A Handful of Kings

A Novel

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About The Book

With explosive tension and masterful suspense, A Handful of Kings is a page-turning thriller about what really happens in the world of espionage, by an insider who has lived it.

American diplomat Vicky Sorrell learns the hard way that all is fair in love -- and espionage. A Handful of Kings, the latest novel by prolific author and former foreign service officer Mark Jacobs, follows Vicky's fast-paced tour of duty -- one where she must decide who the bad guys are, who is lying, and who just might be telling the dangerous truth.

Vicky is changing her life. She is leaving the foreign service and her lover at the same time. But before she departs the U.S. embassy in Madrid for home, a well-known American writer shows up with a strange request. Vicky knows that what the writer wants from her is not necessarily what he is asking. But curiosity leads her to play along, and she is quickly drawn into the murky underground of terrorists and spies into which the writer himself has been reluctantly led. The track she takes is full of wrong turns. And at the end of the tunnel, it's not light she sees but an unspeakable threat to people she loves.

Recalling Graham Greene in The Comedians, Jacobs weaves an engrossing story that takes place over three continents and illuminates the unexpected ways people betray and defend one another and, ultimately, how they learn to love.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

An American woman of thirty-three, standing on a very old black iron balcony in a very old Spanish village at night, was supposed to get a serenade, not a tirade. Vicky Sorrell got a tirade. The moon was bright. Night-blooming jasmine on a trellis in the garden below shot up sticks of sweet fragrance in her direction. One street away, a restless dog yapped. It was late. Inside the Claustro Cobalto, everybody was asleep. And below her in the cobbled plaza, totally pissed, Wyatt Willis ragged on her in a voice bigger than he was.

"Goddamn it, Vicky, this is your fault," he shouted up at her. He waited a moment, appreciating the echo of the shout he had loosed in the plaza. Then for some reason he repeated his accusation in Spanish. "Tú tienes la culpa."

"Shut up, Wyatt. You'll wake up everybody in the neighborhood." She wondered why she was shouting, too, and why shouting felt so good.

The Claustro Cobalto took up the north end of the plaza. Wyatt yelled something outrageous and insightful linking constant love with constant betrayal, and a light was switched on behind a shutter in a low, dark house in the middle of the south end. He went on for a couple of minutes, then stopped and struggled to come up with the Spanish equivalent. It was a paraphrase, but when he got there his string of accusations sounded even better in Spanish, which was known for its iron categories describing sin and guilt and individual responsibility.

A second light went on inside the bedroom of a house on the little plaza's eastern edge. Vicky and Wyatt were making a scene. They were diplomats. Diplomats were not supposed to cut loose in public -- being discreet was one of the rules of the profession. Vicky was tired of obeying the rules of her profession. Wyatt wasn't tired of the rules, he was just drunk. And angrier at her than she had believed it was possible for him to be. In the year and a half that they had been together, she had never heard him shout before. She could not help feeling a sense of accomplishment at being the cause of his explosion.

"Victoria Sorrell," he hollered, "You tricked me! You made me come here!"

"Here" was a bright white town in a cove on the western nub of the Costa de la Luz. Sor Epi was heavy with history. According to legend, for a brief period at the end of the fifteenth century, paving stones bled in the village, gulls became doves, cooking pots sang, horses grew wings, and the hands of women making love with stone-hearted men turned into flames.

But Vicky was not in the mood to carry the load of grief Wyatt was trying to unload on her. "You're drunk." She pointed out the obvious to him, more loudly than was strictly necessary, to get his attention. "You'll say anything as long as it makes me feel bad and you feel good. Go away. I don't want to talk to you anymore, Wyatt, do you hear me?"

How could he not hear her? If he hadn't provoked her, she would not have put so many decibels behind it.

More lights were being turned on around the plaza. She heard sleepy voices muttering and wooden shutters sliding in wooden casements. Drunk as he was, Wyatt noticed, too, that between them they had woken everybody who lived on the Plaza de la Suprema Visión. "Tú tienes la culpa," he hollered again. As long as they were all awake, he wanted people to know it was her fault, Victoria Sorrell's, the cultural attaché from the American embassy in Madrid. Not his.

