Over the past five weeks, HuffPost Books has been 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. We've come now to the final installment of the series, chapters 15, 16, and 17. If you want to catch up on the first four parts of our series, you can read the first fourteen chapters here, here, here, and here. Check out Keith Thomson's website for more information on the new book.
Charlie and Drummond exited the precinct house lobby onto a dimly lit sidewalk in the middle of a block of pitch-black stores and ofﬁce buildings. There was no trafﬁc. Alley cats were padding out from wherever they spent the day. The Daily News deliveryman was the only person in sight.
Whichever direction Charlie turned, he had the sensation that someone was sneaking up from behind. A cold gust sliced through his sweatshirt.
Taking Drummond by a sleeve, he headed downtown, if only to have the wind at their backs. He stayed close to the buildings so that someone in the squad room would have to open the window and stick out his head in order to see them.
On the slight chance Drummond's knack for evasion would yield an idea of what to do next, Charlie admitted, "Getting us out of there was as far as my plan got."
"There's an IRT station just two blocks away," Drummond said.
The Interborough Rapid Transit Company had discontinued service here, Charlie was sure of it. His only question was whether it had been before or after his birth. "It's closed."
"Oh, right, right."
There were two working subway stations in the area, each about a ten- minute walk. But by the time Charlie and Drummond made it to either--if they made it at all--they could expect a reception committee of transit cops.
"How about that?" Drummond pointed to the Daily News truck.
The twenty-foot-long rear loader sat at the curb two buildings down from the precinct house. Silver letters stenciled onto its driver's door spelled out hippo, which was apt. Its big rear door was wide open.
"You mean, stow away in it?" Charlie asked, hoping that Drummond had meant something else. Newspapers were stacked so high and tight inside the truck, it would be hard to hide, or even ﬁt.
"No, take it."
Charlie mulled it over. Any second the "FBI agents" would ﬁnish conferring with Beckman and the other detectives, and the lot of them would stampede this way.
At the corner, the deliveryman loaded a stack of newspapers into the machine. He was the size of a grizzly. But Smith had been no peewee.
"You have another knockout punch in you?" Charlie asked Drummond.
"A knockout punch?"
"Remember how, like an hour ago, you ﬂattened Kermit Smith?"
"By hitting him, you say?"
"I have another idea." Charlie kept to himself that it was a long shot. "Just stay put for a second."
Charlie was afraid. He recalled the horseplayer maxim: Scared money never wins. And as he did sometimes while sitting in the grandstand, he felt himself warm to the opportunity to defy the odds. He broke into a jog.
Nearing the corner, he called out, "Sir?"
The big deliveryman spun around.
"Sergeant Beckman," Charlie said. He ﬂashed his wallet to show the business card the detective had given him, now in a transparent plastic pocket. He held it so as to give the embossed police department shield prominence. The shield glinted silver in the spill of streetlight. With a wave at his sweatshirt and jeans, he added, "Undercover."
The deliveryman stood unnaturally straight. "What's up, Sergeant?"
"I need your keys. Bomb Squad's got a special delivery with an ETA of sixty ticks. Your rig's too close to the entrance."
"No problem," the deliveryman said with a measure of relief. "Mind if I just get a better look at your ID?"
The revving of a mammoth engine drew their attention up the block. Drummond sat at the wheel of the Daily News truck.
The deliveryman showed only a little surprise.
Of course, Charlie rebuked himself. Because the keys were in the truck. Because why would anyone steal a truck like that?
"Looks like Sergeant Reilly's on it already," he said, hurrying back up the block.
Drummond opened the driver's door for him and moved to the passenger seat. "Best you drive, Charles," he said. "I don't have my license with me."
Stretching his feet as far as he could to operate the clutch and accelerator, Charlie had to strain to keep hold of both the gearshift and the wheel. The truck's girth made the four-lane stretch of Flatbush Avenue feel like a narrow path. Expecting half the police cars in Brooklyn on his tail, he looked to the rearview mirror to discover that the truck had no rearview mirror. There were two side mirrors; and in his, the closest thing to a blue and white cruiser was a teal Dodge sedan two blocks back.
Still, the cops would have no trouble ﬁnding them. The Hippo was as conspicuous as any ride outside Coney Island. Charlie decided to ditch it at the ﬁrst place they could hail a taxi. Brooklyn College was just a few blocks away.
