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Once a Spy

Once a Spy

3.8 44
by Keith Thomson, Danny Campbell (Read by)

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Drummond Clark was once a spy of legendary proportions.  Now Alzheimer’s disease has taken its toll and he’s just a confused old man who’s wandered away from home, waiting for his son to fetch him. 
When Charlie Clark takes a break from his latest losing streak at the track to bring Drummond back to his Brooklyn home, they


Drummond Clark was once a spy of legendary proportions.  Now Alzheimer’s disease has taken its toll and he’s just a confused old man who’s wandered away from home, waiting for his son to fetch him. 
When Charlie Clark takes a break from his latest losing streak at the track to bring Drummond back to his Brooklyn home, they find it blown sky high—and then bullets start flying in every direction.  At first, Charlie thinks his Russian “creditors” are employing aggressive collection tactics.  But once Drummond effortlessly hot-wires a car as their escape vehicle, Charlie begins to suspect there’s much more to his father than meets the eye.  He soon discovers that Drummond’s unremarkable career as an appliance salesman was actually a clever cover for an elaborate plan to sell would-be terrorists faulty nuclear detonators.  Drummond’s intricate knowledge of the “device” is extremely dangerous information to have rattling around in an Alzheimer’s-addled brain.  The CIA wants to “contain” him--and so do some other shady characters who send Charlie and Drummond on a wild chase that gives  “father and son quality time” a whole new meaning.
With Once a Spy, Keith Thomson makes his debut on the thriller stage with energy, wit, and style to spare.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Huffington Post columnist Thomson’s wildly original debut, a darkly satirical thriller, features an unlikely, if endearing, father-son spy duo: retired appliance salesman Drummond Clark, who at age 64 suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and Charlie Clark, a down-on-his-luck gambler who owes $23,000 to Russian loan sharks. Soon after Charlie rescues Drummond from the Brooklyn streets, where he’d been wandering, the older man’s house blows up and the two barely escape with their lives. Clark and son begin an adrenaline-fueled cross-country flight in which they must evade ruthless CIA assassins long enough to understand why they’re being targeted. During rare moments of lucidity, Drummond hotwires a car and effortlessly kills multiple assailants, suggesting to Charlie he was once much more than just a washing machine salesman. Poignant themes of love and redemption underpin an action-packed story line that includes exotic locales, high-tech gadgetry, and international intrigue. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
A father with Alzheimer's and a son with a gambling problem bond as they fence with some nasty nemeses in this breakneck thriller. A cartoonist for Newsday, Thomson (Gus Openshaw's Whale-Killing Journal, 2006) gets the reader chuckling after his first two sentences and keeps him amused, at least until a standard violence and explosion-filled finish ends this comic chase with a letdown. The author begins on Christmas Eve as Drummond Clark, suffering Alzheimer's, dumps a pot of soup on a plant and starts wandering the streets of Brooklyn in his pajamas. On Christmas, Thomson's son Charlie dumps his late mother's Social Security checks on Great Aunt Edith, who finishes second at Aqueduct, putting Charlie in dire straits with Russian Mafia loan sharks he owes big time. A kindly social-service worker at an outreach center brings Charlie to his father's side. The men barely settle in at Drummond's apartment when the place blows. They jump to safety in the street, where Drummond, now clear-headed, eyes a drunk and a lawyer who turn out to be assassins. Charlie is dumbfounded by the attacks, his father's occasional lucidity and his swift, physical response to danger, something Dad's career as a salesman at Perriman Appliances would not have prepared him for. The two begin a Hitchcock-like junket from New York to Virginia and back again that finds them hijacking a Daily News delivery van, hot-wiring some cars and taking off into the Blue Ridge Mountains on horseback. In moments of clarity, Drummond reveals his job was a cover for CIA work-he sold partly defective weapons to the Viet Cong. Now some nasty characters-the kind who cut the ends of children's fingers to get their godparents to talk-wantto silence Drummond, especially when he starts rambling. The men seem be CIA, but no one along the way remains who or what they seem for long. Thomson's sharp humor, swift pacing and surprising twists are refreshing antidotes to the sober, overcooked, underwritten thrillers crowding the market.
From the Publisher
“An engaging tale of father-and-son redemption wrapped up in a pedal-to-metal thriller that's told with much humor and great enthusiasm, Thomson’s Once a Spy gives the tried-and-true secret-agent suspense a fresh twist.” —The Birmingham News

