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'Once A Spy' Excerpt: Keith Thomson's Satirical Thriller (Part Two)

04/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Over the next month, HuffPost Books will be rolling out a series of excerpts from Part One of Keith Thomson's debut novel, "Once a Spy." Read Thomson's introductory blog, "What Happens to a Spy with Alzheimer's?" here. Below are chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7. If you missed chapters 1, 2, and 3, you can read them here. Come back next week for chapters 8, 9, 10, and 11. Check out Keith Thomson's website for more information on the new book.

4

"My name is John Lewis," the man said with certainty. He'd been just as certain a minute ago that he was Bill Peterson.

"Do you know where you live?" Helen asked.

The man shrugged.

"Do you know where you are now?"

"Geneva?"

"The town in upstate New York?"

"Don't know it."

Despite two sweaters, social worker Helen Mayfield sat huddled against her tiny desk at Brooklyn's Prospect Park Senior Outreach Center; at least the piles of folders full of lost causes provided a buffer against the draft. And the draft was no bother compared to the square dance class. The wall between her office and the rec room was so thin, it felt like the dance caller was hollering directly into her ear.

Not unrelated was the migraine, like a railroad spike through the base of her skull and into her left eye. Then there was the pharmacy three blocks away, where she might obtain a remedy. Closed December 25, sure. But also today, December 26.

For St. Stephen's Day!

She could help the man sitting at her desk, though. So everything else was relegated to minor annoyance.

He looked to be in his early sixties. Five-ten or eleven, weight about right, plain features. He had a moderate amount of white hair and an average amount of wrinkles and spots. His muscles were firm, but not so much that anyone would notice, except on close inspection. He'd spent the night here after volunteers in a Meals on Wheels van spotted him wandering Brooklyn yesterday afternoon in just the flannel pajamas and bedroom slippers he still wore. He had no wallet, no watch or jewelry, no identifying marks. And then there was his accent, or, really, the lack of one. He could be anyone from anywhere.

Still, Helen wasn't without clues. Each year the center cared for more seniors with neurodegenerative conditions than a neurologist typically saw in a career. Although he was relatively young, she suspected her John Doe had Alzheimer's. Its trademark was damage to the memory-retrieval process, manifested by a veil over the past and present. Symp¬toms also included humming and rocking without self- awareness. Mr. Doe: all of the above.

And the wandering was a classic. Alzheimer's caused minimal motor impairment. Ten years from onset, patients could tie a tie, bake a cake, even create a Web site. Driving a car was nothing for them. Except now and again, they departed for the corner store, only to be found halfway across the country. Such spells of disorientation often were prompted by unfamiliar surroundings. Out-of- towners visiting relatives frequently wound up as Does.

"Do you, by chance, have family in the New York City area?" she asked.

The humming ceased. The man sat ramrod straight. "Yes, ma'am. My son, Charles. Three-oh-five East Tenth Street in Manhattan, unless he's had difficulty making the rent again."

A few keystrokes at the social services database, and her computer screen filled with the driver's license data and a photograph of Charles Jefferson Clark of 305 East 10 Street. He was a year and a day older than she, five eleven and 170, with strong features and playful blue eyes that shone through scruff and tangles of sandy hair. In that shabby Yonkers Raceway T-shirt, she thought, he could be a rock star who dressed in defiant opposition to his means.

5

Feeling flush already, Charlie took a taxi to Aqueduct, stopping first at a Lightning ¢a$h. Into the gulley at window B, he dropped his driver's license and the key ingredient of his Great Aunt Edith wager: three Social Security checks made out to his mother, Isadora VanDeuersen Clark, each in the amount of $1,712.00. In a wispy cursive he imagined old-lady-like, he'd endorsed them, "Isadora V. Clark."

The first check had appeared in his mailbox in October, after what would have been her sixty-fifth birthday. If she hadn't died twenty-six years earlier. His horseplayer cronies were unanimous in the opinion that it was literally a gift horse. Still, he leaned toward notifying the Social Security Administration of the error. Until today.

