you stabilize." Suicide, Howard said, was "just a {chicken's} way out."

He'd just as soon live the life of a Soviet yuppie. In fact, the only reason he was meeting with a reporter now, he said, was to "show up" a recent item in U.S. News & World Report, reported out of Washington, saying that Howard may have killed himself, slitting his own throat.

"Wanna see the scar?" he said, laughing and pulling back his collar. Howard called the newsweekly a "conservative rag" and accused its editors of "plotting" with the CIA to get him to "surface."

What does get him most depressed now, he said, is that his wife, Mary, and son, Lee, live in Minnesota and visit just twice a year. Summers and Christmas. They could move here, he said, but they decided against it.

"I love my wife and son, but I have to do what's best for them," Howard said. The Howards want Lee to go to a "good American school." Their marriage is now "as yet undefined. I know eventually one of these days something might happen -- we probably can't stay together forever -- but until she finds somebody better, you know, we're living on a season-to-season basis."

When the CIA forced Howard to resign from the agency, they had uncovered evidence of his personal problems, especially his history of heavy drinking. When he showed up at the hotel he was carrying a shopping bag with two bags of liquor, but, he said, "that's just for the guests."

"I think my drinking problems came from a lot of stress factors, especially when I was in the CIA," he said. "And there were some adjustment problems here. No doubt about it. And now I am mainly a beer man. I admitted to myself that I can't handle {hard liquor}. And that's the big step. I got depressed the last time I drank too much."

One afternoon, when I phoned Howard, he answered on around the 20th ring. The "beer man" sounded worse than tired.

The CIA: 'They Like to Party'

Edward Lee Howard is a small-town boy from New Mexico who grew up reading James Bond novels. In the Peace Corps in Colombia and the Agency for International Development in Peru, he got a taste for travel (and a bit for cut-rate cocaine). In 1980, when he was 28, he had a job interview with the CIA.

"I must admit there was the aura of adventure," he said. At first Howard remembered his original image of the CIA. "But then, after meeting some agents in the Foreign Service, I thought, hey, they're human just like us. They like to party." With his graduate degree in business administration from American University, Howard thought he'd spend his career abroad doing economics intelligence. "Finding out what's in people's accounts and stuff." Instead, in 1982, the CIA put Howard in the "pipeline" for the Moscow station.

"When I told my classmates that I was going to Moscow, everybody kind of opened their mouths. Ah, the Big M!" he said. "I thought, well, I'll put up with it and then I can name where I want to go, like Zurich." For months, Howard trained in Virginia and Washington, learning "dead drops" and counter-surveillance techniques, putting little pieces of film in tree stumps and not blinking. He learned terms like "wet assets" (Russian terminology for liquidated spies), "honey pots" (women used as sexual lures) and "ravens" (male homosexual lures). He learned of how the agency kept the names of its "assets" in Moscow in separate black envelopes in a basement safe. "Very holy and all that sort of thing," Howard said.

But then Howard failed the polygraph tests and was forced to resign. According to CIA sources quoted in David Wise's book "The Spy Who Got Away," Howard began acting strangely, phoning the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and leaving a message for the CIA station chief. He also admitted later that he stood outside the Soviet Consulate on Phelps Place NW and contemplated "going over." There were unexplained trips to Vienna -- practically an espionage playing field.

But it was only after the Soviet spy Vitaly Yurchenko defected to the West and reportedly told the CIA about Howard that the CIA let the FBI in on the secret and the surveillance began. Howard was living at the time in Sante Fe, working in the New Mexico legislature.

Trained by the CIA in counter-surveillance, Howard realized he was being followed and watched. He said his shadows were "incompetent" and "fools." "I'd see the same guy all the time riding around the house. I mean, really," Howard said. "And then I took a trip to Seattle. I see people on the flight with me to Los Angeles, then on the flight to Seattle, and then all of a sudden back in Sante Fe."

Under interrogation then and in interviews now, Howard denies he ever had contact with the KGB until he finally defected in June 1986. Under pressure and drinking heavily at times, Howard felt he could no longer stay in the United States, and in September 1985 he escaped. Once more he used the techniques he had learned in CIA training. With his wife behind the wheel of their Jeep on the night of Sept. 21, Howard rolled out of the passenger door. The dummy popped up in his place. And as Len Deighton might say, he was gone.