“An important debut—as well as a welcome breath of fresh air.” —Lincoln Child
“Thomson has made a spy story that sticks.” —Dallas Morning News

“Nonstop action, thrills, and more escapes than Houdini in his lifetime.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“I like my spy thrillers cold, and Once A Spy is as cold as they come, but with a warm sense of honest family dishonesty and violent sense of humor. . . . A wonderfully fun novel of discovery, matching explosive apartments with explosive revelations.”—Rick Kleffel, "The Agony Column"
“This tale of a doddering old spy and his slightly addled son has plenty of twists and turns, and you’ll find it very difficult to put aside.” — The Globe and Mail
“Gripping. . . . A surfeit of suspense, plot twists, mysterious murders, dangerous chases, narrow escapes, thwarted villains and a few triumphs by an unlikely hero or two.” —Birmingham Weekly
“A thriller with an edgy tone. . . . Heart-stopping, full of surprises, dangerous but crazy/funny at the same time. Roadrunner meets Columbo.” —Newark Star-Ledger
Once A Spy is the most enjoyable book I've read this year. Utterly original, it is an adrenaline-fueled concoction of sidesplitting humor and genuine suspense. Think Carl Hiassen taking on John Le Carré and the winner is the reader. What a find! I can't imagine not loving this gem of a novel!” —Christopher Reich
“It takes a huge talent to blow dust from the corners of today's comfortable thriller genre. Keith Thomson has that talent, in spades. Once a Spy is an important debut--as well as a welcome breath of fresh air.” —Lincoln Child
Once a Spy is a wild ride.” —James Bamford
“With great characters, nonstop action, and dark humor, all told in a fresh, energetic voice, Keith Thomson's Once A Spy is the most appealing debut thriller I've read in years.” —Chuck Hogan

Children's Literature - Sarah Maury Swan
Drummond Clark seems to be a typical doddering old man with signs of Alzheimer's impairing his memory, who has retired from selling washing machines. And though indeed he is suffering from Alzheimer's, his job was not what it appeared to be, which means enemies and friends—so-called or genuine—are concerned he will spill vital national security details. His near-do-well son Charlie, whose goals in life are to always pick the winning horse and pay off the Russian mafia type to whom he owes wads of money, inadvertently ends up coming to his father's aid. Together they end up being shot at, kidnapped, and chased from the Brooklyn, NY, to a retirement home for spies in Virginia as Drummond's former colleagues try to get their hands on his information about the supposed nuclear devices Drummond was selling to would-be nuclear powers. Conveniently, Drummond wakes up from his Alzheimer's befuddlement long enough to save himself and Charlie from various assaults. In the end, the two manage to escape and head off for a new life of wealth and freedom. They take along another agent, variously know as Helen and Alice. The book was intriguing enough to keep reading but I got quite confused trying to figure out who all the secondary characters were—what with changing names and lots of bouncing around from one point of view to another. I do hope the copy editor found all the typos before this book was finally published. Reviewer: Sarah Maury Swan

Product Details

Random House Audio Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.16(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.15(d)

Read an Excerpt


Brooklyn was booming. Elsewhere. Drummond Clark's block was still packed with boxy, soot-grayed houses, some settled at odd angles and all so close together they looked like one long soot-grayed building. At holiday time, the patchy displays of festivelights accentuated the cracks as much as anything.  

On this bitter Christmas Eve, Drummond stood hunched in his small kitchen, alternately green and red in the reflection of a neighbor's tree, struggling to open a can of soup for dinner. He wondered how all the years had come to this. No friends, no family.He couldn't remember the last time one of the neighbors had invited him in.  

Granted, a longtime widower wasn't much of a fit in an increasingly young and family-oriented neighborhood. Also the world was increasingly elitist and materialistic, and his station lacked luster: He'd worked in sales at a middling appliance manufacturerfor thirty years. And, he acknowledged, he lacked luster—in sixty-four years, one gets the message. But none of that quite accounted for tonight.  

He knew that there was another explanation. A glaring one.  

"What is it again?" he asked himself.  

He couldn't put a finger on it. He hoped the effort of getting his creaky can opener to do its job would jog his memory.  

It didn't. But at least he got the can open. A cylinder of chicken and stars slid out and plopped into the pot.  

