Excerpt from The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Spanish Game

A Novel

By Charles Cumming

The Spanish Game
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2008,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2009,
    352 pages.

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1 E x i l e

The door leading into the hotel is already open and I walk through it into a low, wide lobby. Two South American teenagers are playing Gameboys on a sofa near reception, kicking back in hundred-dollar trainers while Daddy picks up the bill. The older of them swears loudly in Spanish and then catches his brother square on the knot of his shoulder with a dead arm that makes him wince in pain. A passing waiter looks down, shrugs, and empties an ashtray at their table. There’s a general atmosphere of listless indifference, of time passing by to no end, the prerush lull of late afternoons.

"Buenas tardes, señor."

The receptionist is wide shouldered and artificially blond and I play the part of a tourist, making no effort to speak to her in Spanish.

"Good afternoon. I have a reservation here today."

"The name, sir?"

"Alec Milius."

"Yes, sir."

She ducks down and taps something into a computer. Then there’s a smile, a little nod of recognition, and she writes down my details on a small piece of card.

"The reservation was made over the Internet?"

"That’s right."

"Could I see your passport please, sir?"

Five years ago, almost to the day, I spent my first night in Madrid at this same hotel; a twenty-eight-year-old industrial spy on the run from the UK with $189,000 lodged in five separate bank accounts, using three passports and a forged British driving licence for ID. On that occasion I handed a Lithuanian passport issued to me in Paris in August 1997 to the clerk behind the desk. The hotel may have a record of this on their system, so I’m using it again.

"You are from Vilnius?" the receptionist asks.

"My grandfather was born there."

"Well, breakfast is between seven thirty and eleven o’clock and you have it included as part of your rate." It is as if she has no recollection of having asked the question. "Is it just yourself staying with us?"

"Just myself."

My luggage consists of a suitcase filled with old newspapers and a leather briefcase containing some toiletries, a laptop computer, and two of my three mobile phones. We’re not planning to stay in the room for more than a few hours. A porter is summoned from across the lobby and he escorts me to the lifts at the back of the hotel. He’s short and tanned and genial in the manner of low-salaried employees badly in need of a tip. His English is rudimentary, and it’s tempting to break into Spanish just to make the conversation more lively.

"This is being your first time in Madrid, yes?"

"Second, actually. I visited two years ago."

"For the bullfights?"

"On business."

"You don’t like the corrida?"

"It’s not that. I just didn’t have the time."

The room is situated halfway down a long, Barton Fink corridor on the third floor. The porter uses a credit-card-sized pass key to open the door and places my suitcase on the ground. The lights are operated by inserting the key in a narrow horizontal slot outside the bathroom door, although I know from experience that a credit card works just as well; anything narrow enough to trigger the switch will do the trick. The room is a reasonable size, perfect for our needs, but as soon as I am inside I frown and make a show of looking disappointed and the porter duly asks if everything is all right.

"It’s just that I asked for a room with a view over the square. Could you see at the desk if it would be possible to change?"

Back in 1998, as an overt target conscious of being watched by both American and British intelligence, I ran basic countersurveillance measures as soon as I arrived at the hotel, searching for microphones and hidden cameras. Five years later, I am either wiser or lazier; the simple last-minute switch of room negates any need to sweep. The porter has no choice but to return to reception and within ten minutes I have been assigned a new room on the fourth floor with a clear view over Plaza de Santa Ana. After a quick shower I put on a dressing gown, turn down the air-conditioning, and try to make the room look less functional by folding up the bedspread, placing it in a cupboard, and opening the net curtains so that the decent February light can flood in. It’s cold outside, but I stand briefly on the balcony looking out over the square. A neat line of denuded chestnut trees runs east toward the Teatro de España where a young African man is selling counterfeit CDs from a white sheet spread out on the pavement. In the distance I can see the edge of the Parque Retiro and the roofs of the taller buildings on Calle de Alcalá. It’s a typical midwinter afternoon in Madrid: high blue skies, a brisk wind whipping across the square, sunlight on my face. Turning back into the room I pick up one of the mobiles and dial her number from memory.

Excerpted from Spanish Game by Charles Cumming. Copyright © 2008 by Charles Cumming. Excerpted by permission of St Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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