Excerpt from A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Spy by Nature

A Novel

by Charles Cumming

A Spy by Nature
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2007, 368 pages
    Nov 2008, 368 pages

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Print Excerpt

“Absolutely, yes.”

She withdraws and Lucas and I go into a large, sparsely furnished room nearby. He has not yet stopped looking at me, not out of laziness or rudeness but purely because he is a man entirely at ease when it comes to staring at people. He’s very good at it.

He says, “Thank you for coming today.”

And I say, “It’s a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. It’s a great privilege to be here.”

There are two armchairs in the room, upholstered in the same burgundy leather as the sofas downstairs. A large bay window looks out over the tree-lined Mall, feeding weak, broken sunlight into the room. Lucas has a broad oak desk covered in neat piles of paper and a framed black-and-white photograph of a woman whom I take to be his wife.

“Have a seat.”

I drop down low into the leather, my back to the window. There is a coffee table in front of me, an ashtray, and a closed red file. Lucas occupies the chair opposite mine. As he sits down, he reaches into the pocket of his jacket for a pen, retrieving a blue Mont Blanc. I watch him, freeing the trapped flaps of my jacket and bringing them back across my chest. The little physical tics that precede an interview.

“Milius. It’s an unusual name.”


“Your father, he was from the Eastern bloc?”

“His father. Not mine. Came over from Lithuania in 1940. My family have lived in Britain ever since.”

Lucas writes something down on a brown clipboard braced between his thighs.

“I see. Why don’t we begin by talking about your present job. The CEBDO. That’s not something I’ve heard much about.”

All job interviews are lies. They begin with the résumé, a sheet of word-processed fictions. About halfway down mine, just below the name and address, Philip Lucas has read the following sentence:

I have been employed as a Marketing Consultant at the Central European Business Development Organization (CEBDO) for the past eleven months.

Elsewhere, lower down, are myriad falsehoods: periods of work experience on national newspapers (“Could you do some photocopying please?”); a season as a waiter at a leading Genevan hotel; eight weeks at a London law firm; the inevitable charity work.

The truth is that CEBDO is run out of a small, cramped garage in a mews off Edgware Road. The kitchen doubles for a toilet; if somebody has a crap, no one can make a cup of tea for ten minutes. There are five of us: Nik (the boss), Henry, Russell, myself, and Anna. It’s very simple. We sit on the phone all day talking to businessmen in central—and now eastern—Europe. I try to persuade them to part with large sums of money, in return for which we promise to place an advertisement for their operation in a publication known as the Central European Business Review. This, I tell my clients, is a quarterly magazine that enjoys a global circulation of four hundred thousand copies, “distributed free around the world.” Working purely on commission I can make anything from two to three hundred pounds a week, sometimes more, peddling this story. Nik, I estimate, makes seven or eight times that amount. His only overheads, apart from telephone calls and electricity, are printing costs. These are paid to his brother-in-law who desktop publishes five hundred copies of the Central European Business Review four times a year. These he posts to a few selected embassies across Europe and to all the clients who have placed advertisements in the magazine. Any spares, he throws in the bin.

On paper, it’s legal.

I look Lucas directly in the eye.

“The CEBDO is a fledgling organization that advises new businesses in central—and now eastern—Europe about the perils and pitfalls of the free market.”

Copyright © 2001 by Charles Cumming. All rights reserved.

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