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On the heels of Once a Spy, which PW hailed as a "wildly original debut [with] an action-packed story line," Keith Thomson returns with a breakneck thriller that's twice as explosive as the original.
In the tradition of Robert Ludlum, with a witty twist, Thomson's second novel featuring a former spy and his son once again poses the question: What happens when a former CIA agent can no longer trust his own mind?
Charlie and Drummond Clark are now in Switzerland, hiding out from criminal charges in America and using the time to experiment with treatments to retrieve Drummond's memory. When NSA operative Alice Rutherford, with whom Charlie has fallen in love, is kidnapped, the Clarks must dodge a formidable CIA case officer and his team to get her back.
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KEITH THOMSON is a former semipro baseball player in France, an editorial cartoonist for Newsday, a filmmaker with a short film shown at Sundance, and a screenwriter who currently lives in Alabama. He writes on intelligence and other matters for the Huffington Post.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"Do you see a ghost?" Alice asked.
"You'd know if I did because I'd mention it." Charlie fixated on someone or something behind her, rather than meet her eyes as he usually did. "Or faint."
"Ghost is trade lingo for someone you take for a surveillant, but, really, he's just an ordinary Joe. When you have to look over your shoulder as much as we have the past couple of weeks, it's only natural that everybody starts seeming suspicious. You imagine you've seen one of them before. It's hard to find anybody who doesn't look like he works for Interpol."
"Interpol would be an upgrade." Charlie laughed a stream of vapor into the thin Alpine air. "After the past couple of weeks, it's hard to find anybody who doesn't look like a veteran hit man."
Charlie Clark owned no Hawaiian shirts. He didn't chomp on a cigar. In no way did he match anyone's conception of a horseplayer: He was a youthful thirty with a pleasant demeanor and strong features in spite of Alice's efforts to alter them--a brown wig hid his sandy blond hair, fake sideburns and a silicone nose bridge blunted the sharp contours of his face, and oversized sunglasses veiled his intelligent blue eyes. But--tragically, Alice thought--until being thrust on the lam two weeks ago, Charlie had spent 364 days a year at racetracks. And that number would have been 365 if tracks didn't close on Christmas Day. He lived for the thrill not merely of winning but of being right. As he'd often said: "Where else besides the track can you get that?"
So why, Alice wondered, had his attention veered from the race?
Especially this race, a "white turf" mile with thoroughbreds blazing around a course dug from sparkling snow atop the frozen Lac de Morat in Avenches, Switzerland, framed by hills that looked like they had been dispensed by a soft-serve ice cream machine, sprinkled with chalets, and surrounded by blindingly white peaks. Probably it was on an afternoon just like this in 1868 that the British adventurer Edward Whymper said of Switzerland, "However magnificent the imagination may be, it always remains inferior to reality."
And Edward Whymper didn't have a horse poised to take the lead.
Flying past four of the nine entries, Charlie's choice, Poser Le Lapin, spotted a gap between the remaining two.
Knowing almost nothing about the horses besides their names, Charlie had taken a glance at the auburn filly during the post parade and muttered that her turndowns--iron plates bent toward the ground at a forty-five-degree angle on the open end of the horseshoes--would provide better traction than the other entrants' shoes today.
Alice followed his sight line now, up from the snowy track apron where they stood and into the packed grandstand. Ten thousand heads pivoted at once as the horses thundered around the oval.
It was odd that Charlie wasn't watching the race. More than odd. Like an eight-year-old walking past a candy store without a glance.
The horses charged into the final turn. Alice saw only a cloud of kicked-up snowflakes and ice. As the cloud neared the grandstand, the jockeys came into view, their face masks bobbing above the haze. A moment later, the entire pack of thoroughbreds was visible. Cheers from the crowd drowned out the announcer's rat-a-tat call.
Poser Le Lapin crossed the wire with a lead of four lengths.
Alice looked to Charlie expecting elation. He remained focused on the grandstand behind him, via the strips of mirrored film she'd glued inside each of his lenses--an old spook trick.
"Your horse won, John!" she said, using his alias.
He shrugged. "Every once in a while, I'm right."
"Don't tell me the thrill is gone."
"At the moment, I'm hoping to be wrong."
A chill crept up her. "Who is it?"
"Guy in a red ski hat, top of the grandstand, just under the Mercedes banner, drinking champagne."
She shifted her stance, as if to watch the trophy presentation like everyone else. Really she looked into the "rearview mirrors" inside her own sunglasses.
The red ski hat was like a beacon.
"I see him. What, you think it's weird that he's drinking champagne?"
"Well, yeah, because it's, like, two degrees out."
