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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He remembered that Taylor had a wife of his own. He couldn't quite recall her name. Alice, he thought, or possibly Alicia-or possibly Helen, probably Helen. He took a chance.

"How's Helen?"

Taylor was staring at the chessboard. "She's passed on," he said. "Nearly two years now."

"The bombs?"

"Tuberculosis."

"I'm sorry, Andrew."

"Mm," Taylor said.

For ten minutes, then, they played without speaking. Taylor tripped himself up, as was his habit, with his own ambition. He played dramatically, unwilling to take the time to build simple defenses, always looking for an unexpected cross-board coup.

Winterbotham whittled him down pawn by pawn, then split his king and his rook, nabbed the rook, and began to press his opponent's flank. He finished his mug of whiskey and waited to be offered another. Finally, Taylor tipped his king over and laid it down in resignation.

"The more things change..." he said with a sour smile. "Care for another drink?"

"I won't refuse."

"I didn't think you would. So, old chap, still teaching?"

"You must know that I'm not."

"I do know that, as a matter of fact. But I've been unable to discover exactly what it is that you are doing."

"Very little," Winterbotham said. "Locking myself in the library with my books, for the most part. Except when I'm being mysteriously interrupted during my bath and dragged out into the countryside."

"That's a shame," Taylor said. "A bloody shame."

He had fetched the bottle; now he refilled the mugs and then sat again, looking at Winterbotham contemplatively.

"It's a waste of talent, is what it is," he said. "England could use you. Now more than ever."

"The way she uses you?"

"Mm," Taylor said.

"It does seem to agree with you-whatever it is that you're doing."

"Mm."

"Bringing your extensive knowledge of the classics to bear on the Nazis," Winterbotham said. "What scares them the most, Andrew? Chaucer? Or is it Shakespeare?"

"You're digging," Taylor said, smiling.

"I'm curious. I don't understand exactly how elderly professors like ourselves are of service to His Majesty in wartime, I'll admit."

"How curious are you?"

"Mildly."

"Curious enough to want to know more?"

"I wouldn't have asked otherwise."

"Honestly, old chap, I wish I could tell you everything I'm doing. But I'm afraid that's not possible."

"Yet you didn't bring me out here just for a game of chess."

"No."

"Then why?"

Taylor chewed on his lip for a moment. "There was a time," he said slowly, "when you were not eager about this war."

Winterbotham said nothing.

"You were rather vocal with your opinions," Taylor said. "Extremely vocal, as I recall. What was it you called Churchill?"

"You know very well," Winterbotham said crisply.

"Of course I do. You called him a warmonger. You don't have many friends in my sphere, old chap, I'll tell you that. Do you know what they call you?"

"I could hazard a guess."

"Go ahead."

"Something along the lines of an appeaser."

"Right again," Taylor said. "You'd have been happy to sit back and watch Hitler take all of Europe, they say, just as long as we were left out of it. Let Germany and Russia take care of each other."

Winterbotham looked at the chessboard, at Taylor's king resting on its side. He took a long drink from the mug in his hand. A dark shadow crossed his face.

"We all make mistakes," he murmured.

"That we do."

"Perhaps that was one of mine."

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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