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'Once A Spy' Excerpt: Keith Thomson's Satirical Thriller

The Huffington Post   First Posted: 04/21/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 04:35 PM ET

Once A Spy

Over the next five weeks, HuffPost Books will be rolling out a series of excerpts from Part One of Keith Thomson's debut novel, "Once a Spy." You can read Thomson's introductory blog here. Below are chapters 1, 2, and 3; come back next week for 4, 5, 6, and 7. Check out Keith Thomson's website for more information on the new book.


Part One
Reasonable Paranoia

1

Brooklyn was booming. Elsewhere. Drummond Clark's block was still packed with boxy, soot-grayed houses, some settled at odd angles and all so close together they looked like one long soot-grayed building. At holiday time, the patchy displays of festive lights accentuated the cracks as much as anything.

On this bitter Christmas Eve, Drummond stood hunched in his small kitchen, alternately green and red in the reflection of a neighbor's tree, struggling to open a can of soup for dinner. He wondered how all the years had come to this. No friends, no family. He couldn't remember the last time one of the neighbors had invited him in.

Granted, a longtime widower wasn't much of a fit in an increasingly young and family-oriented neighborhood. Also the world was increasingly elitist and materialistic, and his station lacked luster: He'd worked in sales at a middling appliance manufacturer for thirty years. And, he acknowledged, he lacked luster--in sixty-four years, one gets the mes¬sage. But none of that quite accounted for tonight.

He knew that there was another explanation. A glaring one.

"What is it again?" he asked himself.

He couldn't put a finger on it. He hoped the effort of getting his creaky can opener to do its job would jog his memory.

It didn't. But at least he got the can open. A cylinder of chicken and stars slid out and plopped into the pot.

Hunger and anticipation kept him by the stove. When the soup came to a boil, he lifted the pot from the burner and hurried to the worn butcher-block table. His bowl, napkin, and soup spoon waited in a neat row.

He bypassed the table and emptied the soup onto the waist-high plas¬tic fern by the side door.

An electronic sputter burst over the pair of miniature speakers in the attic three doors up the block. The tenants in the house were four clean-cut young men who claimed to be Brooklyn Polytechnic grad students. The one who went by Pitman didn't know what to make of the noise. Sitting at the other end of the Ping-Pong table the "grad students" used as a desk, Dewart appeared equally puzzled. Like "Pitman," "Dewart" was a pseudonym, probably chosen at random. Pitman liked to think it had been inspired by Dewart's resemblance to Jimmy Stewart.

Glancing at his monitor, Dewart said, "Whatever the hell it is, it's coming from number six. Which is six again?"

"Checking," said Pitman. He pass- coded his way into a roster of electronic surveillance devices. "Probably one of the fiber- freaking-ops."

The fiber-optical microphones each operated using light waves transmitted by a cable thinner than a human hair, and they wonderfully defied metal and nonlinear junction detectors. But they were famously temperamental, with polymer lithium batteries that needed changing every nine days--best-case. On this job that meant sneaking into Drummond's house when he was out, which had been seldom since his dis¬ability leave began.

Ordinarily Pitman would have sent the devices in and out of the house's ventilation system fitted to crawlers, robots the size of a common cockroach. Or he would have used mikes that drew power from the house itself, wired into the back of a light switch wall plate, for instance. A pinhole video camera concealed behind a mirror would have been nice too. The problem with such "simple" devices here was their relative ease of detection.

"Yep, fiber-op," he relayed to Dewart, "in the planter in the kitchen."

"Any idea what's up with it?"

"A short, maybe?"

"How could that happen?"

"Maybe he thought he was watering the plant."

"All his plants are plastic."

"Good point." Trying to ignore his rising anxiety, Pitman mouse-clicked to the feed from 20-N and 20-S, nickel-sized pinhole video cam¬eras he'd painted the local streetlamp-gray and wired onto streetlamps at either end of the block.

