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

The Huffington Post   First Posted: 05/12/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 04:50 PM ET

Once A Spy

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 12, 13, and 14. If you want to catch up on the first three parts of our series, you can read the first eleven chapters here, here, and here. Come back next week for the final installment of the series, and check out Keith Thomson's website for more information on the new book.


12

Nostrand was a still life, save the yellow cab idling in a parking spot halfway down the block. Drummond ripped open the rear driver's side door and dove in with Charlie in hand like a suitcase. A plump Middle Eastern man of perhaps forty-five sat behind the wheel, munching a kabob to "Jingle Bells" on the radio. "Where to?" he asked, as if their means of arrival were nothing out of the ordinary, which, Charlie thought, probably was the case in late-night Brooklyn.

Charlie turned to Drummond with the expectation that he would announce a destination. Indeed, Drummond pointed straight ahead and opened his mouth. But nothing came out. It seemed the words had stumbled along the way or gotten lost. And the glow in his eyes was fading, as if his power cord had been yanked.

"How about the police?" Charlie said.

Drummond appeared to think about it. Or he just sat there and said nothing. Charlie wasn't sure which.

Charlie's eyes flew to the movement in the rearview mirror. He whirled around to find MacKenzie in a crouch at the corner of Prospect and Nostrand, a hundred feet behind them, using the top of a Daily News vending machine to steady his gun.

A chunk of the rear window burst apart. Bits of glass sprayed inward, stinging Charlie's neck, ears, and scalp. A slug embedded itself behind the driver's head in the inch-thick sheet of Plexiglas dividing the cab.

Drummond ducked beneath the window line. If PlayStation games represented reality with any accuracy, Charlie knew the car's chassis offered little protection against a full-metal- jacketed round traveling at near the speed of sound, and the seat essentially provided no additional defense. Nevertheless he dropped all the way to the floor and lay there, petrified.

"Just go anywhere," he managed to call to the driver.

Ibrahim Wallid was the driver's name, according to the ID rubber banded to his sun visor. He tried to reply, but no sound would come. He gripped the wheel and stomped on the accelerator, bringing the engine to a throaty roar.

But the taxi was still in park.

Drummond's headrest burst into particles of foam. Again a bullet bashed into the Plexiglas behind Wallid.

Trembling, the driver flailed at the gearshift arm. He clipped it with his wrist, snapping it into drive. With the accelerator already flush against the floor, the cab lurched forward like a dragster, laying halfblock-long stripes of rubber. Another bullet sparked the top of a parking meter behind them.

Wallid ratcheted the wheel, turning the taxi at almost a right angle onto a clear Carroll Street block. Centrifugal force hurled Drummond into Charlie's spine. While explosive, the pain was a minor consideration because they were safely away.

Climbing back onto his seat, Charlie asked--shock had thrown off his governor so that it came out as a scream--"Who the hell were they?"

Drummond brushed bits of glass and foam from his hair. "Who?"

"The guys who tried to murder us a minute ago!"

"Oh, right, right, right." Some of the light returned to Drummond's eyes. "Tell me something? What's today's date?"

"The twenty-sixth."

"Of?"

"December."

"The last time I recall checking the calendar, the leaves had just begun to fall."

"So about two, three months." Charlie hoped this was leading somewhere.

Drummond waved at the shattered rear window. "This probably has to do with work." As if drained by the thinking, he sagged into a reclining position.

Charlie needed more. "I never thought of the appliance business as quite so deadly."
Drummond nodded vaguely.

"How about the way you knew how to handle yourself back there?" Charlie asked. "I'm guessing you didn't pick that up at the repair and maintenance refreshers?"

With a shrug, Drummond leaned against his window, content to use it as a pillow despite the cold and the rattling of the glass. His eyelids appeared to grow heavy.

"At least tell me how you knew that the first guy had a gun?" Charlie said.

