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 by Charles Cumming X
The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2008, 352 pages

    Nov 2009, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Print Excerpt


"Hola, Alec."

"I’m in."

"What is the number of the room?"

"Cuatrocientos ocho. Just walk straight through the lobby. There’s nobody there and they won’t stop you or ask any questions. Keep to the left. The elevators are at the back. Fourth floor."

"Is everything OK?"

"Everything’s OK."

"Vale," she says. Fine. "I’ll be there in an hour."

B a g g a g e

Sofía is the wife of another man. We have been seeing each other now for over a year. She is thirty years old, has no children, and has been married, unhappily, since 1999. To meet in the Reina Victoria hotel is something that she has always wanted us to do, and with her husband due back in Madrid on an 8 a.m. flight tomorrow, we can stay here until the early hours of the morning.

Sofía knows nothing about Alec Milius, or at least nothing of any hard fact or consequence. She does not know that at the age of twenty-four I was talent-spotted by MI6 in London and placed inside a British oil company with the purpose of befriending two employees of a rival American firm and selling them doctored research data on an oilfield in the Caspian Sea. Katharine and Fortner Simms, both of whom worked for the CIA, became my close friends over a two-year period, a relationship that ended when they discovered that I was working for British intelligence. Sofía is not aware that in the aftermath of the operation, my former girlfriend, Kate Allardyce, was murdered in a car accident engineered by the CIA, alongside another man, her new boyfriend, Will Griffin. Nor does she know that in the summer of 1997, I was dismissed by MI5 and MI6 and threatened with prosecution if I revealed anything about my work for the government.

As far as Sofía is concerned, Alec Milius is a typical footloose Englishman who turned up in Madrid in the spring of 1998 after working as a financial correspondent for Reuters in London and, latterly, St. Petersburg. He has lost touch with the friends he knew from school and university, and both his parents died when he was a teenager. The money they left him allows him to live in an expensive two-bedroom flat in downtown Madrid and drive an Audi A6 for work. The fact that my mother is still alive and that the last five years of my life have been largely funded by the proceeds of industrial espionage is not something that Sofía and I have ever discussed.

What is the truth? That I have blood on my hands? That I walk the streets with knowledge of a British plot against American business concerns that would blow George and Tony’s special relationship out of the water? Sofía does not need to know about that. She has her own lies, her own secrets to conceal. What did Katharine say to me all those years ago? "The first thing you should know about people is that you don’t know the first thing about them." So we leave it at that. That way we keep things simple.

And yet, and yet . . . five years of evasion and lies have taken their toll. At a time when my contemporaries are settling down, making their mark, breeding like locusts, I live alone in a foreign city, a man of thirty-three with no friends or roots, drifting, time-biding, waiting for something to happen. I came here exhausted by secrecy, desperate to wipe the slate clean, to be rid of all the half-truths and deceptions that had become the common currency of my life. And now what is left? An adultery. A part-time job working due diligence for a British private bank. A stained conscience. Even a young man lives with the mistakes of his past, and regret clings to me like a sweat that I cannot shift. Above all, there is paranoia: the threat of vengeance, of payback.

To escape Katharine and the CIA I have no Spanish bank accounts, no landline phone number at the apartment, two PO boxes, a Frankfurt-registered car, five e-mail addresses, timetables of every air- line flying out of Madrid, the numbers of the four phone boxes thirty meters up my street, and a rented bedsit in the village of Alcalá de los Gazules within a forty-minute drive of the boat to Tangier. I have moved apartment four times in five years. When I see a tourist’s camera pointed at me outside the Palacio Real, I fear that I am being photographed by an agent of SIS. And when the genial Segovian comes to my flat every three months to read the water meter, I follow him at a distance of no less than two meters to ensure that he has no opportunity to plant a bug. This is a tiring existence. It consumes me. So there is booze, and a lot of it. Booze to alleviate the guilt, booze to soften the suspicion. Madrid is built for late nights, for bar crawling into the small hours, and four mornings out of five I wake with a hangover and then drink again to cure it. It was booze that brought Sofía and me together last year, a long evening of caipirinhas at a bar on Calle Moratín and then falling into bed together at 6 a.m. The sex we have is like the sex that everybody has, only heightened by the added frisson of adultery and ultimately rendered meaningless by an absence of love. Ours is not, in other words, a relationship to compare with the one that I had with Kate—and it is probably all the better for that. We know where we stand. We know that one of us is married, and that the other never confides. Try as she might, Sofía will never succeed in drawing me out of my shell. "You are closed, Alec," she says. "Eres muy tuyo." An amateur Freudian would say that I have had no serious relationship in eight years as a consequence of my guilt over Kate’s death. We are all amateur Freudians now. And there is perhaps some truth in that. The reality is more mundane; it is simply that I have never met anyone to whom I have wanted to entrust my tawdry secrets, never met anyone whose life was worth destroying for the sake of my security and peace of mind.

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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