Are you looking for your next read? The search stops here.
Today I have a very special surprise – (A sneak preview! The book debuts 5/20!) – the prologue of T.A. Maclagan’s slammin’ debut novel, They Call Me Alexandra Gastone.
It’s SALT meets Gossip Girl in the best way. I read it in a day. Couldn’t put it down.
Without further ado…meet Alexandra!
Seven Years Ago
I stared at the video screen. At the girl with my eyes—one blue and one gray-green. I’d seen this video hundreds of times, so I knew it by heart. It was of Alexandra Gastone walking home from school with a friend. I knew every laugh, smile, and eye roll. I knew when she would play with the locket around her neck and when she would swipe a piece of hair behind her ear, twisting it at the end of the motion. I swiped my own newly shorn hair behind my ear, once, twice, three times, always taking care to twist at the end. The action felt natural now. After months of watching the video, it was ingrained. I smiled into the mirror at my side. Alexandra’s smile was crooked, and mine now echoed hers, the left side dipping down. I had to strain to keep the smile in place. Seeing a face in the mirror that was not my own jarred me every time. I let the smile fade and brought a hand up to trace my new jaw, studying the stronger angle. I ran a finger down my new nose. It was smaller now, and more refined. The changes might have made me prettier, but I missed my old face. A part of me had been stolen.
I jerked as a cold hand rested on my shoulder.
“What is your name?” asked Mistress.
“Alexandra Gastone,” I replied, dropping my voice to match Alexandra’s deeper alto.
“What is your age? Who were your parents? Where are you from?”
Unlike many kids who liked to mumble, Alexandra spoke with great elocution, the movements of her mouth a lip reader’s dream. “I’m eleven years old,” I said, molding my mouth to each word. At Compound Perun, Oline—my native language—had been forbidden within months of my arrival. I now spoke with a perfect American accent. “My parents were Gregory and Tabitha Gastone. I lived in Topeka, Kansas.”
“Who is your guardian?”
The video screen went black for a second, and then a different face appeared. It was a new video I hadn’t seen, although I recognized the silver hair, weathered face, and intelligent blue eyes. I glanced over at my friend Varos, who controlled the feed. He offered a smile, his chubby face pinched. I could tell Varos was equally as nervous. I wasn’t the only one about to embark on a new assignment.
“My grandfather, Albert Gastone,” I said, turning back to the video. Back to the man whose life I was about to infiltrate.
“Where does Gastone work? What are his hobbies?”
“He works for the CIA. He’s one of the their public liaisons and an analyst specializing in the Southern Caucasus. Albert likes to read, travel, and play strategic games like chess. He has a gun collection.”
“When was the last time you saw your grandfather?”
“I was five years old. He was at my birthday party and gave me a chess set.”
Mistress squeezed my shoulder. I stifled a shiver as she kissed the top of my head. “Very good, my little silver fox,” she said, her icy hands coming to my cheeks. She turned me to the mirror, her face dipping to within millimeters of my own. I could feel the wetness of her breath, smell the stench of vodka. My skin crawled, but I remained still. We gazed at the mirror’s reflection. “You must think strategically at all times. Gastone has lived alone for years. It may be hard for him to accept you. Show an interest in his hobbies, and do not disturb his quiet lifestyle. Position yourself as a protégé. Outside of your life with Gastone, you are to assess the strategic value of those you meet. Befriend those of worth, and discard the rest.”
“Milena Rokva is dead. You are now Alexandra Gastone. Remember that, every second of every day. Albert Gastone may not have seen Alexandra in years, but he will inherit all the photos and videos that have ever been taken of her.”
I studied Mistress’s cold blue eyes. They were daring me to prove myself. I smiled Alexandra’s crooked smile. From deep within, I pulled out a laugh, letting my breath catch almost immediately on it as Alexandra always did, as if shocked by her own amusement. “I’m Alexandra Gastone, the girl next door. I like to play soccer, swim, and read. I like school, and my favorite subject is math.” I brushed my hair behind my ear, twisting it at the end of the motion. “I have a crush on a boy named Peter.”