"Damned drunk Americans." Vicky heard a man pronounce the sentence. He was leaning out of the window in the front room of his house. In the moonlight his white pajamas took on a spectral sheen. He lit a cigarette. After the match flared, smoke hung like small weather above his head, and he coughed his disapproval.

Behind him in the high, narrow window, his wife finished his sentence for him. "Think they own the world."

Two or three doors down from them, somebody amplified what the wife said, adding his own opinion, and everybody within earshot laughed.

Wyatt loved having an audience. He was a born performer. That was one of the reasons he was so good at his job. Consular officers had to connect with the visa applicants they interviewed even while separated from them by bulletproof glass. The good ones understood public relations as well as they understood consular law. Wyatt Willis was one of the good ones, a one-man refutation of the image of the heartless foreign service officer. But he was used to working on a small stage. Having a whole plaza as his theater went to his head.

Ignoring the sleepers he had woken and playing to them at the same time, he backed his way to the center of the plaza, jumped onto the iron bench that went around the stone fountain, then slipped and almost fell into the pool of water. A few people clapped, not because they wanted to see the American diplomat fall and make a fool of himself, but because Sor Epi was a village, after all, and entertainment was entertainment, and a live-wire walk was better than television any day. Even those who didn't care for the show seemed tolerant of the interruption of their sleep.

Wyatt steadied himself and told anybody who wanted to listen, "It's her fault."

"What's her fault?" Someone helped him along.

"She invited me to come with her to Sor Epi just so she could tell me she was tired of me. We live in Madrid. You know, Madrid, la capitál de España? Don Quixote slept there. But this one" -- he shook his head, aiming an accusatory finger at Vicky on the black balcony -- "this one was afraid to tell me the truth in Madrid. The truth is, she's leaving me. Is that fair? Of course it's not fair. Not after..." But then he lost his train of thought.

"An intelligent woman," said one man. From the balcony on the second floor of the pensión, Vicky couldn't see where he was, but she respected his point of view, his calm analytical perspective on her relationship with Wyatt.

"I'm being abandoned," Wyatt clarified for everyone.

"Why don't you say it straight?" said a woman. "She dumped you." She sounded like a person who knew all about being dumped.

"It's time for everybody to sleep," another woman decided, less charitable than her neighbors, or less curious. "Even the drunks. Even American drunks."

But Wyatt wasn't willing to give up either his audience or his rearguard action to keep Vicky from leaving him. Jumping down from the bench he wobbled a little, then made a slow, crazy-legs circuit around the plaza like a dancer who didn't know much about choreography; he had the moves, but nowhere to put them. As he circled he went on ragging. He must have realized it didn't matter much if most of what he said to her came out in English. His Spanish was unraveling, but no one had any difficulty following his end of the story.

Vicky's Spanish, by contrast, stayed impeccable under stress. Even the difficult tenses came out correctly, and she had all the vocabulary the situation called for. She knew she had to play her part in Wyatt's public spectacle with conviction or everyone would be disappointed. And if they were disappointed she would lose their sympathy. As it was, it seemed to her that the population around the Plaza of the Supreme Vision -- they were all awake by now, including little children -- had roughly divided their sympathy between jilter and jilted. It was impossible to say for sure, but there seemed to be no gender bias in the breakdown. Some of the men were clearly taking Vicky's side, while a handful of the women made clucking noises of solidarity every time Wyatt stopped to breathe.

Vicky wasn't sure why she cared to have their sympathy, except that Wyatt had made it a contest, and she didn't like to lose contests.

"I'm coming up," he warned her when the play began to lose its appeal to the villagers. Wyatt had a phenomenal feel for people's reactions to him. That was partly why he was so good at his job. Even drunk, even desperate, he knew when it was time to stop performing.

"Don't come up," she told him in Spanish. "It's over, Wyatt. Se acabó."