Hunger and anticipation kept him by the stove. When the soup came to a boil, he lifted the pot from the burner and hurried to the worn butcher-block table. His bowl, napkin, and soup spoon waited in a neat row.  

He bypassed the table and emptied the soup onto the waist-high plastic fern by the side door.      

An electronic sputter burst over the pair of miniature speakers in the attic three doors up the block. The tenants in the house were four clean-cut young men who claimed to be Brooklyn Polytechnic grad students. The one who went by Pitman didn't know whatto make of the noise. Sitting at the other end of the Ping-Pong table the "grad students" used as a desk, Dewart appeared equally puzzled. Like "Pitman," "Dewart" was a pseudonym, probably chosen at random. Pitman liked to think it had been inspired by Dewart'sresemblance to Jimmy Stewart.  

Glancing at his monitor, Dewart said, "Whatever the hell it is, it's coming from number six. Which is six again?"  

"Checking," said Pitman. He pass-coded his way into a roster of electronic surveillance devices. "Probably one of the fiber-freaking-ops."  

The fiber-optical microphones each operated using light waves transmitted by a cable thinner than a human hair, and they wonderfully defied metal and nonlinear junction detectors. But they were famously temperamental, with polymer lithium batteries thatneeded changing every nine days—best-case. On this job that meant sneaking into Drummond's house when he was out, which had been seldom since his disability leave began.  

Ordinarily Pitman would have sent the devices in and out of the house's ventilation system fitted to crawlers, robots the size of a common cockroach. Or he would have used mikes that drew power from the house itself, wired into the back of a light switchwall plate, for instance. A pinhole video camera concealed behind a mirror would have been nice too. The problem with such "simple" devices here was their relative ease of detection.  

"Yep, fiber-op," he relayed to Dewart, "in the planter in the kitchen."  

"Any idea what's up with it?"  

"A short, maybe?"  

"How could that happen?"  

"Maybe he thought he was watering the plant."  

"All his plants are plastic."  

"Good point." Trying to ignore his rising anxiety, Pitman mouse-clicked to the feed from 20-N and 20-S, nickel-sized pinhole video cameras he'd painted the local streetlamp-gray and wired onto streetlamps at either end of the block.  

His display showed a block devoid of motion except flickering Christmas lights and a wind-tossed bar coaster—he could read the Schlitz logo. He could also see Drummond's side door dangling open. Drummond kept the door triple locked as a rule, except whentaking out the trash. The alley was empty aside from garbage cans.  

Pitman felt as if he'd been kicked in the stomach. "We need the JV," he said. His mind was a feverish montage of the potential consequences of losing Drummond, including several scenarios in which one of the "junior varsity" players climbed to the atticand, on orders from above, drew a gun—end of scene.  

Yes, surveillance units lost targets all the time, even much bigger and more sophisticated surveillance units—Pitman had heard of an eighty-person team in floating box formation that lost its target when the wheel artist's car was cut off by a flock ofkindergartners and a stubborn crossing guard.  

But Drummond Clark wasn't just any target, of course.        


At six the next morning, a disagreeably frosty Christmas, Charlie Clark was the lone passenger on the Q11 bus rattling past a desolate stretch of Queens Boulevard discount stores, fast food restaurants, and office buildings in decline or awaiting demolition.He saw that the driver, a pleasant, fresh-faced man around his own age—thirty—was looking him over in the rearview mirror. Even when Charlie wore old sneakers and jeans torn at the knees, like now, strangers mistook him for a yuppie.  

The driver called back, "Going out to the island to be with family?"  

Charlie weighed telling the truth. The thing was, over the engine rumble and the thumping of tires in and out of potholes, he'd heard a certain wistfulness in the driver's voice. Also, when boarding, he'd noticed the driver's thick wedding band and a snapshotof two little girls taped to the fare box. Charlie figured that, preposterously early this morning, the guy had had to pry himself away from the warm bosom of his family to come spend his Christmas breathing icy diesel fumes, dodging tipsy holiday drivers,and enduring the recorded voice's plodding recitation of the rules of disembarkation at every stop, even when no one disembarked. So probably he wouldn't be cheered to learn it amounted to chauffeuring an inveterate gambler to the track.  

"I'm going to see Great Aunt Edith," Charlie said.  

Great Aunt Edith was a filly.  

The bus driver glowed as if his fare box had been replaced by an open fire. Charlie was warmed as well. To keep the poor bastard's buzz going, he got off a stop before Aqueduct Racetrack, at a neighborhood of quaint but tired little brick and shingle housesthat might well be populated exclusively by great aunts.  