Lightning ¢a$h looked and smelled like it was never mopped and never would be. The appeal was it accepted any check issued by the United States government without calling for verification; and the tellers paid so little attention to detail, they were likely to cash a check issued by the Confederate States of America. Usually.

It occurred to Charlie now that, given the run of luck he'd been on, today was the day the tellers would be replaced by undercover agents looking to bust deadbeats who cash their dead moms' Social Security checks.

Sure enough, the teller--a trim, middle-aged man with a self-assured air--licked his thumb and forefinger to enhance their adhesiveness, raised one of the checks to his lenses, and began to examine it.

Charlie tried to blink the horror out of his eyes. "My mom endorsed them to me."

The man muttered something in reply that sounded like "Yes, sir" but just as easily could have been a dubious "Yeah, sure." And continued his examination.

Hot acid jetted into Charlie's intestines.

An eternity passed.

Finally the teller opened his cash drawer and withdrew $5,058.96, the value of the checks minus Lightning ¢a$h's 1.5 percent fee. Charlie's acid ebbed and cool relief flowed in its place. The relief was mitigated by that blend of probability and superstition unique to horseplayers: You don't want to be lucky before the starting gate opens. It's that much less luck you'll have when you need it.

The sky above the Big A grandstand was an ominous, scowling gray. It would have taken a meteor shower to divert Charlie's attention from the oval. From the moment the stall doors banged open, Edith was a bullet. She finished five lengths ahead of the favorite. But two lengths behind a nothing chestnut named Hay Diddle, who won going away.

"There's a reason you never hear of anyone getting rich at the track," Charlie said to no one in particular as he crumpled his ticket. He left feeling heavier by a hundred pounds, the bulk of it melancholy and foreboding. On the stairs he used the handrail, the first time he could remember doing so, to counter the dizziness.

As the Q11 bounced him through potholes and back to Manhattan, the squeaky suspension sounded as if it were reiterating his exact thought: Now what?

He fantasized about staying aboard all the way to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and from there skipping town on the first Greyhound to Montana or South Dakota or someplace like that. He'd clear the damned horses from his head once and for all, then find steady employment, maybe go back to school at night and finish his college degree. Then he'd meet "her" and they'd buy the two- story brick colonial with a tidy lawn that had room for a swing set and sandbox. And he'd find a thrill less risky than the horses. Like skydiving.

Running now would only make things worse though. Grudzev's men would bring the sand to one of Charlie's friends.

Also, Charlie had tried fresh starts. Several times after a big score, he'd hopped a taxi straight to LaGuardia. But the Daily Racing Form was everywhere--once even at a beachside newsstand consisting of a milk crate nailed to a coconut palm. He developed a theory that money won at the track, like water to the ocean, found its way back to the track. Or, put another way: A gambler doesn't make the same mistake twice. It's usually nine or ten times.

His cell phone's ring ended his rumination. The readout flashed a number he didn't know, but the area code was 718.

Almost surely it was the Christmas Call.

As if today couldn't get any better.

The holiday had been yesterday, but his father traditionally didn't remember Charlie's birthday until days afterward. If at all. Charlie used to go see him on the big holidays, at places that could get them fed and out in under an hour, with televised ball games to minimize conversation. The last couple of years, it had dwindled to just the calls.

The old man had some means; he could bail Charlie out of the Grudzev thing without much hassle on his end.

Writing Santa would be a better bet, Charlie thought.

Reflected in the window across the aisle was a face so cross that, for a moment, he didn't recognize himself.

He let the phone keep ringing.

Walking to his apartment, where rent had been due a week ago, Charlie saw a Cadillac Eldorado idling in the handicapped spot. Sitting at the wheel was Karpenko. Forged in a part of Russia where men killed one another over as little as a dirty look, Karpenko was hardened well beyond his age of thirty-five. Word was he once shot a man just to make sure his gun was working. One look at him, at all his muscles and his sharp black goatee, and anybody would think, Satan on steroids. He had on a high- collared black leather overcoat, which actually made him less menacing; Charlie had seen Karpenko in warmer weather, when he'd worn just a tank top, displaying crudely rendered dragons and skeletons and other gulag tattoos.