Drummond sat up an inch or two. "Yes, the key was . . ." He stopped. He'd fumbled the thought. He recovered it: "The fellow lured you down the block with the thing they knew would most entice you, a monitor scheme."

"You mean a monetary scheme?"

"As I recall, the Monitor was a ship."

"I know. What does it have to do with anything?"

"The Monitor battled the Merrimac."

"Civil War, I know, I know. Was there a particular scheme the Monitor used?"

"The Merrimack is a hundred-ten-mile-long river that begins at the confluence of the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers."

"You're losing me." Charlie suspected Drummond himself was lost.

"Franklin, New Hampshire," Drummond said, as if that settled it.


13

The precinct house was quiet. "It's so cold out there tonight, the pickpockets are keeping their hands in their own pockets," explained the duty officer as he led Charlie and Drummond down an empty, characterless corridor of mostly dark offices. The place had the same coarse, sour smell as all the municipal buildings Charlie had been to. He wondered whether the odor of all the humanity massed into these places was too strong for any cleaning compound, or whether all the places simply used the same inadequate cleaning compound. Either way, all things considered, he felt as if he and Drummond had reached an oasis.

They came to the squad room, a big, open space painted a drab beige with few of the wanted posters or softball trophies Charlie had expected and none of the chaos. Three detectives doing paperwork was it for action.

The duty officer directed Charlie and Drummond to Detective Howard Beckman, a man well into his fifties who looked to have been a bruiser back in his day. His thatchy gray hair was now parted ruler straight. Like his sport coat, his oxford shirt was crisp. His silk tie, knotted with precision, was of the quality usually seen on a cop only if he were commissioner. Charlie took Beckman for a warrior forced to the sidelines by age restrictions, striving to soften his edges with couture-- though couture probably wouldn't be his term for it.

"So Murph says you fellas've got a good one for me," Beckman said with a smile as he gestured Charlie and Drummond into the chairs before him. Charlie liked the old cop right out of the gate.

Battling his own incredulity, Charlie delivered what felt like a thorough rendition of events. Drummond sat quietly, occasionally nodding in corroboration, mostly gazing at his slippers.

Afterward, Beckman cupped his solid jaw in a hand, evoking a general pondering a battlefield map. "Quite a day," he said. His tone was pure sympathy. Unfortunately his eyes divulged skepticism. He disappeared behind a giant computer terminal. "Let's start with the fire," he said, picking up the pace. "I see Chief Morris of Company two oh four ordered plywood over your windows and doorways to keep out looters, which is standard. He requested stepped-up police patrol--same reason, also standard. But there's no request for a look-see by a fire marshal, nothing like that. If he'd thought anything was fishy..."

"At that time the gas man and the boiler blowing up seemed like coincidence," Charlie said. "The two guys trying to shoot us made for a pattern."

The detective slurped hot coffee from a tall Styrofoam cup. "I've also got the report from the patrol car that the duty officer sent by." He dipped behind the terminal again and read aloud," 'Resident officer saw and heard nothing out of ordinary. Officer observed no signs of gunplay, no casings, nothing out of ordinary.' "

Charlie had the same creeping, itchy sensation he did when a horse he'd bet began to let the lead slip away. "These guys, though, they clearly weren't amateurs."

"Then they would've tidied up, yeah. Understand this wasn't a full forensics team Murph sent over."

"What about the bullets in the Plexiglas divider in the cab?"

Beckman brightened. "That could be something, yeah." A burst of right and left index finger pecks at his keyboard and he relayed, with dis¬appointment, "No new incident reports from Transit on the system."

"How long does it take for them to show up?"

"Not this long. It's the cab companies' first priority, if only so they can put in for insurance."

"Wallid said he was going straight to his garage, but I wouldn't be surprised if he stopped to get a drink first. My luck, the cab was stolen while he was in the bar."

"A lot of times, especially late night, the guy's an illegal with a borrowed hack license. Shelling out for the body work himself beats dealing with Immigration, you know?"