His display showed a block devoid of motion except flickering Christmas lights and a wind-tossed bar coaster--he could read the Schlitz logo. He could also see Drummond's side door dangling open. Drummond kept the door triple locked as a rule, except when taking out the trash. The alley was empty aside from garbage cans.

Pitman felt as if he'd been kicked in the stomach. "We need the JV," he said. His mind was a feverish montage of the potential consequences of losing Drummond, including several scenarios in which one of the "junior varsity" players climbed to the attic and, on orders from above, drew a gun--end of scene.

Yes, surveillance units lost targets all the time, even much bigger and more sophisticated surveillance units--Pitman had heard of an eighty-person team in floating box formation that lost its target when the wheel artist's car was cut off by a flock of kindergartners and a stubborn crossing guard.

But Drummond Clark wasn't just any target, of course.

2

At six the next morning, a disagreeably frosty Christmas, Charlie Clark was the lone passenger on the Q11 bus rattling past a desolate stretch of Queens Boulevard discount stores, fast food restaurants, and office buildings in decline or awaiting demolition. He saw that the driver, a pleasant, fresh-faced man around his own age--thirty--was looking him over in the rearview mirror. Even when Charlie wore old sneakers and jeans torn at the knees, like now, strangers mistook him for a yuppie.

The driver called back, "Going out to the island to be with family?"

Charlie weighed telling the truth. The thing was, over the engine rumble and the thumping of tires in and out of potholes, he'd heard a certain wistfulness in the driver's voice. Also, when boarding, he'd noticed the driver's thick wedding band and a snapshot of two little girls taped to the fare box. Charlie figured that, preposterously early this morning, the guy had had to pry himself away from the warm bosom of his family to come spend his Christmas breathing icy diesel fumes, dodging tipsy holiday drivers, and enduring the recorded voice's plod¬ding recitation of the rules of disembarkation at every stop, even when no one disembarked. So probably he wouldn't be cheered to learn it amounted to chauffeuring an inveterate gambler to the track.

"I'm going to see Great Aunt Edith," Charlie said.

Great Aunt Edith was a filly.

The bus driver glowed as if his fare box had been replaced by an open fire. Charlie was warmed as well. To keep the poor bastard's buzz going, he got off a stop before Aqueduct Racetrack, at a neighborhood of quaint but tired little brick and shingle houses that might well be populated exclusively by great aunts.

It meant walking a couple of extra blocks. He shivered, but not because of the cold.

It was the debt.

3

The Big A opened in 1894. Many horseplayers called it the Big H, for heaven, especially on sunny days when the breeze lofted an aromatic blend of hay, freshly mowed grass, and horses into the sweeping, twin-tiered grandstand.

Charlie had spent a good part of the past ten years in the grandstand but developed no such sentiments. He thought of the ancient colossus as the weight of one more stubbly guy in a stained shirt away from col-lapse--when he thought about it at all. His focus was almost always on the races or the goings-on before and after: happy snorts, dragging hooves, extra steps. While stubbly guys all around him were crumpling tickets from the race that had just ended and muttering about their luck, he drank up clues.

A few months ago, he had noticed a colt take an extra step on the way to the stalls, avoiding a puddle. He read it as aversion to water and filed it away until six weeks afterward, when it was raining in Louisville, the Downs were mud, and the same colt was favored--the exact scenario Charlie had gotten out of bed hoping for every day in the preceding six weeks. Betting the consensus second pick netted him a sporty new Volvo, which was almost as exhilarating as the twentieth of a second during which the horse crossed the wire.

In a race last weekend at Gulfstream, with five horses already finished, Great Aunt Edith was lumbering behind by too many lengths to count. As usual. Charlie had already lost a hundred on the bay who finished fourth. Everyone else at the Big A viewing the simulcast, holding suddenly worthless tickets too, went into crumple-and-mutter mode. Charlie watched the entire race, as always.