"So, Dad, now that we have a relatively quiet moment," he said, "would you care to enlighten me as to exactly what kind of crazy motherfucking shit you've gotten me into?"
From Drummond came no reply.
Warily, Charlie took his eyes off the road. Drummond was reclining in the passenger seat, watching a darkened factory bound past. He probably would have been asleep if not for the icy air whistling onto him through the cracked glove compartment.
"Sorry if I'm keeping you up," Charlie said.
Drummond shook his head, as if trying to align his thoughts. "I wish I knew."
"What about the eight million dollars? Does that have anything to do with this?"
"What eight million dollars?"
"You said you had eight million dollars in a bank account." "Oh," Drummond said. No recollection. He snapped upright, his eyes drawn to something in his side mirror. Charlie saw a dark industrial block not much different from the last one or the one before that. Behind them was a Lincoln dating to Detroit's infatuation with the look of cruise ships, followed by a battered pickup. Next came a dump truck, then a late model Nissan. The teal Dodge that had been two blocks back was now even with the Nissan.
"Am I missing something?" Charlie said. "This may have something to do with--" Drummond cut himself off. "Work?" Drummond ﬁxated on his mirror but said nothing. "What might we be talking about?" Charlie asked. "A customer really hot under the collar because his dryer takes too long to dry a load?" "It's nothing like that." "Okay, what is it like?" "It's complicated." "How about I get twenty questions?" "I can't talk about it." "Why the hell not?" "For one thing, knowing would put you in jeopardy." "As opposed to, say, now?" Drummond nodded, ceding the point. He began to speak, only to stop. "Come on," Charlie said. "The suspense is going to kill me ﬁrst." Again Drummond hesitated. "The truth is, Perriman Appliances is just a cover," he ﬁnally said in a whisper. "I really work for the government, in clandestine operations."
That would explain a lot of tonight. But knowing Drummond as he did--the man who complained the History Channel aired too much violence--Charlie couldn't swallow it. "So, what, you're a spy?"
"Like, the CIA?"
Charlie glanced at his side mirror. The players had changed only in that the teal Dodge had drawn half a block closer. "Which one?" he asked, doubtful it was any.
"The teal car," Drummond said, as if it should have been obvious.
"If you say so."
"Teal cars are very often rentals."
"I guess no one would buy a teal car..."
"They may ﬁre."
"With all these other people around?"
Charlie's side mirror burst into particles of glass. The aluminum housing swung toward him, smashing a spiderweb into his window. He would have jumped if he weren't pinned in place by astonishment.
"Eyes forward!" Drummond shouted.
Charlie rotated his head to see a painter's van darting from a curbside parking space and into their path.
Reﬂexively he heaved the steering wheel counterclockwise, directing the Hippo into the left lane. There were buildings easier to maneuver than the Hippo. He sideswiped the van as the truck thumped into the left lane.
He barely registered the impact. His world had compacted into a tunnel that contained only the Hippo, the street, and the teal Dodge. Everything else was in soft focus, all sounds were muted. It took a beat to register that Drummond was speaking. "...we're fortunate to have a vehicle that's ﬁve tons of steel. Otherwise they could T-bone us."
Charlie had heard T-bone applied only to beef, but he didn't doubt its place in car chase terminology. Like Drummond's take on teal cars, it didn't seem like the stuff of delusion. So when Drummond added, "Stay as far to the left as you can," Charlie pitched the Hippo that way and only afterward asked why.
Drummond's response was forestalled by a hollow thud. A thin beam of light shone from a new poker-chip-sized hole between them in the steel wall dividing the cab from the cargo hold. A bullet must have ﬁrst pierced the truck's rear door, then burrowed through the newspapers. The hole in the windshield told the rest of the story.
Every last cell in Charlie tensed in anticipation of the next bullet. "I guess they don't make ﬁve tons of steel like they used to," he said.
Drummond seemed unusually relaxed. "Did Grandpa Tony ever tell you about his apartment on State Street?"
Charlie feared a non sequitur to top the Merrimack River. "No."
"As you'll recall, he lived in Chicago during the Capone mob's heyday. Sometimes he'd hear machine-gun ﬁre, and he'd peek out his window to see mobsters speeding by in a Cadillac that had been shot to Swiss cheese, followed by a police wagon that wasn't in much better shape. Always though, the vehicles were speeding, and the drivers were alive. The point is, it's extremely difﬁcult to ﬁre from one moving vehicle at another with any degree of accuracy. In all likelihood, they're just trying to ﬂuster you. One of us getting hit by a bullet would be a matter of incredibly rotten luck."