"Great," Charlie said. So the cab getting stolen would actually be better luck.

"We can still get to him," Beckman said."I show three licensed cabbies named Ibrahim Wallid in the metro directory, plus a Wallid Ibrahim. We'll call 'em tomorrow, find out if one of their vehicles is out of service." He returned his attention to his coffee.

Charlie's anxiety escalated into a feeling like that of a cold coming on. "So I guess, from a procedural standpoint, this doesn't rate any more immediate action than a purse snatching?"
Beckman smoothed his tie. "The thing you gotta understand is, even on a slow night like this, we're gonna have half a dozen complaints where somebody's actually been shot. What the department would need to sink its teeth into yours is the why. Why would a sixty-four-year-old appliance salesman, even one who's surprisingly good with his fists, have professional hit men after him?"

All Charlie could come up with was, "That's the question of the night."

With an outstretched palm, Beckman put it to Drummond.

Drummond raised his shoulders.

Beckman massaged the bags under his eyes. "The best thing'd be if you fellas come back tomorrow when the flip-chart lady's here so she can sketch composites of your guys. They match anything in the system, we're off to the races."

"What do we do in the meantime?" Charlie asked.

"I'll put the write-up into play on the double. Maybe we'll get lucky and the name Kermit Smith, even if it's fake--or Smith in some combination with MacKenzie--will click somewhere in the system. Or, you never know, maybe a call will come in from an old lady on Prospect Place who was up late watching the Shopping Channel, saw two young male Caucasians in business suits pile into a car, thought it was suspicious that one of them had a bloody nose or a gun, and wrote down the tag number." Beckman plucked an ornately monogrammed leather card holder from his top drawer and dealt a pair of business cards across the desk. "Till then, if anything comes up, or if there's anything else I can do--"

The bulky dot-matrix printer on the stand behind him sputtered type onto tractor-fed paper, giving him pause and halting the activities of the other detectives.

"I'll get it in a sec," he told them. He was also telling Charlie and Drummond that their interview was over.

Charlie saw no remaining choice but to plead. "What if MacKenzie used the taxi's tag number to track us here? Or what if Smith followed us in his own car--like that new BMW, which, come to think of it, no one in his right mind would have left on the street overnight?"

Beside the printer stand was a window with a view of the street in front of the precinct house. With a tilt of the head that way, Beckman said, "Be my guest."

Approaching the glass, Charlie was irked by the reflection: The detective was rolling his eyes. All Charlie saw outside that he hadn't before was a Daily News truck delivering tomorrow's copies to the sidewalk vending machines. Nothing else even moved. Beckman's reaction no longer seemed unwarranted.

What the hell were you expecting? Charlie asked himself. MacKenzie lying in wait with a sniper's rifle? Smith revving the black BMW in preparation to mow you down?

As he stepped away from the glass, the message on the tractor-fed paper grabbed his attention.

12/26/09 @ 23:58:04
*.TXT SENT VIA NATIONAL LAW ENFORCEMENT TELECOMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM*
TO: NEW YORK PD 107 STATIONS FROM: DC FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION 100037870
CHARLES CLARK, 30, AND DRUMMOND CLARK, 64, SOUGHT FOR QUESTIONING BY FBI RE: TONIGHT'S (12/26/09, AT APPROX 2330) ARMED ROBBERY/HOMICIDE OF TAXI DRIVER WALLID, IBRAHIM ELSAYED, 43, IN THE MACY'S PKG LOT ON FLATBUSH AVENUE IN BKLYN, NY. MULTIPLE EYEWITNESSES SAW CLARKS FLEEING SCENE.



14

Charlie grabbed the printer stand to steady himself, then looked over the message again, to find the words that in his harried state he must have misread.

He saw he'd misread nothing.

