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

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Over the next few weeks, 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 8, 9, 10, and 11. If you want to catch up on the first two parts of our series, you can read the first seven chapters here and here. Come back next week for chapters 12, 13, and 14, and check out Keith Thomson's website for more information on the new book.


Probably the biggest misconception about Brooklyn was that it lacked trees. Smack in the middle of the city was a two-hundred-acre forest--and that was only a fraction of the flora in Prospect Park, the masterpiece of the landscape designers Olmsted and Vaux, better known for one of their quicker jobs, Manhattan's Central Park. The treetops came into view above and between the buildings as Charlie walked Drummond out of the senior center.

"An interesting piece of information is that there are one hundred and fifty species of trees in Prospect Park," Drummond said. Once, he was a spigot of "interesting pieces of information," which, Charlie always thought, should have been billed only as "pieces of information."

Drummond was a shell of his old self, and out of whack in general, but the hour-long nap outside Helen's office seemed to have energized him. His eyes were clearer and there was vitality to his step--taken in shoes a half size too large, procured by Helen, along with a woolen overcoat.

"Say, let's let the taxicabs go on past and walk home through the park," he said. "It's such a nice afternoon."

It was dreary and forty degrees tops.

"Great idea," said Charlie. He would have agreed to do just about any¬thing in order to capitalize on Drummond's relative and possibly fleeting coherence. He needed him to sign the boilerplate durable power of attorney document hot off Helen's laser printer.

Drummond spun abruptly and stared at a Department of Housing worker a half block behind them. The man was gazing into a pizzeria.

"Do you ever have the feeling people are following you?" Drummond whispered to Charlie.

Charlie had learned from Helen that paranoia was to Alzheimer's what sniffles were to a cold. "When I'm getting on the bus," he said.

Seeming to have forgotten all about the man, Drummond turned and resumed his course to the park. "Ah, a sycamore maple!" he said, pointing at the branches spilling over the gate.
In summertime, when attendance peaked and with the musicians, jugglers, and balloon sellers in full force, entering Prospect Park at the Flat-bush and Empire gate was like walking into a parade. Now, as Charlie bought a pair of hot dogs and he and Drummond settled onto a bench to eat them, the crowd was limited to the lonesome vendor, a homeless man perched on a wall blowing into fingerless gloves, and a trio of construction workers quietly sipping cans of beer wrapped in paper bags.

A young father and a beaming little boy passed, hand in hand, probably on their way to the playground or the zoo or the carousel. Charlie was reminded how badly he'd wanted to go to those places as a kid. Drummond took him only to the historic house, where the butter-churning demonstration was as fun as it got.

Charlie tasted the same bitter regret now, which made broaching the topic of institutionalizing his father no harder than asking him to pass the ketchup.

"Dad, I think you'd do well to live somewhere with people to look out for you."

Drummond happily tore open his third ketchup packet. "Why is that?"

"You remember the business with the Meals on Wheels van, right?"

Drummond was focused on squeezing the ketchup onto his hot dog. Charlie felt like he was talking over a lousy long distance connection.

"Meals on Wheels, Dad?"

"Right, right. I suppose that in another culture, I'd be shoved out to sea on an ice floe about now, correct?"

Charlie hadn't anticipated nearly as much awareness. He hurried to unpocket the document. "Signing this gives me your power of attorney."

"That's reasonable, I suppose. What do you have in mind for me?"

"Helen recommended a few assisted-living residences."

"Eh. Those places are just waiting rooms for the cemetery."

"I'm not so sure about that." Charlie opened the manila envelope Helen had given him. "I personally would be delighted to move into any of these." He passed four brochures to Drummond, who grudgingly accepted.

They could have been mistaken for glossy advertisements for resorts, and the names would have done little to correct the misimpression-- the Greens at Four Oaks, Mountain View Lodge, the Orchard, Holiday Ranch. Each brochure brimmed with striking, full- color photo graphs of ascendant suns igniting dewy fairways, hiking trails through forests at the blazing peak of New England autumn, and lakes that outshone most gems. Only Holiday Ranch hinted on the cover that it was a senior citizens facility, billing itself as "An Active Retirement Residence!"

