What is it like to be the child of a spy, or to be a spy oneself? What is it like to be born and brought up in one country and become a spy for another? Phoebe Aptworth, a sheltered young English professor born in Washington, DC, whose childhood was shadowed by an absent, charismatic father and a sad, angry mother agrees to house sit in the Berkshires one summer after her mother’s death, meets a charming man next door, and finds herself embroiled in foreign intrigue. The man, Josh Dantel, is an American archeologist turned Mossad agent who has become a professional disappointment, so he has agreed to seduce Phoebe into working with him in order to convince the British to help Israel stop Iran’s nuclear plans. This may be his last chance to do something meaningful in the world; then he falls in love with Phoebe.
“We’re just people,” Phoebe tells her furious brother, Ted after he realizes that she and her new husband work for a foreign state. “At least,” he argues, their father was in OSS and CIA. “Not much of a family man, but he worked for his own country.” Sharing banter and black humor, Josh and Phoebe struggle with secrets and lies, loyalty and loss, violence and revenge, and they increasingly feel themselves outsiders in an outsiders’ club. But their lives are only one yes, one defiant gesture away from ours.
They are excited by the raised stakes and heightened dangers of their careers, confused by their lawless choices and the challenges to their consciences. They are unnerved by enforced boredom and hiding in plain sight. While they operate in the optimistic, controversial time of the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990’s, Phoebe sees she’s stepped from the fringes of turmoil to its center. Mossad doesn’t simply plot to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons development, it kills Iranian nuclear scientists. Josh, Phoebe and their friends don’t run toward explosions like firemen and policemen, they set the explosives.
They work hard at living ordinary lives, but they change their house alarm codes constantly, never take trains or buses unless it’s part of a mission, and feel naked when they aren’t carrying concealed weapons. They are devoted to their families, yet they avoid them to escape lying to them. They don’t practice self defense, they do Krav Maga, offensive hand to hand combat. They don’t seek peace, they aggressively pursue it. The Aptworth/Dantels are in love with wild ideas, romantic risks, two countries and each other—but not always at the same time.
While they’re both sustained by fellow eccentrics, tempted by violence, and limited by the restrictions of their secretive craft, Phoebe marvels that hard-bitten field officers cling to the perceived idealism of her dead father, and sees that she and Josh are driven by adrenaline and dare. In the end, they are just people, people playing a game they hide in and hide from others. As they tear from country to country, they sometimes laugh, sometimes learn, and sometimes find adventure is its own reward. The final, convoluted secret is why.
That day Phoebe Aptworth got a taste of her first caper. Her partner Josh Dantel had spent the previous evening in their safe house tracking potential arms dealers with his cell and his laptop, using Mossad software and restricted sites. Before bed, he’d produced two ordinary looking cameras from the safe. Any American tourist could be found with either one, but these had been modified to make them faster, easier, more accurate than anything on the commercial market. Josh would photograph two men he thought were planning to meet on London Bridge during the crowded lunch hour. One was an I.R.A. operative, the other–according to his visa application–was an Iranian medical student.
“I’ll concentrate on getting clear shots, date and time stamped of these guys together and document their ID’s for the Brits this weekend.”
“What’s my part?” Phoebe was frightened, but excited about her first job for Israeli Secret Service.
It was to be the-romantic-couple-on-a-foreign-vacation scenario. She and Josh would build the narrative together. Then he would hand it off to her to create a diversion while he photographed the suspects. The couple dressed in designer t-shirts, jeans, and expensive running shoes. Josh wore a summer jacket with his smallest pistol tucked in the back of his belt; as usual, he’d strapped a knife to his calf, but on the surface, he was an All-American preppy.
They took the tube from Kensington High Street to Westminster and seemed to wander among buildings and monuments that could have been constructed so their pictures would grace postcards. Josh appeared aware of nothing but Phoebe. He flirted, and photographed her; she flirted, and photographed him in return—until it dawned on her that he was much too practiced, much too convincing and relaxed.