Alice usually put great stock in Charlie's observational skill. During their escape from Manhattan, in residential Morningside Heights, he'd pegged two men out of a crowd of hundreds as government agents when they slowed at a curb for a sign changing to don't walk; real New Yorkers sped up. But after two harrowing weeks of being hunted by spies and misguided lawmen who shot first and asked questions later, anyone would see ghosts, even an operator with as much experience as she had.
"Sweetheart, half the people here are drinking champagne."
"Yeah, I know--the Swiss Miss commercials sure got Switzerland wrong. The thing is the red hat."
"Is there something unusual about it?"
"No. But he was wearing a green hat at lunch."
The man in the blood-red knitted ski cap looked as if he were in his late twenties. Gaunt and pallid, he was Central Casting's idea of a doctoral candidate. Which hardly ruled him out as an assassin. Since he had been dragged into this mess two weeks ago, the killers Charlie had eluded had been disguised as a jocular middle-aged insurance salesman, a pair of wet-behind-the-ears lawyers, and a fresh fruit vendor on the Lower East Side.
"You're sure you saw him at the café?" Alice asked.
"When I doubled back to our table to leave the tip, I noticed him in the corner, flagging the waitress all of a sudden. What's that spook saying about coincidences?"
"There are none?"
"I never say that. The summer I was eleven, I got a Siamese cat. I named him Rockford. A few weeks later, I started a new school, and there was another girl who had a Siamese cat named Rockford. Coincidence or what?"
"I always wondered about that saying."
"In any case, why don't we go toast your win?"
One of their exit strategies commenced with a walk to the nearest concession stand. "I would love a drink, actually," Charlie said.
Leaving the track apron, they stepped into a long corridor between the rear of the grandstand and Lac de Morat's southern bank. While his nerves verged on exploding, she retained her character's bounce. In fact, if he hadn't been in the same room this morning when she was getting dressed, he might not recognize her now. She remained a stunning woman despite a drab wig and a prosthetic nose that called to mind a plastic surgeon's "before" photo. Ordinarily she moved like a ballerina. Now the thick parka, along with the marble she'd placed in her right boot, spoiled her stride. And her sunglasses, relatives of the ski goggle family, concealed her best feature, bright green eyes that blazed with whimsy or, at times, inner demons.
No one else was in the corridor. But would anyone fall in behind them?
Charlie's heart pounded so forcefully that he could barely hear the crunching of his boots through the snow.
Sensing his unease, Alice took his hand. Or maybe there was more to it than that. Twelve days ago, caring only that he and his father were innocent, she decided to help them flee the United States in direct defiance of her superiors at the National Security Agency. "Girlfriend" was just her cover then. Their first night in Europe, however, it became reality. Since then, their hands had gravitated into each other's even without a threat of surveillance.
She steadied him now.
He recalled the fundamental guiding principle of countersurveillance, which she'd taught him: See your pursuers, but don't let them know you see them.
The spooked-up sunglasses--part mirror, and, to the uninitiated, part kaleidoscope--made it difficult to find a specific person behind him, or for that matter a specific section of grandstand. He fought the urge to peer over his shoulder. As little as a backward glance would be enough for the man in the red hat to smell blood.
"See anything?" Charlie muttered.
"Not yet." Alice laughed as if he'd just told a joke.
They came to a white cabana tent with a peaked top. Inside, a rosy and suitably effervescent middle-aged couple popped corks and filled plastic flutes with the same champagne whose logo adorned banners all around the racecourse. Falling into place at the end of the small line enabled Charlie and Alice to, quite naturally, turn and take in their environs: Thirty or forty white-turf fans wandered among the betting windows, Port-o-Lets, and a dozen other concessions tents.
No man in the red hat.
And the corridor behind the grandstand remained vacant.
Charlie felt only the smallest measure of relief. Their tail might have passed them to another watcher. Or put cameras on them. Or fired microscopic transponders into their coats. Or God knew what.
"Sorry about this," Charlie said.
"About what?" Alice seemed carefree. Part of which was her act. The rest was a childhood so harrowing and a career full of so many horrors that she rarely experienced fear now. If ever.
"Talking you into coming here."
"Knock it off. It's breathtaking."
"To a track, I mean. It was idiotic."
"Hermits are conspicuous. We have to get out some of the time."
"Just not to racetracks. Of course they'd be watching racetracks."
"Switzerland has an awful lot of racetracks, not to mention all the little grocery stores that double as offtrack betting parlors. And there's no reason to think that anyone even knows we're in Europe. Also this isn't exactly a racetrack. It's a course on a frozen lake--who knew such a thing existed?"
"They know. They always do."
"They" were the so-called Cavalry, the Central Intelligence Agency black ops unit pursuing Charlie and his father, Drummond Clark. Two weeks ago, after the various assassins all failed their assignments, the Cavalry framed the Clarks for the murder of U.S. national security adviser Burt...
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