It came out peremptory and cruel. The force of her words made him stagger to the bench by the fountain, where he collapsed. His shoulders sagged. His weeping was the real thing. But even the women who sympathized with the handsome young American diplomat remembered that they were tired, and that morning came early along the Costa de la Luz, and that the drama they were watching belonged, after all, to somebody else. After a few moments, before Vicky left the balcony and went inside the room she had shared with Wyatt, he was crying without an audience.

Wyatt was right. Vicky had lured him to Sor Epi to tell him it was over. In retrospect she realized it was a stupid way to go about doing what she had decided to do. The village was too small. They couldn't get away from each other in Sor Epi. They were the only English speakers within a radius of ten kilometers. But she had worried about telling him in Madrid, where Wyatt had too many friends. He would have enlisted them to help fight her decision, which he would go on believing was a whim that could be undone with the right word, if only he could find it, say it, make her hear it. He would have sent envoys to her apartment to persuade her to try again. And Vicky, notwithstanding her enjoyment of the scene in the plaza, was a person who preferred to conduct her private life out of sight of the rest of the world. Inside the embassy community, she and Wyatt were tagged. They were an item. Even Ambassador Duffey made something of a deal out of inviting them both to official dinners.

So she talked Wyatt into a long weekend away from the embassy and told him in a sherry bar, "I'm leaving."

Her decisiveness cut like the real thing. It sliced him in two, coming out of her mouth like hardness of heart. She had overcompensated. All she wanted was for him to acknowledge that she was serious, but she hit her target and then some.

Wyatt, being Wyatt, needed to hear the specifics. "Do you mean leaving the bar? Leaving Sor Epi? Are you trying to tell me you're leaving me, Vicky?"

"I'm leaving the foreign service." If he didn't get it, he didn't want to get it. That much, at least, was not her fault.

Half a small glass of sherry was percolating through his system. His laugh was a nervous bark. The snapping sound caused the wall-eyed bartender in La Viñalesca to look harder in the other direction, scrupulously away from their messy domestic comedy, the sort of stormy relationship you saw in the imported television series that people in the village watched every week.

La Viñalesca was maybe the only sherry bar in Spain that had not been written up in the guidebooks. The wood of the tables and chairs, the wood of the bar and the casks behind it, the dry, smooth wood of the floorboards had outlasted political change and fashion shifts and intergenerational strife. Even the grime on the posters commemorating thirty years of sherry festivals in Andalusia had the appearance of an artifact preserved.

When Vicky saw that Wyatt was unwilling to take in what she was telling him, she pushed, forcing him to hear the details that proved she was serious about breaking up. "When we get back to Madrid, I'm sending the papers to Washington. I filled them out last weekend. It's happening, Wyatt. My foreign service career is over."

"You can't." He was shaking his head slowly as though even considering the prospect made it ache. "You're the only patriot in the foreign service, Vicky."

He tried to hang on to normalcy, passed her the crockery plate of olives before taking one himself. For the moment he was calm, almost detached, as though they were discussing the quality of the sherry he poured from the dark bottle into her light glass. Then he rocked back on the hind legs of his round-shouldered chair, brought it to rest on the floor again, and drummed the fingers of both hands on the surface of the wooden table like a honky-tonk piano man. She saw understanding go through him like a shudder.

"This isn't about my patriotism," she said. "It's about -- "

But he wouldn't let her finish. "Now is exactly not the time to leave the service. Now is when they need people like you. You know what I mean -- I'm talking about the terrorist thing, Vicky."

"What do terrorists have to do with my leaving?"

"If people like you leave, all we'll have left in the embassies are the bureaucrats and the action junkies. Spooks, drug busters, visa-fraud hounds. And people who fill out forms. They'll get the terrorists all right, sooner or later, but there's a cost."

"What's the cost?"

He frowned at his fino glass, as if the fault lay in the sherry, not in the woman whose love he was trying to hold on to. "People think Americans are one-dimensional. You're living proof that we're better than they know."