"According to Helen, Holiday Ranch is incredible across the board," Charlie said. "But the really incredible part is they've just had an opening, which hardly ever--"

"What I want is to go to Switzerland," Drummond cut in. He pushed the brochures away as if they were junk mail.

"Switzerland?" Helen had said that Drummond initially thought he was in Geneva. As far as Charlie knew, Drummond had never been to Europe. Also Charlie couldn't recall him ever mentioning Switzerland, save a purportedly interesting piece of information about cheese. "What is it with you and Switzerland?"

"I don't know anything about it."

"For one thing, you just said you wanted to go there."

"Oh, that, yes. The facility I had in mind is in Geneva."

"That sounds great, but I have a feeling your financial picture doesn't include Geneva. Other than the one upstate."

"I can afford to go wherever I want," Drummond said with uncharacteristic defiance.
Helen had warned of delusions. "My guess is we're going to need to wring every cent we can out of Medicare to swing any of these places," Charlie said, "and that's before the shuffleboard fees. And assuming that Perriman Appliances has a decent pension plan. And that you get top dollar for your house."

Drummond dismissed the notion with a flick of his hand. "I have nearly eight million dollars in my retirement account."

"Oh, really? I didn't see a picture of you in the Daily News holding up one of those giant checks from the lotto."

"Give me the power of attorney document."

Charlie happily handed it over, along with a pen, and flipped to the signature page. Drummond bypassed the signature line and began sketching, in the white space beneath it, what looked like a washing machine--which might cause the official responsible for approving durable power of attorney documents to question whether the signatory had been of sound mind.

"I think they're looking for a signature on that, actually," Charlie said, laboring to maintain his façade of cheerfulness.

"I need to show you something first," Drummond said.

He set the document on the bench and stuffed the remainder of his hot dog into his mouth, freeing up the foil wrapper. He smoothed the wrapper over a thigh, flipped it to the white, papery side, and began to draw again.

Another washing machine. This time, where the clothing would go, he added zigzags, squares, and circles.

"It's one of your machines," Charlie said. "I get it, I get it."

"You do?"

"Sure, you made eight million bucks selling washing machines."

"How on earth did you know?"

"You told me, like, a minute ago."


Drummond looked down at his picture without recognition. Charlie could practically see the fog rolling back into his mind.

"It's getting awfully warm," Drummond said with a shiver.

"Sign the thing, I'll get you a nice cold soda."

Drummond took up the document and wrought the firm signature Charlie remembered, the letters in perfect alignment, like a ship's masts.

As soon as they left, the homeless man descended from his wall. He dipped a grimy sleeve into the garbage pail by the bench where Drummond Clark and his son had been sitting.

The construction workers swapped smirks. Probably they thought he was searching for redeemables. Were they to have looked closer, they would have seen him bypass several shiny Coke cans in favor of two balled-up hot dog wrappers. A closer look still would have revealed him to be remarkably fit. Even at that proximity, though, his own mother probably wouldn't have recognized Pitman.

A glance at the inside of Drummond's wrapper was all he needed. In sketching the Device, even in this crude fashion, Drummond had effectively drawn his own death warrant, and possibly his son's.

Pitman pushed a frayed lapel to his lips. Into a microphone concealed by a dirt-caked button, he said, "I'm afraid our roof is leaking."


Charlie and Drummond crossed busy Bedford Avenue to Prospect Place, where Drummond lived. In the dwindling sunlight, the stucco homes looked like they were built of muck. This, Charlie thought, was the Brooklyn that Manhattanites had in mind when they wrote off the whole borough as depressing. Drummond's melodyless humming was a fitting sound track.
"We still have a few minutes before the bank closes," Charlie said, thinking of Grudzev. "I wouldn't mind getting them to cut a check for the Holiday Ranch deposit."