Poor Wallid, he suspected, had merely stumbled into the same dark pit he had. He wanted to study the message further, in hope at least of deriving some idea of what to do now, but he didn't want to risk drawing the detectives' attention. He was certain of just one thing: Staying here in the precinct house meant submitting to arrest, which would only make life easier for Smith and MacKenzie. If they--or whoever sent them--could either fake an FBI bulletin or get the FBI to send a real one, they'd be able to waltz into a holding cell here. They'd have Charlie and Drummond in their custody within fifteen minutes.

"Nobody out there?" Beckman called over.

Shaking his head, Charlie summoned an earnest-sounding, "Detective, thank you so much for your time. We won't take up any more of it."

"Okay," Beckman said with cheer that seemed genuine. He started up from his desk chair, headed for the printer.

At the same moment, the thick toe of one of Charlie's Converse All Stars caught the carpet at a bad angle. He stumbled and flailed wildly at Beckman's desk. Intentionally. The target of his flailing was the large Styrofoam coffee cup on the desk.

He struck it squarely, splashing at least ten ounces worth of potentially permanent stains onto the detective's dress shirt and silk tie.

"Of all the fucking ties," the cop said, pounding the desktop.

"I'm so, so sorry," Charlie lied.

With a prolonged grunt, Beckman launched himself out of the squad room, capturing the attention of the two other detectives. Just as Charlie had hoped.

Exigency overrode his nerves, allowing him to double back to the printer and tear along the perforation at the base of the page.

To his ear, the tear was loud enough to rouse area seismographs. The detectives, cackling as Beckman plunged into the men's room across the hall, didn't look over.

Charlie was hardly put at ease. Others in the precinct house would read the same bulletin. Alternatively the names Charles and Drummond Clark, which the duty officer had logged into the system, would "click." The phones here would begin ringing any second.

"We're leaving," Charlie whispered, pulling Drummond up from his chair.

Perhaps too hastily. The action drew odd looks from both of the detectives.

"I was thinking the least I could do is buy Detective Beckman a new cup of coffee," Charlie told them. "Can you tell me where ...?"

"Take a left outta here," said the detective nearer to him, "then right at the copier. End of the hall, hang another right, you can't miss it."

"Thanks, officer," Charlie said. "See you in a minute."

Entering the corridor, he turned right, toward the elevator.

"What about the coffee?" Drummond asked.

"That was an attempt at diversion," Charlie said. "We're leaving, actually, because we've been framed for murder, and if we're detained, we're as good as dead."

"I see," Drummond said, as if he got this sort of thing all the time. Or because he had no clue what was happening. He seemed in no hurry.

"You do get that we're fugitives?" Charlie asked.

"Yes, yes, framed for murder--I understand."

Charlie ran for the elevator and pounded the down button.

Drummond turned into the adjacent stairwell.

Just as well, Charlie thought, backpedaling and shoving through the stairwell door. His hurried steps resonated as if the raw concrete space were a canyon. Drummond doubled back to catch the door before it could boom into the frame, then he resumed his leisurely descent.

Maybe his pace was deliberate, Charlie thought. If nothing else, it was less conspicuous.

Nearing the door to the lobby, Charlie slowed too, just in time to avoid being spotted through the glass porthole. The duty officer was hurrying across the lobby.

Fighting the inclination to duck beneath the glass, Charlie continued walking toward the next flight of stairs, which led to the basement. He beckoned Drummond, who followed as if he had been headed to the basement all along.

Charlie glanced out again as he passed the door. Trailing the duty officer were two stern and determined- looking men in plain gray suits. FBI agents. Had to be. Charlie's heart erupted into a beat strong enough to give him away.

It all but stopped with the realization that he recognized the second FBI man: the father of the happy little boy in the park this afternoon. Unless his appearance now was a coincidence--and the odds were the same that a mule would win the Kentucky Derby--it spoke of an operation more elaborate than Charlie ever would have conceived.

The duty officer and two FBI types could be heard passing the stairwell and boarding the elevator. The duty officer, more deferential now, was launching into his pickpockets-on-a-cold-night joke when the doors clanged shut.

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