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The Amateur Spy
US edition

Excerpt: Chapter One

At our end of the island, far from any noisy taverna or buzzing scooter, two owls hold a nightly conversation in the treetops by the sea. They start around midnight, hooting back and forth like village gossips while the landscape stands at attention. The only interruption is the slap and sigh of the Aegean; a timeless incantation which seems to whisper of myth and fallen heroes.

I like to imagine the owls are offering a sort of predator hotline, with frequent updates on the whereabouts of targets in the shadows below. After all, they're the professionals at that sort of business. Maybe that's why I was listening so closely on the night in question. Break their code and I'd learn which creatures were at risk—Freeman Lockhart, power broker of the local animal kingdom, beneficent warlord of meadow and brook.

Obviously I failed. Because nothing in their tone caused me the slightest alarm, yet, shortly after the hooting stopped three predators in gray track suits crept into our bedroom, and later I realized that every creature but me must have detected a warning. Even Mila, shivering at my side until they took me away, bruised and bleeding, had noticed the fellows earlier that day on the ferry from Piraeus.

My only vivid memory of our ocean passage was of Mila herself as she prepared to vomit from the stern. She wasn't prone to seasickness, but there she stood, hands braced against the rail in a swirl of briny mist while gulls hovered just above, awaiting the spoils. Her face was pale, accentuating the underfed look of her sharp features and high cheekbones. She looked as vulnerable as a stowaway, so I took her gently by the shoulders in hopes of steadying her with a little warmth.

"Must be the excitement," she gasped, still holding it inside.

"Probably," I answered, although I suspected trepidation was more to blame. This voyage was our running start to a long-planned leap of faith, our grand exit to a new life. Having given up on the world at large, we had decided to finally get everything right by going it alone. Stakes like those might make anyone queasy.

We had been at sea for several hours, among fifty or so passengers on one of the few remaining smaller boats—or caiques—that still ply these waters. Most people make the crossing to Karos in half the time, on one of the huge hydroplane "fast boats." But Mila and I share an aversion for their towering hulls, wide-body cabins and churning speed. They are as coldly efficient as 747s. Being a firm believer in clean getaways, I am also unsettled by their tremendous wakes, mile-long stripes of foam across the sea, pointing a giant arrow at your route of escape.

Besides, when you're going somewhere for the duration, you want to be attuned to the passing of every mile. So, we opted for the smaller, slower sort of boat we had taken on our first trip to Karos three years earlier. What we hadn't counted on was the bluster of early autumn, which soon built the Aegean into 10-foot waves as the deck heaved beneath us.

The Amateur Spy
UK edition

After a few minutes of unproductive gagging, Mila finally cut loose. The waiting gulls cried sharply in triumph, yellow beaks plucking at her discharge as it streamed toward the foaming water. They fought noisily over the bounty.

"You okay?" I asked, massaging her back.


She barely got the word out. Then she pushed away my hand and thrust her face back toward the water. I made my exit toward the bow, not for lack of empathy but because of the memories she had stirred. The transaction with the gulls reminded me uncomfortably of our recent profession and all its shortcomings. Until a week ago, Mila and I were aid workers for the United Nations, acting as glorified caterers to the world's wars, famines and disasters. Most recently we had supervised feeding centers, handing out rations which at times were scarcely more palatable than what Mila had just offered, and usually to an audience every bit as ravening as the gulls.

Toward the front of the pitching deck, several backpacking young tourists stood with knees flexed and sunburned faces to the wind, riding the rollers like surfers. I grasped the rail, still trying to shake the images that had pursued me from the stern. Closing my eyes I saw skeletal mobs racing through dust clouds toward air-dropped crates of bottled water. Eager hands tore away plastic before the parachute even had time to settle. In the foamy sizzle of the passing sea I detected the crackle of gunfire, and as I re-opened my eyes I imagined the wounded falling by the wayside in the troughs of retreating waves.

The deck bounced as the boat carved another blue swell, and I looked anew at the surroundings, trying to place myself more firmly in the moment. The light was golden, the air mild, and my lips pleasantly salty. The other passengers at the bow seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I should have been, too. Karos was only an hour away.

Just ahead on the horizon lay the isle of Argos. I shielded my eyes for a closer look, but the whitewashed houses seemed to trickle down the island's crags like droplets of spilled milk, yet another reminder of squandered nutrition.

Years ago in Sudan, toward the end of one particularly exhausting day, a village chieftain with arms and legs like pipe cleaners strolled into our makeshift headquarters and, without asking a soul, tacked onto a tent post a little gift from his family. It was an embroidered inscription of the famous Biblical passage from Ecclesiastes, the one about casting your bread upon the waters. I had of course heard it repeated many times—one always does in the aid racket—but it was the latter, lesser-known portion that snagged in my memory now: "Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land."

Indeed you don't. Especially when, thanks to the well-meaning actions of those you hold dearest, you end up with only enough portions for six. But that is another story, and only I am privy to its deepest secrets.

A huge thump of the prow slapped away the thought with a blast of spray. Foaming water swabbed the deck in a bracing dose of autumn, and I gasped in exhilarated relief. I barely managed to keep my footing, and the bearded passenger to my left roared with laughter.

"Almost got us, that one!" he shouted above the wind, a Scotsman by the sound of his accent.

I made the mistake of agreeing in English, which only encouraged him.

"Here on holiday?" he yelled.

"No. We live here." He leaned closer to hear. "As of today, anyway. I've just retired."

"Congratulations! You look too young for it."

"Maybe I am. I'm fifty-five."

"No, no. Everyone should be so bloody lucky. Give me a place in these isles and I'd quit in a fuckin' minute."

Quit was the word for it, all right. But reborn, too. At least, that was the plan.

© Dan Fesperman