Drummond halted abruptly in the middle of the crosswalk.

"As a backup, just in case Geneva doesn't pan out," Charlie quickly added.

Drummond stared down Prospect Place. Any second the light on Bedford would turn, releasing a stampede of cars and trucks.

He was fixated, Charlie realized, on the gas company man lumbering out of a house halfway down the block. The distance and shadows made it impossible to tell whether it was Drummond's house or a neighbor's.

"What's the gas man doing here?" Drummond said.

"Something to do with gas?"

"They're never here this late."

Drummond leaped onto the sidewalk and ran toward the gas man.

More paranoia, Charlie thought. He ran too, for fear that Drummond would keep going and wind up in Cleveland.

The gas man shot a look up the block at Drummond, and at once turned and strode in the opposite direction.

"Wait!" Drummond shouted.

The gas man didn't look back. Either he hadn't heard, or, Charlie supposed, he'd had his fill of addled seniors haranguing him about soaring utility rates. He disappeared around the far corner onto Nostrand Avenue.

Charlie reached Nostrand just after Drummond. Of the two, oddly, only Charlie was panting. "I guess you forgot sixty-four-year-olds can't run like that," he said.

Drummond didn't reply, instead taking to prowling the block like a bloodhound. This part of Nostrand was solely residential. There was no vehicular traffic now and just a half- dozen pedestrians, none of whom wore the gas company's distinctive baggy white coverall. Drummond peered into shadowy doorways, the gaps between parked cars, even behind clusters of trash cans.

"He probably just went inside one of the buildings," Charlie said, hoping that would be the end of it.

"It's easy to find a parking space around here," Drummond said.

Charlie took it as a non sequitur. "So?"

"It's strange that he had no truck."

It was a decent insight, Charlie thought, particularly given Drummond's condition. The gas men drove everywhere, and if they couldn't find a spot within a short waddle of their appointment, they double-parked. If somebody gets blocked in for a couple minutes, their pragmatism dictated, them's the breaks. Yet there had been no gas company truck parked on Prospect Place, and there was no truck parked here or driving off.

"Still, there's a ton of good reasons he wouldn't have his truck," Charlie said. "Like, at his last stop, it got blocked by the phone company truck."

"What got blocked by the phone company truck?"

"The gas man's truck."

"Oh," Drummond said. "I hope we'll have as nice a day tomorrow." He turned and strolled back toward his block.

When Drummond had first come charging onto Nostrand, the gas man--really, Dewart--was on
the sidewalk, just fifty feet away, one of the six pedestrians. On rounding the corner, he'd whipped off his coverall and slung it into a trash can. Underneath he had on a black running suit that fit snugly over his slender frame. The tight knit cap, which he yanked from a pocket, compressed his thick hair, transforming the shape of his head dramatically, and even more so when seen from behind--Drummond and Charlie's vantage point. His intent was to appear to them, and to anyone else, as no lumbering gas man but, rather, as a trim yuppie en route to a jogging path in Prospect Park.

In fact he had visited Drummond's house on matters pertaining to gas. Before leaving, he lowered the thermostat to fifty-six. He figured Drummond would raise it when he returned home, at which point, on the opposite side of the readout panel, the thermometer coil and the mercury switch would rotate, sending current through the mercury and energizing the relay to the furnace two stories below. The burner would light a small amount of fuel, generating hot gas to warm the air in the house. The burner would also light the wick that was held in place, as of a short while earlier, by a nylon sleeve the size of a cigarette. The wick would set fire to a great deal of additional gas. Upon inspection, the resulting explosion would pass for a leak resulting from ordinary wear and tear. As the saying goes: Anybody can kill someone; it takes a professional to make someone die an ordinary death.


The house smelled to Charlie of his childhood: industrial-strength cleanser. As ever, the place had all the warmth of a chain hotel--no framed photographs, no bowling trophies, none of the knickknacks usually found in a home. The closest the old man ever came to decorating was shelving books in alphabetical order by author.