It meant walking a couple of extra blocks. He shivered, but not because of the cold.  

It was the debt.        


The Big A opened in 1894. Many horseplayers called it the Big H, for heaven, especially on sunny days when the breeze lofted an aromatic blend of hay, freshly mowed grass, and horses into the sweeping, twin-tiered grandstand.  

Charlie had spent a good part of the past ten years in the grandstand but developed no such sentiments. He thought of the ancient colossus as the weight of one more stubbly guy in a stained shirt away from collapse—when he thought about it at all. Hisfocus was almost always on the races or the goings-on before and after: happy snorts, dragging hooves, extra steps. While stubbly guys all around him were crumpling tickets from the race that had just ended and muttering about their luck, he drank up clues.  

A few months ago, he had noticed a colt take an extra step on the way to the stalls, avoiding a puddle. He read it as aversion to water and filed it away until six weeks afterward, when it was raining in Louisville, the Downs were mud, and the same coltwas favored—the exact scenario Charlie had gotten out of bed hoping for every day in the preceding six weeks. Betting the consensus second pick netted him a sporty new Volvo, which was almost as exhilarating as the twentieth of a second during which the horsecrossed the wire.  

In a race last weekend at Gulfstream, with five horses already finished, Great Aunt Edith was lumbering behind by too many lengths to count. As usual. Charlie had already lost a hundred on the bay who finished fourth. Everyone else at the Big A viewingthe simulcast, holding suddenly worthless tickets too, went into crumple-and-mutter mode. Charlie watched the entire race, as always.  

With an eighth to go, he was rewarded by the sight of Great Aunt Edith's abrupt and unprecedented transformation into a locomotive. He smelled a rare ruse known as "hiding form," in which a horse racks up a record as a plodder but secretly is a bulletin workouts watched only by his owner and trainer. They intentionally hold him back in races with the objective of a betting bonanza the day they finally let him loose.  

There was no better time to come out of hiding than the day after Christmas, when the betting pool was fattened by a grandstand packed with first timers and other fish who always pick the favorite. If Edith's people had such designs, her jockey would airit out in today's workout, and he could do so without the usual security precautions because Aqueduct was closed on Christmas.  

Practically swollen with anticipation, Charlie hit the buzzer outside Aqueduct's administrative offices. His friend Mickey Ramirez appeared at the door. Mickey worked security here because, like most everyone else who worked at the track, he liked thehorses too much. Otherwise he would have still been a successful private investigator in Manhattan. He was forty-two, of average height, and, because the refreshment stand eased the pain of bad bets, nearing three hundred pounds. His single attractive feature—thickand satiny black hair, worn long—emphasized the defects of the rest. His default setting—gloomy—worsened at the sight of Charlie now.  

"You can't come in," he said through the glass.  

"Happy Christmas back at you," Charlie said, unruffled.  

"So you know it's Christmas?"  

"No, I say that every day, just in case."  

"You do know it's the one day of the year tracks are closed, right?"  

"I didn't want you to have to spend it alone, old friend. Also, by the by, I want to see the workouts."  

"It'd be my ass if I let you in, man. You know that."  

"I know, I know, but here's the thing: I've had a run of rotten luck lately—"  

"Don't get me started on hard-luck stories."  

"—and I'm into Grudzev for twenty-three G's."  

Mickey softened. "Shit."  

Charlie breathed some warmth back into his hands. "Assuming Phil at the pawnshop has the holiday spirit, I'm short by north of fifteen. If I don't have it by tomorrow night, Grudzev's going to fill a cup with sand."  

"And make you drink it?"  

"Why would I care if he's just filling a cup with sand?"  

"That could kill you, couldn't it?"  

"Either way, it's a decent threat, don't you think?"  

"Fuck, borrowing from a dude like that—what were you thinking?"  

Charlie felt foolish. "That the horse was going to win," he said. He could have cited several times that Mickey had been in a similar predicament. Once he not only bailed Mickey out, he paid his rent. Which, come to think of it, he'd never gotten back.  

"I hear you, man," Mickey said. He opened the door a crack but didn't move to let Charlie in. "You'll cut me in, yeah?"  