Josh had found his targets; he gave the signal. Drawn in, suddenly angry and confused at once (I’ve only signed a temporary contract. He spends his life at this.), Phoebe tipped backward as planned against the railing of London Bridge, snapping pictures of the skyline. She leaned out farther and farther, laughing falsely and waving her camera to get the attention of passersby who moved in a surprised, ragged rush to keep her from toppling into the Thames. During the commotion, Josh got several quick shots of the suspected collaborators as they raced away; then he let the camera thud against his chest and pushed through the crowd to pull Phoebe into his arms.
“Too reckless,” he hissed into her hair.
Their little fan club murmured approval, and one or two tourists applauded as if watching a show. He thanked them and pressed her into a cab seconds before two bobbies arrived at the scene on bicycles. Josh said nothing to the driver, who silently rolled them past Temple Bar and Blackfriars, up to Covent Garden and twice around Piccadilly clogged as usual with cars. Josh gripped Phoebe’s hand so tightly she feared for its smaller bones. By the time the taxi looped casually through Kensington, they’d pulled themselves together. They climbed to the curb in front of their building looking completely steady. Josh reached in his pocket and leaned toward the driver with something in his hand as if money were being exchanged.
Upstairs he disarmed and rearmed the security system and turned to look at her. “What if those strangers hadn’t reached you in time? I was too far away.”
“I was being enthusiastic, and anyway I can swim,” she bluffed—refusing to acknowledge she’d nearly pitched over, and was secretly vowing that she would never lose control like that again.
“Christ, Phoebe. As the man in the movie said, ‘the fall alone will kill ya.’ But you were good for a rookie—until you scared the hell out of me.”
Determined to look calm, she was sitting on the generic sofa with one arm self-consciously draped along its back. “Well, did you get good pictures?”
He may have been seeing her for the first time. “We have to develop the film, but we might have something convincing to show MI6.”
“There is another world, but it is in this one.”
“It’s an old, old, old variation on the very oldest of themes.”
—Ira Gershwin, Words Without Music
Nice Guys Finish Last
—title of Leo Durocher’s first book
“Innovation is disobedience that succeeds.”
—Albert Einstein, as paraphrased by Xavier Abadie, internationally known poultry farmer
“I know the path. It is straight and narrow… like the edge of a sword.”
“Baseball is violence under wraps.”
—Willie Mays, The Baseball Almanac
“How much—how little—is within our power.”
—Emily Dickinson, In this short life
“All of the great problems in life are physical, that is to say, spiritual.”
—note on a postcard from William Matthews
“The children of this world are wise in the ways of this world.”
“The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.”
—Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
“A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.”
—Francis Bacon, Of Revenge
“Boost yourself over the wall of your ambition. The real game’s on the other side.”
—John Aptworth in conversation
“Play it like you don’t know how to play.”
“Beloved, stay with me…
Speak to my heart, keep your hand in my hand.”
—Rabindranah Tagore, Beloved, stay
“This dream is short, but this dream is happy.”
—Manuel Puig, The Kiss of the Spider Woman
“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
“Every human is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“I’m glad I learned to play hard ball when I was a little girl.”
—Hillary Clinton to a group of former baseball players
“Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people and I have come down to bring them up unto a good land, unto a land of milk and honey.”
“We all hang by a thread from the hand of an angry God.”
—Jonathan Edwards, Sermon
“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
“It helps if the hitter thinks you’re a little crazy.”
“He that ruleth his spirit [is better] than he that taketh a city.”
“Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.”
—The Song of Solomon
“Great hatred, little room maimed us at the start.”
—W.B. Yeats, Remorse for Intemperate Speech
“Morality is a private and costly luxury.”
—Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams
“The sword shall devour forever.”
“Death in itself is nothing; but we fear
To be we know not what, we know not where.”
—John Dryden, Aureng-Zebe