The only thing new was unopened correspondence, stacks of it, all around. After Drummond went to bed, Charlie nosed through it. He found numerous memos from Perriman Appliances, where Drummond had been placed on long-term disability leave. Charlie also found three unpaid utility bills. Adding them to his sudden awareness that the house was freezing, he figured he'd solved the mystery of the gas man: The guy had been here to cut the old man off.
Charlie climbed upstairs. Tiptoeing past Drummond's bedroom and to the end of the narrow corridor, he checked the thermostat.


So much for the gas man theory. On this cold night, Drummond must have lowered the heat. Charlie cranked the thermostat to seventy-five.

On the way back to the stairs, he paused at the doorway to his old room. The only remaining mementos of youth were the scale miniatures his father used to bring back from sales trips to D.C. Dust made it appear snow had fallen on the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Charlie again felt the chagrin of the birthday when he tore off the gift wrap, hoping for a PlayStation joystick, and found a Washington Monument.

His recollection was cut short by a gunshotlike crack that rippled into the night, leaving the mirrors and windows upstairs abuzz. He froze, until hearing the creak of floorboards in Drummond's bedroom.

Drummond had gotten out of bed in response to the cold, Charlie pieced together, then heaved open his bulky, spring-loaded window, which sounded like a gunshot.

Charlie stepped into Drummond's bedroom. In robe, pajamas, and slippers, Drummond stood at the wide-open window, gazing at the dark patch of a backyard a story below. Charlie joined him. There was nothing to see but the swing set Charlie's mother had given him, now just three rusty legs and a rusty crossbar.

Charlie said, "It'd probably be best to shut--"

The blast, which must have been heard for miles, made it feel as if the house jumped its foundation. Cupboards banged open. Doors jumped off their hinges. Drawers flew. Glass shattered.

A mass of bluish-red flame surged up the stairs, through the door, directly at Charlie. He was burning hot before it was upon him. He thought he would be incinerated.

Drummond dove, wrapping his arms around him and propelling them both out the window.


The explosion left walls charred on the houses on either side of Drummond's. Scraps of stucco and wood and metal littered the block. Burning hunks of timber fell from Drummond's eaves and glowed in the alleys. Waves of fire made a loud, crackling meal of the rest of the house. With coats thrown over nightclothes, dozens of neighbors poured onto the sidewalks and watched, through smoke and haze and heat, as the men of Engine Company 204 slashed the flames with shafts of water.

Among the spectators were Charlie and Drummond, uninjured but for bruises from run-ins with the swing set crossbar--fortuitous, because it slowed their descent--and the frozen ground.

Charlie was the only person in the crowd not wholly fixated on the firefighters. "Maybe something was up with the gas man after all," he said over the din.

"Oh," said Drummond.

The firemen reduced the blaze to a few stubborn sparks, and, eventually, just steam. The house was left a blackened skeleton.

While neighbors offered Drummond their sympathies and returned home, and soot-streaked firefighters coiled their hoses, Charlie shared his concerns of foul play with Engine Company 204's chief, a wiry man with a whisk broom of a mustache like those of his professional antecedents.

"We found the heat exchange tubing halfway up the block," the chief said. "Ten times outta ten, that means a fuel leak caused a boiler blow. We see it all the time with these older electric ignition units, especially with seniors who forget to check the fuel valve."

"Wouldn't the gas man have checked the fuel valve?" Charlie asked.

"We looked into that. The gas company hasn't got a record of any service here so far this month. Their nearest call today was way down on Bergen, at ten a.m."

Frustration heated Charlie. "Doesn't that make it more suspicious that the gas man was here this afternoon?"

The fireman smoothed one end of his mustache to a point. "All due respect, sir, gas men haven't got the exclusive on white uniforms."

Charlie turned to Drummond for corroboration. Drummond was hunched on a stoop, engulfed by an oversized, lime green down coat lent by neighbors who probably were in no rush for its return. He was watching the ribbons of steam blend into a purple sky. In his right mind he'd be distraught. His eyes showed only childlike wonder.

