Excerpt from A Gathering of Spies by John Altman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Gathering of Spies

By John Altman

A Gathering of Spies
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2000,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2001,
    320 pages.

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1942

They had been driving in silence for twenty minutes. Winterbotham's eyes were beginning to drift shut, despite his best efforts to keep them open, when Colonel Fredricks suddenly said, "You know, Professor, you're not at all what I expected."

For a few moments, Winterbotham considered letting it pass. He knew what the colonel meant, and he wasn't in the mood for a fight. He was too goddamned tired. But then his pride - his old bedraggled pride, never knowing when to stay down-forced him to respond.

"How do you mean, Colonel?" he asked.

The colonel let out a small chuckle. "I had been led to expect a sort of wildcat, I suppose."

Winterbotham looked out his window for another moment before answering. The countryside drifted past in absolute darkness; he couldn't make out even the top of the tree line. For the previous two years, all of England had been shutting itself down every night when dusk fell. He supposed they served their purpose, these voluntary blackouts; they made it difficult for the Luftwaffe to find their targets. But they also took a toll, one that was purely psychological but very real. Hitler hadn't won the war, not yet-but he had forced them to live in darkness, like animals in caves.

Then Winterbotham turned his head slowly to look at the man sitting beside him in the gloom. Colonel Fredricks was a tall, pallid man who resembled a cadaver. In the darkness, Winterbotham could see only a pale smudge, which would have been his face.

"A wildcat," he mused.

"So I had been warned."

"I'm sorry to disappoint you."

"Oh, don't apologize, Professor. It is my great pleasure to find you..." He trailed off.

"Manageable?" Winterbotham said.

"Yes," Fredricks said, relieved. "That's exactly right."

"You thought I would demand to know where we're going," Winterbotham said, "and I would make the trip as unpleasant for you as possible."

"It had occurred to me. Yes."

"So it must have been Taylor who sent you."

Fredricks didn't answer.

"Taylor has always overestimated me," Winterbotham said, and allowed himself a thin smile at the man's silence.

"I'm afraid I can't-"

"I haven't demanded to know our destination," Winterbotham said, "because I already know our destination, Colonel Fredricks. We're going to a small nondescript house somewhere in the countryside, correct? I can't see that it much matters if I know the precise location or not. Once we've arrived, we'll meet with my old friend Professor Andrew Taylor, correct? And he will explain the reason for this rather bizarre invitation you have extended me, correct?"

Again, no answer.

"I haven't asked you what the matter is," Winterbotham said, "for the simple reason that you don't know what the matter is. Isn't that right, Colonel? You're his retriever, but you don't know what you're retrieving, let alone why, correct?"

Fredricks cleared his throat. "We're nearly there," he said stiffly.

Winterbotham turned and looked out his window again, feeling vaguely satisfied.

He knew they were near Salisbury because he spotted the extraordinary, unmistakable spire of the gothic cathedral-a stab of darkness just slightly darker than the sky behind it-shortly before they stopped. The car pulled up outside a small Tudor house that stood among a row of similar houses, modest dwellings all, with crossed slats of honey-colored wood on the peaked roofs.

Winterbotham waited for Colonel Fredricks to open his door for him, then stepped out into the night, trying to keep his teeth from chattering. A bitter wind immediately took his chestnut hair and increased its disarray. He pulled his tweed jacket more tightly around himself, crinkling his eyes against motes of flying dust.

Reprinted from A Gathering of Spies by John Altman by permission of Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by John Altman. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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