"Then we're in trouble," Charlie said.
"Get over as far into the right lane as you can," Drummond said.
"The left lane, you mean?" Charlie wasn't sure he'd heard correctly; air was howling like a jet through the bullet hole. Also, he thought, albeit based on video game car chases, the idea was to obstruct the shooter's aim at the driver, not facilitate it.
"No, no, the right," Drummond said. "I don't want to let them get a line on our back right wheel well."
As if on cue, the Dodge drifted to that side. The man in the passenger seat nosed a gun out of his window, braced the stout barrel on his side mirror, and tipped it toward the Hippo's back right tire.
Charlie clocked the steering wheel. "Is he going for our gas tank?"
"I thought, outside of B-movies, bullets don't ignite gasoline."
"In general that's true, but if he can put a hole in the tank, the diesel will gush out and soon we'll run dry. And in the meantime, if he can blow the tire, all it will take is one spark and--"
"Big blob of ﬁre?"
"Essentially, yes," Drummond said.
Impressed by Drummond's knowledge, as well as ﬂabbergasted by it, Charlie nosed right, just as the man in the Dodge pressed the trigger. Drummond's side mirror ﬁlled with the shot's white glare.
The bullet struck the Hippo's rear cargo door, decimating its upper hinge. Already ajar, the door swung outward. The lower hinge kept it dangling from the truck. It hammered the road, creating a comet tail of sparks, until swinging sideways and clipping the trunk of a streetlamp. Charlie felt the high-pitched clank in his teeth.
Severed from the truck, the cargo door ﬂew at the Dodge like a hatchet.
The Dodge swerved to avoid it. The door gouged the pavement a few feet ahead of the Dodge, cartwheeled past its windshield, and slammed into a cluster of garbage pails, scattering them like tenpins.
Charlie would have cursed the luck, but the monstrous banging and rumbling in the cargo hold seized his attention.
"The newspapers," Drummond said.
"Or Hippo actually refers to a hippo," Charlie said.
It was quickly evident that Drummond was right: The stacks of newspapers were toppling, due either to the collision with the streetlamp or suction through the rear doorway. Bundles of papers could be heard bouncing around, like corn in a popper. The side mirror showed the cargo hold disgorging hundreds of individual copies.
The Dodge slalomed to avoid the bulk of this tabloid-sized confetti. Sheet after sheet slapped its windshield, ﬂattened, and stayed put. The driver had to lower his window and stick out his head to maintain his course.
A still-intact newspaper clouted him in the face, bloodying his nose. A page clung over his eyes, blinding him. He kept one hand on the wheel and swept the other wildly in an effort to peel away the paper.
The passenger shouted and pointed. The driver cleared his eyes in time to see the dumpster. Too late to dodge it.
Charlie looked on like a baseball fan whose cleanup hitter has just sent one deep.
The driver of the Dodge jogged his wheel counterclockwise, so rather than head-on, he struck the dumpster with his right front quarter panel. The car bounced back into the street, its hood tented, the right headlight gone. The quarter panel ﬂopped off.
Still, the car resumed its pursuit.
"They don't make dumpsters like they used to either," Charlie grumbled.
The newspapers had been a lucky break, he thought. Per horseplayer calculus, that severely diminished the chances of another lucky break, and it was hard to imagine escaping the Dodge, let alone lasting the night, without another half-dozen lucky breaks. As the horseplayers say, "Luck never gives; she only lends."
"Go right at Fillmore," Drummond said. "I have an idea."
Charlie took the sharp right from Flatbush onto Fillmore Avenue, requiring that he not turn the wheel so much as wrestle centrifugal force for control of the truck. The axles and tires moaned, and it felt like the Hippo might split in two, with the cargo hold continuing down Flatbush on its own afterward. The whole of the vehicle careened onto Fillmore without harm, save to Charlie's digestion.
Fillmore was a narrow, single lane through shuttered warehouses, or, as Charlie saw it, one big shooting alley. Without the cargo door, all they had to protect them from bullets was the cab's very penetrable rear wall.
What the hell was Drummond thinking?
Charlie opened his mouth to ask when the side mirror again ﬁlled with a muzzle ﬂash. A bullet pounded through the cargo hold wall and ricocheted around like a hornet.