"If the guy were a house painter or Mister Softee or anybody else in a white uniform, it's still strange," Charlie said to the chief. "The way he glanced up the block, then rushed off--now that I think of it, it was like he was on the lookout for my father. Then he just disappeared onto Nostrand, which is a bunch of locked brownstones without alleys between them. There was no time for him to get inside a building. And we looked everywhere else; if there were even a manhole for him to have gone down, we'd have found it. So you have to think he had some kind of escape route."

The chief glanced at his truck. His men were all aboard now, impatient to go. Returning his focus to Charlie, he pursed his lips. "Sir, there are set fires that go past us, sure. It takes a real professional though, and I mean a heckuva pro. Why would a guy of that caliber be in this neck of Brooklyn picking on a senior citizen?"

Charlie weighed the odds that "HumDrummond" would be the target of a professional assassin.

"I guess you're right," Charlie said.

The fire trucks barreled off into the darkness, and Prospect Place reverted to its usual eleven p.m. form--the occasional taxi, the odd homeward-bound drunk, talk shows flickering behind window shades. Charlie and Drummond should have been in a taxi headed to Charlie's apartment for the night. But the gas man was stuck in Charlie's thoughts like a sliver of glass.
Settling alongside Drummond on the stoop, he asked,"Dad, have you been playing the horses lately?"

"Do you mean gambling on horse races?"


"I've never done that."

"Are you sure?"

"I think so."

"There used to be Racing Forms around the house all the time."

"There used to be whats around the house?"

"Racing Forms. As in the Daily Racing Form--'America's Turf Authority Since 1894.' You used to pick it up at the magazine store or the newsstand in the subway, like, every day. You couldn't have been reading it just for your edification."

"I suppose not."

"I was thinking, what if you called in a bad bet, then forgot, for whatever reason, to pay up? The characters in that racket don't take it so well when they don't get their money--or so I've heard."

"Pardon the intrusion?" came a man's voice.

Charlie looked up to find a lanky twentysomething in a conservative, dark-blue suit and gray overcoat. He had fine features; precisely combed, wavy hair; and the earnest demeanor of a student body president. Charlie had noticed him before, among the spectators.

"My name's Kermit Smith," the young man continued in a smooth blend of country and urban refinement. "I'm an attorney--"

"He was thrown out of the bar," shouted a second man, walking the curb like a tightrope and failing, probably a function of the brown paper bag he clutched and the bottle of booze it surely contained. He was about the same age as Smith but shorter and stouter. He too wore a blue business suit and gray overcoat. His shirt collar was open and the knot of his tie was halfway down his chest.

"That's my friend, for lack of a better word, MacKenzie," Smith apologized to Charlie. "The bar he referenced is the Blarney Stone on Flat-bush. Probably by now you've developed a theory as to which of us in fact was the problem."

Clever guy, this Kermit Smith, thought Charlie. But ambulance chaser all the way. In this part of Brooklyn, at this hour, the Samaritans were only bad.

Seeming to have read Charlie's edginess, Smith said, "Cutting to the chase, I overheard some of your chat with the fire chief. I'm with Connelly, Dumbarton and Rhodes, notable for winning twenty-four of twenty-four negligence suits against boiler manufacturers by convincing juries that the victims would have needed to be rocket mechanics to adequately maintain the dozen or so indeterminate valves on the older electric ignition units. If you're at all interested . . ."

The fire had made selling the house hugely problematic. Who knew how long it would take and how much work would be required to collect the insurance--assuming Drummond had remembered to make the payments? "I guess it couldn't hurt to know about, on my father's behalf," Charlie said, faking a yawn so as not to appear overeager. This was an arena in which a clever ambulance chaser could yield a big score.

MacKenzie griped, "Come on, we're gonna miss last call at Flanagan's."