With an eighth to go, he was rewarded by the sight of Great Aunt Edith's abrupt and unprecedented transformation into a locomotive. He smelled a rare ruse known as "hiding form," in which a horse racks up a record as a plodder but secretly is a bullet in workouts watched only by his owner and trainer. They intentionally hold him back in races with the objective of a betting bonanza the day they finally let him loose.

There was no better time to come out of hiding than the day after Christmas, when the betting pool was fattened by a grandstand packed with first timers and other fish who always pick the favorite. If Edith's people had such designs, her jockey would air it out in today's workout, and he could do so without the usual security precautions because Aqueduct was closed on Christmas.

Practically swollen with anticipation, Charlie hit the buzzer outside Aqueduct's administrative offices. His friend Mickey Ramirez appeared at the door. Mickey worked security here because, like most everyone else who worked at the track, he liked the horses too much. Otherwise he would have still been a successful private investigator in Manhattan. He was forty-two, of average height, and, because the refreshment stand eased the pain of bad bets, nearing three hundred pounds. His single attractive feature--thick and satiny black hair, worn long--emphasized the defects of the rest. His default setting--gloomy--worsened at the sight of Charlie now.

"You can't come in," he said through the glass.

"Happy Christmas back at you," Charlie said, unruffled.

"So you know it's Christmas?"

"No, I say that every day, just in case."

"You do know it's the one day of the year tracks are closed, right?"

"I didn't want you to have to spend it alone, old friend. Also, by the by, I want to see the workouts."

"It'd be my ass if I let you in, man. You know that."

"I know, I know, but here's the thing: I've had a run of rotten luck lately--"

"Don't get me started on hard-luck stories."

"--and I'm into Grudzev for twenty-three G's."

Mickey softened. "Shit."

Charlie breathed some warmth back into his hands. "Assuming Phil at the pawnshop has the holiday spirit, I'm short by north of fifteen. If I don't have it by tomorrow night, Grudzev's going to fill a cup with sand."

"And make you drink it?"

"Why would I care if he's just filling a cup with sand?"

"That could kill you, couldn't it?"

"Either way, it's a decent threat, don't you think?"

"Fuck, borrowing from a dude like that--what were you thinking?"

Charlie felt foolish. "That the horse was going to win," he said. He could have cited several times that Mickey had been in a similar predicament. Once he not only bailed Mickey out, he paid his rent. Which, come to think of it, he'd never gotten back.

"I hear you, man," Mickey said. He opened the door a crack but didn't move to let Charlie in. "You'll cut me in, yeah?"

This meant Mickey would allow Charlie inside if, in return, he related anything he saw that might affect the outcome of a race. Charlie bristled at the notion. For him, the thrill of winning was being right when everyone else was wrong. Where in the world but the track can a person get that? The thrill was diluted when other handicappers copied his homework; for the same reason, he was loath to bet based on another horse¬player's tip, even if it were to come by way of the horse's mouth.

"Cutting in" had a cost too. Odds at the track aren't set by the house, like at casinos, but rather by the money bet per horse--the more bet, the lower the odds. By cutting someone in, Charlie was lowering the odds on his pick, which was tantamount to giving away his own money, which was tantamount to nuts.

He thought of it simply as the price of admission today. Mickey could blab to everyone in his wide ring of tip traders, and still Great Aunt Edith would pay ten to one, more than enough for Charlie to pay off Grudzev and--what the hell--give him a Christmas bonus.

There were train compartments bigger than Mickey's office. Charlie huddled with him by a monitor that showed a skewed, gray-green security camera feed of Great Aunt Edith's supposedly private workout. The filly was running even slower than usual, like she resented having to work on the holiday. Charlie came to the nauseating conclusion that Gulfstream had been a fluke.

Mickey turned to him and asked, "What do you care about Edith for anyhow? I wouldn't bet her if she was the only horse in the race."

A jolt of excitement deprived Charlie of the ability to reply. The filly had accelerated to the point that a bullet would have had difficulty keeping pace.

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