This meant Mickey would allow Charlie inside if, in return, he related anything he saw that might affect the outcome of a race. Charlie bristled at the notion. For him, the thrill of winning was being right when everyone else was wrong. Where in the worldbut the track can a person get that? The thrill was diluted when other handicappers copied his homework; for the same reason, he was loath to bet based on another horseplayer's tip, even if it were to come by way of the horse's mouth.  

"Cutting in" had a cost too. Odds at the track aren't set by the house, like at casinos, but rather by the money bet per horse—the more bet, the lower the odds. By cutting someone in, Charlie was lowering the odds on his pick, which was tantamount togiving away his own money, which was tantamount to nuts.  

He thought of it simply as the price of admission today. Mickey could blab to everyone in his wide ring of tip traders, and still Great Aunt Edith would pay ten to one, more than enough for Charlie to pay off Grudzev and—what the hell—give him a Christmasbonus.      

There were train compartments bigger than Mickey's office. Charlie huddled with him by a monitor that showed a skewed, gray-green security camera feed of Great Aunt Edith's supposedly private workout. The filly was running even slower than usual, likeshe resented having to work on the holiday. Charlie came to the nauseating conclusion that Gulfstream had been a fluke.  

Mickey turned to him and asked, "What do you care about Edith for anyhow? I wouldn't bet her if she was the only horse in the race."  

A jolt of excitement deprived Charlie of the ability to reply. The filly had accelerated to the point that a bullet would have had difficulty keeping pace.        


"My name is John Lewis," the man said with certainty. He'd been just as certain a minute ago that he was Bill Peterson.  

"Do you know where you live?" Helen asked.  

The man shrugged.  

"Do you know where you are now?"  


"The town in upstate New York?"  

"Don't know it."  

Despite two sweaters, social worker Helen Mayfield sat huddled against her tiny desk at Brooklyn's Prospect Park Senior Outreach Center; at least the piles of folders full of lost causes provided a buffer against the draft. And the draft was no bothercompared to the square dance class. The wall between her office and the rec room was so thin, it felt like the dance caller was hollering directly into her ear.  

Not unrelated was the migraine, like a railroad spike through the base of her skull and into her left eye. Then there was the pharmacy three blocks away, where she might obtain a remedy. Closed December 25, sure. But also today, December 26.  

For St. Stephen's Day!  

She could help the man sitting at her desk, though. So everything else was relegated to minor annoyance.  

He looked to be in his early sixties. Five-ten or eleven, weight about right, plain features. He had a moderate amount of white hair and an average amount of wrinkles and spots. His muscles were firm, but not so much that anyone would notice, except onclose inspection. He'd spent the last two nights here after volunteers in a Meals on Wheels van spotted him wandering Brooklyn yesterday afternoon in just the flannel pajamas and bedroom slippers he still wore. He had no wallet, no watch or jewelry, no identifyingmarks. And then there was his accent, or, really, the lack of one. He could be anyone from anywhere. 


Meet the Author

KEITH THOMSON is a former semi-pro baseball player in France, an editorial cartoonist for Newsday, a filmmaker with a short film shown at Sundance, and a screenwriter who currently lives in Alabama. He writes on intelligence and other matters for the Huffington Post.

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Once a Spy 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 42 reviews.
embe1 More than 1 year ago
I found the characters in Once a Spy to be interesting, sad, and at times, funny. The premise was original and thought-provoking and I have recommended it to several friends.
bob53EB More than 1 year ago
This very quirky premise works in a manner that I would have never imagined before reading this novel. Taking a subject matter as serious as Dementia/Alzheimer's Disease and combine it with the "spy" world is genius as far as I'm concerned. This pairing provides fast paced action that I desire in a mystery/adventure story while bringing to light the truth that many people of my generation face today, that of caring for a parent who has part time diminished mental capabilities. Mr. Thomson should be congratulated for granting the reader a wonderful, hard-to-put-down thriller that is a must read for those who are partial to this genre.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
these books are good but, yikes, everything is so out there, gets crazy but then I can't put it down
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One of the best books I've read this summer. The plot is original and the characters had me laughing. Recommended to all the readers I know!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book!  It was fun, intriguing, and a little sad all at the same time.  I loved how the relationship between the father and son developed throughout the story; how they both changed.  Only a few curse words, no sex scenes, which I really appreciated.  I would highly recommend this book!
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Great read great concept love it
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michah More than 1 year ago
I was not expecting this to be as good as it was. Enjoy
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