Turning his back on his friend, Smith said to Charlie, "Why don't we step into my office for a moment?" He took a few steps down the sidewalk.

"Just give him your card already," MacKenzie said, prompting Smith to stray farther.
"Dad, please don't go anywhere for half a second?" Charlie said.

Drummond nodded. Charlie's concern was eased only a little.

Catching up to Smith, he noticed a sparkling new black BMW Z4 roadster four parking spots down. "I've always wanted to win a boiler manufacturer negligence suit and buy one of those," Charlie said.

Smith advanced to take the car in. "Well, this could still be your lucky night." He halted in a pool of shadows between streetlamps and reached into his coat, presumably for a business card or BlackBerry.

Smith's larynx was crunched by a fist, thrown by Drummond on a dead run.

So strange was this turn of events that Charlie closed his eyes, expecting that when he opened them, the hallucination would be over and Smith would be standing there, by himself, BlackBerry at the ready.

When Charlie opened his eyes, he found Smith teetering, his attempt to breathe resulting in a feeble croak. Charlie saw Smith had drawn from his coat not a BlackBerry but a pistol with a barrel capped by a silencer.

Drummond's right fist blurred into an uppercut, snapping Smith's wrist and costing him his hold on the grip. The gun hit the sidewalk with a metallic bass note and bounced away.
Drummond drilled a left into Smith's abdomen. The tall man reeled.

Eyes aglow with more than the reflection of the streetlamps, Drummond kept after him, heaving a roundhouse into his jaw and driving him backward. Smith stumbled over a cluster of full trash bags and appeared to lose consciousness in the tumult of cans and bottles.

Charlie looked on, cold air filling his gaping mouth. As far as he knew, Drummond had a hard time hitting a Ping-Pong ball.

Drummond meanwhile darted after the pistol. With it just inches from his grasp, he stopped abruptly and reversed course, leaping onto a stone stoop. From up the block came a muted cough. A bullet rang the metal banister inches above his head.

Halfway up the deserted sidewalk, Smith's stocky friend MacKenzie wobbled, no longer like a drunk, but rather, a concussion victim. A chute of blood from his nose glowed as he staggered past a streetlamp. Drummond must have started on him, Charlie figured, but hadn't had time to finish in his rush to stop Smith. In MacKenzie's hand was the paper bag Charlie had imagined concealed a liquor bottle. Protruding from it now was a silenced gun just like Smith's.

Charlie stood in place on the sidewalk and watched him advance. Fear jammed everything, not least of which was Charlie's mechanism for deciding what to do. The next thing he knew, he was falling.

He hit the sidewalk between the stoop and a trio of steel trash cans. Drummond, he realized, had reached through the banister spindles and pulled him down.

Another bullet hissed from MacKenzie's silenced barrel, stinging the sidewalk inches from Charlie's knees.

The most rudimentary survival mechanism enabled him to bunch himself so that the trash cans at least blocked him from MacKenzie's sight. From there he eyed the rest of the block. There were no pedestrians or motorists to provide help. Still, he thought, the neighbors would be deluging the 911 switchboard, as he would have himself if his cell phone, along with his coat, hadn't been a casualty of the blast. Then he considered, with a wave of nausea, that the neighbors had been given no reason to glance out their windows. There had been no roar of guns, no noise at all as cities go. And if someone happened to raise a blind, what would he see now? The shadows concealed MacKenzie's gun if the open lapels of his overcoat didn't. It would appear a clean-cut yuppie was ambling home.

Every part of Charlie trembled at the dull patter of MacKenzie's soles, the volume increasing as he neared.

Within thirty yards, or close enough that he was unlikely to miss, MacKenzie fired again. The bullet bored into a steel trash can on a direct course for Charlie's head. It exited on his side of the can and hit the stoop, ricocheting harmlessly away. Because Charlie was in flight, his elbow in his father's firm grip.

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keith thomson -- author of once a spy

Once A Spy by Keith Thomson - Hardcover - Random House

Keith Thomson thrills with ONCE A SPY