Karpenko served as muscle for the man beside him, Leo Grudzev, a jack-of-all- criminal-trades whose favorites were small arms and narcotics trafficking and shylocking--his preferred term for high- interest moneylending. Not that Grudzev needed muscle. The forty-year-old's keg of a torso was joined to a proportionately sized head by a neck that would have been indiscernible if not for the thick gold chain and gold cross the size of a railroad spike. He had a sour face that jutted forward like a ski slope. Charlie thought of Grudzev as evidence anthropologists were wrong--Cro- Magnon man hadn't died out. Were Charlie to voice that, Grudzev probably would shoot him. If Karpenko didn't shoot first.

Charlie steeled himself as he approached. Behind the steel were bones and tissue that fear had turned to putty. Grudzev's window rolled down. Charlie was belted by musky cologne and garlic.

"Belated Merry Christmas," Charlie said.

"Same for you," said Grudzev through a thick Russian accent, "if ..."

Karpenko reached into his coat, probably for a weapon. The glint in his eye alone caused Charlie's heart to jump.

Until Charlie hit upon a possible solution. "I have a plan to pay you by tomorrow with an extra five K on top," he said to Grudzev. "And if I don't, I'll go down to Brighton Beach and eat every grain of sand there."

Grudzev exchanged a shrug with Karpenko, then looked back at Charlie. "This plan better no got to do with a fucking horse."

6

The Prospect Park Senior Outreach Center was done in so many cheery pastels that the overall effect was depressing, the way a clown can be. The liniment in the air didn't help. Prior to pleading with Grudzev for a one-day extension, Charlie had listened to Helen's voice mail message, called her back, and gotten the rundown. If it hadn't included "durable power of attorney"--which would allow him to administer his father's finances--he almost certainly wouldn't be here now.

He almost didn't recognize the man hunched on the couch across the lobby. Usually Drummond sat straighter than most flagpoles, a function of rectitude as much as posture. His hair threw Charlie too. Charlie had correctly anticipated that, in the time since he'd seen him last, it would have turned fully white. The shocker was that it was unruly; Drummond used to keep it close-cropped, and practically regimented, by a standing weekly appointment at the barbershop.

The pajamas also surprised Charlie--not so much because of the incongruity of pajamas in a public place but because he simply couldn't remember having seen his father in nightclothes before. When Charlie used to get up for school, no matter how early, Drummond was gone. Often, the faint scent of talc was the only evidence he'd come home from the office the night before. More often, he was out of town, singing the praises of his beloved washers and dryers.

"Hey," Charlie said.

Drummond looked up, and Charlie saw the biggest change in him. His eyes had always been clear, sober, and sharp. Now they were the eyes of a man gazing into deep space and without a flicker of recognition.

"Dad, it's me," Charlie said.

"Oh," Drummond said pleasantly but without familiarity. "Hello."

Charlie felt as if an icy finger ran up his spine. "Charles," he tried.

Drummond looked him over, his eyes settling on the Meadowlands Racetrack logo on the sweatshirt peeking out of Charlie's jacket. Charlie wondered if, subconsciously, he'd put on the sweatshirt to provoke the old man. Although Drummond dabbled in the horses, the track had been their undoing, specifically when Charlie wound up at the Big A instead of staying at Brown for his sophomore year. There was a track axiom Charlie thought perfectly summed up Drummond's censure: "The gambling known as business looks with austere disfavor upon the business known as gambling."

Charlie decided now that the sweatshirt was merely a function of probability--a third of his wardrobe was racetrack giveaways.

"Charles!" Drummond exclaimed, as if aware of his presence for the first time. "What are you doing here?"

