an excerpt from Play Ball
by Ann St Clair, read more here
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.
“Reckless, 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.”
When Josh left to take the cameras to the office, Phoebe pulled her body tight around itself. She was facing an unremarkable copy of a still life on the wall across the room. It’s central image was a bowl of white tulips with red streaks on a red-figured ground, but she scarcely noticed. She couldn’t close her eyes, and she couldn’t quiet her mind. Was it so-far-so good? Or over-the-top failure?
an excerpt from My Native Land
by Ann St Clair, read more here
“You’re not John Aptworth’s daughter!” said the middle aged man with a drink in each hand. They were standing near an enormous window that gave on the East River with its bridges and islands and white lights. His accent had an American southwest twang, and he’d customized his formal dress with shiny snakeskin cowboy boots.
The last time Phoebe had been recognized this way, the stranger confronting her had had her dragged through several seas and along the edges of two continents. Now she reacted as a stoic would to being slapped.
The man didn’t wait for a reply. “You married that Hollywood type who just showed up in the Israeli delegation.”
“You seem to have the advantage of me,” she said coolly, and stuck out her hand to watch him juggle his two glasses. “Phoebe Aptworth.”
“Jim Flood.” He set the champagne flute on the floor but continued clutching his whiskey tumbler in his left hand. Despite his general instability, his grip was firm. “From Provost. Utah. Originally. Awhile ago. These days, I commute in and out of the city from Westchester.”
“Ah,” she said. “My husband and I enjoy living in town.”
“I knew your dad. He was a cagey sonnofabitch. Real Jew lover.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard of your father. Was he one of the Floods descended from a survivor of the Donner Party?”
He took a big gulp of his whiskey and watched her pivot to turn back into the crowd. “Uh, wait. We may have got off on the wrong foot here.”
“You think?” she said over her shoulder going away.
“Wait. I’m a westerner; we’re a little more straightforward.” He snorted at her pointedly rigid back and neck; and then headed toward the bar.
Phoebe caught up with Josh near one of the food stations where he introduced her to an Italian couple and a Frenchman with a title. More than fifteen minutes went by before they were alone together.
“Do you know an older guy named Jim Flood? Cowboy boots? Claims to be from Utah?”
Josh shook his head. “Not yet.”
“Well he knows us. Anti-Semite. Called my dad a son-of-a-bitch-Jew-lover.”
“Nice,” said Josh. “Real diplomat.”
“I can’t claim I was diplomatic either; I retaliated by suggesting he was the great, great grandson of a cannibal.”
“How’d that come up?” Josh couldn’t stop laughing. “Doesn’t matter.”
Phoebe started to laugh too—but not heartily, or long. “Oh God, here he comes.”
Flood had drunk enough by now to eat some humble pie, but not a huge slab of it.
Josh stuck out his hand and looked him in the eye. “Dantel. Josh Dantel. My wife was just telling me about you.” He glanced at Flood’s snakeskin boots. “She says you knew my late father-in-law?”
“Well, I….” Suddenly the marble floor seemed slippery.
“What do you hear from Duncan Aptworth these days?” Josh asked.
“That’s a relief,” said Phoebe to Josh in a matter of fact voice. “I was beginning to think he might be keeping tabs on us.”
Charley Ben-Canaan brought over another new contact and the Aptworth/Dantels excused themselves and turned away.
an excerpt from Marta Byrd
by Ann St Clair, read more here
In the glow of The Crimson Poppy, they’d discovered it was too late for Marta to catch the last train. Now she was overtired and she winced as their taxi rattled violently under the tunnel at Seventy-Ninth Street. She felt hesitant about staying the night with Kornel.
“Do not worry about being with me overnight, Marta. You will be perfectly safe,” he said in his warm baritone. “Besides, there is a great, protective hound in the vicinity of this entrance to the park. The man who gave me this necktie met it here almost ten years ago.”
“A hound? On its own?” From the moment she’d noticed Kornel’s elegant, crested tie, she’d been curious. Now he was entangling it with the tale of an outsized animal.
“I was not there. I know only what my friend, Declan—Declan Downpatrick—Perhaps you have read his pieces in ‘The New York Times?”—I can tell only what Declan told me. It was at this time of the year and this time of the night. Declan said he sensed some menace; his heart hammered wildly. When he pivoted on the path, he saw only shadows among shadows. He moved faster, but felt heavy weights on his shoulders and he turned his head to find that he was face to face with a heavy-jowled dog. He shook his shoulders violently: the dog’s huge paws remained. He walked faster, and the dog kept pace—until they were both nearly running.
“From that time, they raced through the park and into the tunnel. Noises on each side grew louder, more discordant. Each time he looked behind, the dog’s golden eyes engaged his in a serious but friendly way as if to reassure him. They emerged from the tunnel in lock step. Now it was completely dark. The dog stood like a sentinel, continuing to rest its paws on Declan’s shoulders as he waited for the traffic light to change. When it turned red and my friend was able to cross into the street where other people raced along ignoring him, he said he felt lighter. And when he looked again, the dog was gone.”
They both remained silent for a minute.
“I think I’ve read that angels take the form of big dogs to protect people in danger,” said Marta finally.
“But do you believe in it? I mean….”
Their cab had slowed to a stop in front of a building on Riverside Drive which had an Egyptian style façade. Kornel paid the driver and walked around to open Marta’s door. As they crossed the sidewalk toward the entrance, she noticed she was missing something.
“I have only one of my gloves and I know I was wearing both of them when I left the restaurant.”
“Let me…” Kornel began.
But she left him standing near one of a pair of fat columns with his half-formed sentence in his mouth and his right arm gesturing toward the cabby. The driver pretended to be writing in his log as Marta pulled open the back door, exclaiming: “Am I lucky you’re still here! I think I left…. Here it is.” She waved the found glove toward Kornel, who smiled and beckoned.
“I thought I’d heard every line in the book,” the cabby said, half-turning toward Marta and shaking his head as she ducked back out. “But that dog story beats ‘em all. Ya gotta watch out for these foreigners, Lady.”