"I think you should stop pretending," she told him quietly.

He flared. "Who's pretending? You're the best thing the embassy has to show to the world, bar none. What? You think we ought to give up and let the hard-boiled guys like Marc Karulevich run everything? I'm sorry, I didn't sign up to hunker inside Fortress America, I signed up to represent the country."

She thought keeping it simple was an act of kindness. "I'm sorry it didn't work for us, Wyatt, I really am."

"Goddamn it, Vicky." His hands flung air toward the walls of the bar. He pushed back his chair, and she was left sitting at the table.

Under the bartender's nonjudgmental eye she waited for a while, expecting Wyatt to return, which was the reasonable thing to do. Wyatt was a reasonable man. She drank a little more fino, but eventually she realized he was not coming back.

Leaving La Viñalesca, she walked toward the central square, which was dominated by the church named after Sister EpifanÍa, the wandering woman whose religious visions gave the village its name and identity and its footnote in the Spanish history books. Vicky wasn't looking for him, but that was where she found Wyatt, hands folded on a bench installed to permit contemplation. The sky was purple, mottled dark with clouds whose rims still reflected the sun's last light.

In the air above the cobbled plaza and the big church, bats whizzed through the quiet night air. A large boy of twelve or so, wearing short pants and a pressed white shirt that somehow suggested the enforced conformity of the Franco era, watched his ice cream cone melt and drip onto the ground as though he couldn't imagine how to stop it. From a second-story window in a building down an alley of whitewashed walls, six or eight measures of a Strauss waltz were offered and then withdrawn, like a clever idea announced at an inconvenient time. Somewhere else, a woman laughed self-consciously, then stopped. A breeze from the beach picked up and strewed sea smells across the town.

"Nice night," Vicky tried.

"Somebody ought to teach that kid how you eat ice cream." Wyatt pointed. "Look at that getup."

"It's the return of the repressed," she explained. "Under Franco all the kids had to dress like that. It was like a loyalty oath."

The child threw his ruined ice cream cone on the ground and lumbered off, unchildlike and unhappily massive. Vicky watched him move reluctantly as though summoned by the warning whistle of a tyrant father. She imagined an anachronism of a man who wore scented oil in his dark hair and a wide belt he was ready to take off at the least provocation to remind his disappointing son what discipline felt like. Vicky sat next to Wyatt on his bench.

"It's me, isn't it? I mean that's why you're quitting."

"It's everything," she said. "I'm tired of being official. Of being on all the time, like some kind of human cable channel. I'm tired of smiling on command, and pretending that boring people are interesting. I want to say what I think whenever I think it, without editing every last comment for foreign consumption. I'm tired of catering to ambassadors. Mostly, I think, I'm really tired of life inside the bureaucracy. I'm changing my life."

"That's a cliché."

"So I'm a cliché. I never said I was going to stay in the foreign service forever."

Saying it, she imagined for the first time what it was going to feel like to surrender her black passport, which advised anyone who cared to read it that the bearer was abroad on a diplomatic assignment for the United States government. She was giving up her guild identity. A sensation of loss washed over her, leaving a residue of maudlin feeling that Wyatt would call her patriotism. She believed in service to one's country, and in not talking about service to one's country.

"What about me?" he wanted to know.

"You're where you should be. You love the work. It gives you satisfaction. There's not enough of you to go around. At high levels of the State Department there's serious talk of cloning Wyatt Willis."

"Now who's avoiding the hard stuff?"

"Okay," she agreed. "No avoidance. Here it is straight on, Wyatt. I'm not ready to live the rest of my life with you."

He nodded as if that were a just and reasonable conclusion to eighteen interesting months of trying each other on for size. Then he stood quickly and left her a second time. It was too easy. She should have known he wasn't going to give up without a fight, but she pretended for a few minutes that the hard part was over, that it was just a question of direct communication, and she had done her difficult duty. She didn't get up from the bench in the plaza until the dark thickened around her. She felt bruised, the quick blowback from telling Wyatt she was leaving Spain and the service and him, too, and the darkness comforted her as if she were a child swaddled in infinite folds. She traced her way slowly along narrow streets that were fronted on either side by whitewashed high walls to El Claustro Cobalto, two stones' throw from the beach.