The Dodge sped to within a half block behind them. The gunman leaned out of the passenger window for a better shot.
"How's that idea going?" Charlie asked.
"Stop at the red." Drummond pointed at the trafﬁc light dangling ahead.
"The rule is except when someone is shooting you!"
"Simple tactic. Listen, and we'll lose them." Drummond sounded intrepid and full of conviction. Like Patton--or at least unlike anything Charlie had ever heard from his father or thought within his range.
And it steadied Charlie. He threw the gearshift into neutral and pressed the brake. The truck slid, tires grating against the street and sending a whiff of rubber into the cab. They came to a halt on the crosswalk at the intersection with busy Utica Avenue.
"Now get ready to turn right when I say so," Drummond said.
Charlie clocked the steering wheel and tightened his sweaty grip on the gearshift knob.
A block to the left, on Utica Avenue, a green light loosed a herd of trafﬁc led by an eighteen-wheel tractor trailer.
The Dodge, meanwhile, glided to a stop ﬁve or six car lengths behind the Hippo, close enough that Charlie could see the face of the man in the passenger seat--so mild mannered in appearance that hope ﬂickered in Char¬lie that this was all some sort of misunderstanding about to be resolved.
With a grin, the man stuck his pistol out of his window and ﬁred. Now that the vehicles were in idle, the report was earsplitting.
The round blew another hole in the cab's rear wall, buzzed past Charlie's right ear, and, on its way out of the cab, created a small cavity in the ceiling. Heart bouncing around inside his rib cage, he shoved the gearshift into ﬁrst.
"Not until I say so," Drummond barked.
"Just hold on."
The Dodge's driver rolled down his window. He was a fair-complexioned young man with hard eyes and thin bloodless lips set too tight to smile. He balanced his pistol atop the lowered glass. His shot pinged the doorframe by Drummond's head, creating a starburst. Drummond eyed it with an almost mocking indifference.
"Okay, we've held on long enough," Charlie couldn't help shouting.
"Just a few more seconds." Drummond pointed to the dense trafﬁc rumbling along Utica from the left, led by the eighteen-wheeler.
The Dodge rolled closer, and another booming shot punched into the rear wall of the cab, creating a hole just inches left of Drummond's chest. The air ﬁlled with grainy orange haze that smelled of salt, the remains of a bag of corn chips on top of the dash.
The eighteen wheeler rumbled to within a half block of the intersection. Any more time and the trafﬁc would be in front of the Hippo, effectively turning Fillmore into a dead end.
"How about now?" Charlie meant the question to be rhetorical.
"Almost," said Drummond, ﬁxating on the eighteen-wheeler.
Bullets rained against the Hippo. The smoke and the ear-wrecking reports and echoes made it feel like being inside a thunderhead.
"Go!" Drummond shouted through it all.
Charlie released the clutch and crushed the gas. With tires screaming, the Hippo bombed onto Utica. Its back end barely missed the eighteen-wheeler's front fender.
The truck driver reﬂexively slammed on his brakes, sending his gargantuan vehicle into an abrupt, sliding deceleration. All sound was lost beneath the howl of his eighteen tires.
To avoid rear-ending him, the young woman driving the Honda Accord darted to the right, into a lane that was parking spaces by day.
The trailer jackknifed right, ﬁlling that lane too. The Accord came to a shrieking stop a foot short of a collision.
The teal Dodge, ﬂying onto Utica, needed to pass the Accord. To the left was the jackknifed trailer. To the right, the sidewalk. The Dodge leaped onto the sidewalk, a viable byway, if not for the streetlamp the driver had no way of seeing. With a deafening thunk, it stopped the Dodge dead.
In the remains of Drummond's side mirror, Charlie saw the street-lamp protruding from the teal hood like a stake. Much of the car was accordioned. Inside, the gunmen angrily swatted aside swollen air bags.
Exultant, Charlie said, "I hope that streetlamp is okay."
Gunning the Hippo away, he watched until the gunmen were specks. Left behind with them was his last shred of doubt about Drummond's claim. In place of it came awe and a thousand questions he was dying to ask.
"So now what?" he said for starters.
"This may have something to do with work," Drummond said.
Against a new tide of panic, Charlie said, "I know, I know--you work for the government. Clandestine operations." He rushed his words to make use of Drummond's last bits of light. "I need to know where exactly?"
Drummond sat up again. He eyed the bullet hole in the ceiling.
"I hope it doesn't rain," he said.