"Helen called--"

"The social worker?"

"She thought I ought to come pick you--"

"I see. Completely unnecessary."

"She said that you--"

"No, no, I'm fine. Completely fine."

"That's not what--"

"It's nothing you need to concern yourself with. Also, you should be in school."

Charlie was given pause. "You don't mean Brown, do you?"

"Clara Barton," Drummond said as if the question were inane.

"I graduated from Clara Barton twelve years ago."

Drummond rubbed his eyes. The vacancy remained.

"Oh," he said.

7

Helen Mayfield could turn heads, Charlie thought. But she was about something else. Her sunny blond hair was styled to be no maintenance. She wore a smart suit, obviously plucked off a rack, though, and not tailored in any of several ways that would have played up her figure. Her face was pale yet only cursorily made up. She was fully focused on helping others, he decided, and while not a practitioner himself, he admired it. Unfortunately, he thought, she was out of his league. And out of the league above that one too.

While Drummond dozed in a chair out in the hallway, Charlie and Helen sat at her desk, trying to talk above the Seniorobics class next door.

"Alzheimer's sufferers your father's age are a rarity," she said in a tone that was at once professional and compassionate. "Those his age already exhibiting his range of symptoms are statistically nonexistent. It's simply unfair."

She appeared to study Charlie to determine whether he needed a fortifying hand or a hug. He felt no worse than if Drummond were a stranger--some pangs but nothing that would trouble him tomorrow. Maybe it was denial. Maybe something was wrong with him. Maybe it was just the way things were. He lowered his eyes only because it seemed appropriate.

"So I guess a couple of aspirin isn't going to do the trick here," he said.

She smiled. "There are a number of Alzheimer's medications. Sadly, the best only slow cognitive decline, when they work at all. The neurologist will fill you in."

"What's a good-case scenario--if there even is one?"

"You might get lucky with donepezil or galantamine. Also you can expect some episodes of lucidity at random--sometimes five or ten minutes long, occasionally several hours. Still, the overall scheme of things is like child development in reverse. He's going to need full-time supervision now. I imagine you're too busy with your life to be his caregiver?"

"Something like that."

"What about other family?"

"They won't be much help. None of them are still alive."

She laughed, seemingly despite herself. "In that case, assisted living is probably the best option. It's not easy to find a suitable facility, in terms of the quality and quantity of staff, among other criteria. I'd be glad to help you."

"I'd appreciate that," he said, thinking of the time he'd get to spend with her. Left to his own devices, his criteria would be that the nursing home smell wasn't too bad and that his father could foot the bill. After Grudzev got his cut.

"Do you drink beer?" she asked.

He considered his response. Did she smell the Big A on him? Were his eyes bloodshot? Had she otherwise pegged him as a resident of Fringeville, meriting a call to the Durable Power of Attorney Department with a recommendation that they ink up the big rubber Hell No stamp?

"Sometimes," he said.

"Same. When we go over facilities, maybe we could have a beer?"

Charlie couldn't calculate the odds of this turn. He reined in his jack-o'- lantern grin lest it cause her to reconsider. "Maybe we could each have a beer?" he said.

From the sidewalk across the street, Dewart aimed a surveyor's level at the Prospect Park Senior Outreach Center. Most of his face was masked by the raised collar of his Dept. of Housing parka, along with his sunglasses, hat, and earmuffs. If someone still recognized him as one of the grad students rooming nearby, he had a story ready: He was moonlighting as a building surveyor to help with tuition.

The surveyor's level concealed a laser microphone. Directed at a second floor window, it measured vibrations in the pane and electronically converted them to the son's conversation with the social worker. The good news: Drummond had been located.

Hoping to ascertain that Drummond's disappearance had been benign, Dewart listened to the conversation through headphones con¬cealed by his earmuffs--or rather, he tried to. Despite filtration software designed to eliminate ambient noise, he couldn't differentiate their words from the disco music blaring from the room next to her office.

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