In the room she had been sharing with Wyatt, she took off her shoes, her jeans, her blouse, and lay on her back on the bed. The room was small, exactly what you'd expect a cell to be like. Until the last habited nun was taken out in a wheelchair to another level of contemplative isolation, the hotel had been a convent for an order of religious women who took the vow of silence. Past ten at night, if you knew what you were listening for, sometimes you heard the hard rubber wheels of the poor palsied sister's chair going over gravel to an undisclosed location. Trading on atmosphere, the owner of the place had left the nuns' austere crucifixes affixed to the otherwise bare white walls of the rooms he rented out.

The mattress on the bed was a lump, like Spanish mattresses from the Inquisition right up through the Franco era. The theory underlying the mattresses was to affect sleepers' dreams, recognized since Plato as incubators of political dissent. But Vicky's mind was not on politics. Having told Wyatt it was over, now she wanted to make love with him. They both deserved it, they needed it. She was sure they both wanted it.

The sherry made her doze. When the sound of gravel against the window woke her, she got up to find Wyatt drunk in the plaza below, spoiling for a fight and an audience and a way back into the castle keep of her affections.

He was quieter when he came into the room, almost calm, but the fight was not yet taken out of him. He stabbed the air once, impaled an invisible attacker. She admired his resolve. He wasn't giving up. He smelled of sweat and Scotch whiskey.

"This room is half mine," he challenged her.

"Wyatt," she began.

"Shut up, Vicky. Just shut up. You've said fucking enough already."

In the cozy blur of the green-shaded lamp on the bedside table she watched him undress. His manner was formal and deliberate. He was a private exhibitionist. Wyatt had the body of a Spanish bullfighter who didn't need to work out, a strawberry blond torero with gray-ice English eyes. The hair on his chest was closer to blond than brown, a tight-weave carpet on which she was accustomed to rest.

He made love with freedom and a spirit of play to make it plain to her exactly what she was giving up. As if she didn't know. She tried to give back as good as she got, which was good indeed. She licked the sweat from his skin, memorized the taste of it, let herself be licked through an unhurried buildup of sensation too powerful to be called feeling. Feeling was reconstruction, how you thought about it afterward.

"Don't do this to me, Vicky," he said once. "Please."

"Can I tell you something important?"

"You changed your mind. You do want to stay with me forever. I knew it. That whole thing about leaving the service was just a fantasy. You were just thinking out loud. Right?"

He wasn't straining for a bad joke, he believed what he was saying. She felt culpable, almost treasonous, for having made a smart, sensitive man go blind and stupid. If he was a little pathetic now, if he was afraid to face the one hard fact she held up to him, it really was her fault. She was lashed to her lover with thick cords of responsibility, and all she could think about was cutting free.

She told him, "My father was a spy."

"My mother was a bareback rider in the circus."

"I'm serious," she told him, but he thought she was only constructing an analogy, an obscure way of explaining her selfish decision to abandon the foreign service and bliss with him.

"It's not about whether I love you, Wyatt."

He sat up, excited on the way to angry again. "Yes, it is, Vicky. That's the thing, you just don't get it."

"What don't I get?"

"It's always about love. It's only about love. All the rest is just...politics."

In the cavernous dark in the nun's cell, he turned toward her in the bed. With a hand that owned nothing, not even the touch it took, he felt down her back. It felt good, it felt to her like the one sensation she could not live without, as necessary as oxygen, but more reassuring.

Wyatt was wrong about one thing. She got it. She knew.

Always and only. It was about love.

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Jacobs

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Mark Jacobs is a former foreign service officer who served as cultural attaché and information officer in Spain, Turkey, and several posts in Latin America. He has published three previous books and more than sixty short stories in a range of literary and commercial magazines.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 2007)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416568148

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