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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  • First Published:
    Jun 2000, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2001, 320 pages

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The room they entered had a claustrophobically low ceiling; it smelled of cabbage and fish. The only light came from a crackling fire in a stone hearth. Blackout shades had been drawn over the windows nonetheless. A wireless radio somewhere, turned low, was playing softly "She's Funny That Way."

Winterbotham had guessed right: Andrew Taylor was sitting in one of two easy chairs by the fireplace. He rose as they came into the room, and offered his hand. He was a man of a certain age, like Winterbotham himself, and, like Winterbotham, he was a man of a certain weight, even in the midst of wartime rationing.

Winterbotham had not seen Taylor for several years, not since they'd been teaching together at the university. His first impression was that the man looked older, more haggard, more harried. His second was that he also looked healthier, in a strange way: His eyes were sparkling, and his handshake was firm. The war was doing him good, Winterbotham realized. Sometimes you found people like that; these dark days brought out the best in them. They were the Churchills of the world, the ones who thrived on conflict.

"Evening, old chap," Taylor said. "They found you."

"That they did. In my bath."

"Sorry about that, Harry. Come in, have a seat. Thank you, Colonel. That will be all."

Colonel Fredricks executed a courtly half bow, then stepped back out through the front door and closed it behind himself.

"You've got him well trained," Winterbotham remarked.

"Not I. It's the Royal Artillery who trained him so well. Tea?"

"Something stronger, if you've got it."

Winterbotham settled down in one of the easy chairs beside the fire. A marble chessboard had been set up on a table between the chairs. He inspected it with a small smile. Perhaps Taylor had dragged him all the way out here simply because he was hungry for a good game of chess ... although he rather doubted it.

Taylor handed him a chipped mug and sat opposite the chessboard, holding one of his own. Winterbotham raised the mug and sniffed suspiciously. Whiskey. He took a sip into his mouth and rolled it around. Not just whiskey, but good whiskey.

How long had it been since he'd had good whiskey?

"You're looking well," Taylor said.

Winterbotham glanced at him with a raised eyebrow-he knew how he was looking, and well had nothing to do with it-and drank some more of the good whiskey without comment.

Taylor seemed content to let the quiet linger. The fire crackled and the wireless hummed and a whistle of wind rustled through the eaves of the house. Presently, Winterbotham turned his attention to the chessboard. The ranks were arranged in starting position. He reached out, took the king's pawn between thumb and forefinger, and moved it forward two spaces. The king's pawn opening, so simple, so workable, had always driven Taylor mad with frustration. Taylor felt that every move in a chess game, as in life, should be a feat of brilliance. He had no appreciation for the simple pleasures of a job well done if there was not some element of spectacle.

Taylor leaned forward, rubbing his chin, and then countered with the knight's pawn-nothing ever could be simple with him.

He said, "I didn't bring you here to play chess."

"I didn't think so," Winterbotham said, bringing a bishop out.

"I heard about Ruth," Taylor said. "I'm sorry, Harry."

Winterbotham nodded without looking up.

"Any word on her?" Taylor pressed. "Any hope?"

Winterbotham shrugged. "There's always hope," he allowed.



In Ruth's case, however, there wasn't much. She had gone to Warsaw, despite Winterbotham's warnings, in the summer of 1939. She had family there-two brothers, assorted cousins-and she had been determined to convince them to come out before it was too late. But by the time she arrived, it already was too late. Hitler and his SS squads marched in a week later. Now she was either dead or imprisoned; Winterbotham had no way of knowing. But her chances, as he long ago had admitted to himself, were not good.

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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