While her husband began a half-year odyssey through Latin America and Europe, ending with defection to the Soviet Union, Mary Howard went through a long interrogation by the FBI. According to Wise, she admitted that her husband had collected $150,000 in a Swiss bank account and buried a small cache of Krugerrands and silver bars in an ammunition box. She also admitted that it was the Soviet Union that paid for her husband's trip to Vienna in September 1984.

All of which reflects rather badly on Howard's claim that he never had any relationship at all with the Soviet Union or the KGB until he defected.

Every time the subject of that period came up, Howard looked away and said, "Let's please get off the subject of '85." But there was a sense of delight when the subject turned to perhaps one of the sorriest chapters in U.S. intelligence, the bugging of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the celebrated incidents of Marines romping around with Soviet spies with names like "Big Raya."

"Ha! Ha!" the defector said. "I thought it was comical, funny. I think it turned out that only one guy went to jail after all that. The rest of the guys were just normal, young, red-blooded, horny Marines. And they were having some fun with some Soviet girls. Ha! Ha!"

A Land of Mirrors "Want a cookie?" Howard said.

We decided to hold off till lunch. At times, Howard seemed as though the interview was a painful task done at someone else's beckoning. But at times, he rose to the subject, especially that of his own innocence. It was strange to hear him discourse on one of the other spy cases of his time, the Walker family of U.S. Navy spies who sold the Soviets codes and other key military secrets. His views were one part gall, one part moral relativism.

"Oh, they should answer for their crimes, but in the intelligence business it's very difficult to say what is a crime and what isn't. Maybe I'm trying to back off here a bit, but God, it's a land of mirrors. I mean it's very hard to moralize.

"Okay, let's say I'm a CIA officer posted in Europe. I was trained to recruit people to commit treason. And it's being done every day, in many countries of the world, by the CIA and the KGB. And then the people who get into the press, like the Walkers, that's maybe just 1 percent at most of the people who are recruited. And then they get burned, caught, and you think, 'Oh, gosh, what about the other 99 percent?' They're walking away free on a worldwide basis.

"It's interesting that in Germany, espionage is considered a white-collar crime. I think the maximum sentence there is 12 years. In the United States they've put in the death penalty. Different societies, different values. But I agree more with the Germans on this."

The long gray Saturday shoved on outside. At first, Howard played his character nicely, waxing cynical even about the KGB's current "kinder, gentler" public relations campaign: "Oh, {Americans} should believe that about as much as they believe the CIA press campaign."

But as the day went by, the character seemed to drain out of Howard. He seemed to get bored with himself, bored with his story. Here was a man, after all, who was a bit player in the Cold War, Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. And after all, wasn't the Cold War over? Who needs Ed Howard? Unlike Kim Philby and George Blake, there is no romance, no matter how perverse, about the Howard case. He didn't "come out" for ideals or fortune. He defected, and probably sold secrets, mainly out of panic and anger.

At the German beer hall in the Mezh, Howard hacked away solemnly at his roast chicken. All around him businessmen were laughing and talking about their flights to Copenhagen and Paris and London, and hoisting their Steubens.

Howard said he knew it would probably mean the end of his marriage when either he or his wife "finds another person." But he spoke, too, of living one day in a "neutral country" with his family. "The Soviets haven't stopped me from seeking that alternative," he said. "I still consider it a viable option." In the meantime, from "a material point of view, I have pretty much everything I want." Including free court time at the Central Committee tennis courts.

Howard's second bedroom is cluttered with huge stuffed animals and other toys for his son. So far, Lee Howard only knows his father "does financial work" and lives in Moscow. So far, he knows nothing about his father's life in deception.

"I suppose one day I'll explain it all to him. I don't know at what age but I will," Howard said. "Maybe I'll just hand him David Wise's book and tell him to read it and sit down and answer questions."

But how will Lee Howard react to what his father has done? "Probably with shock, hurt, and then he'll evaluate the situation against what he knows of me as a person, whether I've treated him well, whether I've raised him well, whether I love him. And eventually, after the shock, I think it will settle down into a relationship. I mean, you look at Kim Philby's sons. They used to visit him here regularly. They came to his funeral and everything."

Finally, Edward Lee Howard had nothing more to say. And then it was time to go back to the dacha. "I suppose they'll call tonight and ask how it went," he said.

They probably already knew. But did they really care?