Mistress nodded and flicked a hand toward Varos. In response, new images flooded the screen. They were a visual torrent, a deluge to which I’d become well accustomed. The American flag, mansions, fancy cars, fat people living fat lives, money, money, money…the inundation continued driving deep into my psyche…American soldiers in Olissa, their tanks on our streets, their army base on our land. The images flew by…a reel of horrors…and then…without warning, they stopped. The image that remained would echo in my bones, forever and always. My mother—dead, a shot to the head.
In the photo, she lies on the ground, muddy with blood, and I’m next to her, streaked in crimson, hugging a body that life left long ago. My eyes are hollow. Haunted.
I can feel it rush back to me, the crack of the gun, the sound of my mother’s body dropping, the warmth of her life seeping away as night fell. One bullet, less than a second, and everything changed. I was broken, and she was gone. A week later, I was at Perun.
The image was a knife carving my insides, but I couldn’t look away. It slowly dissolved into the next slide, and I wished the memory of that day would fade as easily. A map of Olissa replaced the shattering photo of my mother.
A small country of ten million, Olissa had suffered centuries of oppression because it was nestled between world titans. On the animated screen, the great country of Olissa began to shrink as it was devoured by powerful neighbors. The video said it all. I served so Olissa would not disappear. So it would not be forgotten. Entranced, I actually flinched when the image vanished, replaced again by the picture of Albert Gastone.
I glanced at Mistress.
“A reminder,” said Mistress, “of why you serve. What you are about to do won’t be without its trials. Every day you must remember why you do this. Why you fight. It is for Olissa and her people.”
“I will remember. For Olissa. Always.”
For my mother. Always.
Mistress kissed my cheek and stepped away. “Very good. Now it’s time to prepare you for the accident.”
Despite my anxiety, I wanted to laugh at Mistress’s words. They sounded so casual, like I was simply going to take a bath or pack a bag. I wanted, with all my heart, to serve and honor my mother, but I was still frozen with fear. I’d only just healed from the plastic surgery, and now there would be far more pain. I had to look like a girl who barely survived a car crash. Two men waited outside the door for Mistress’s orders. Trying to see past the pain looming, I glanced at the video screen and the man named Albert who would soon believe he was my grandfather. He looked like a good man. His face was gentle and his smile warm. I wondered briefly if he would come to love me but then pushed the idea from my thoughts. His love didn’t matter, only his name. It was a name that would get me into a good college and then into the CIA, the very agency where he worked. One day, I would be positioned to pass strategic intel back to Perun.
Varos stood and cleared his throat, drawing our attention. “May I have a word in private with—” Varos looked to me. “With Alexandra. As her handler, I have a few final things to discuss.”
“Of course,” said Mistress, her words of agreement not matching her heavy scowl. Mistress liked Varos as much as she liked me, which was to say not at all. Seven years my senior, Varos was a chubby asthmatic. Despising physical weakness, Mistress would have loved to crush Varos into shape or watch him perish in the attempt. Fortunately for Varos, he was exceedingly smart with high-ranking parents in the movement. Because of this, he was groomed for an advisory role at Perun instead of an operative position and was kept out of Mistress’s clutches. Only eighteen years old, he was about to be the youngest handler and operations leader in the field.
Mistress turned to me before leaving, “For the blood of the fallen. For the blood of the living. For Olissa we fight.”
I stood, bringing my hand up in a salute. “For Olissa we fight.”
Mistress left without another word, her hard-soled boots tapping out a steady rhythm on the floor.
I turned to Varos as he walked over and our eyes locked. I could feel myself shaking and was trying to regain control. All I wanted to do was race across the room and throw myself into his arms for one last moment of comfort, but I made myself stay rooted in place. To Varos, I was the little sister he never had, someone to watch over and protect, and I…well…I thought of him as more than a brother. I would have shared my fears with him as I’d done so many times over the years, but as my handler, our relationship had to change, become strictly professional. Varos told me so himself. Not friends, not brother and sister, not anything but handler and agent. He would keep his distance in order to remain objective about my performance.
Varos reached me after what seemed like an eternity, time moving slowly but also coming too quickly. Behind the door, a beating awaited. I ran my fingers over the bell-shaped burn on my wrist—one of Mistress’s punishments. At Perun, I was no stranger to pain, but I knew those instances were nothing compared to what was only moments away.
Varos put a hand on my shoulder. Unlike Mistress’s, his hand was warm. Inviting. He pulled me close and wrapped me in a big bear hug, a hug reserved for me and no one else. I surged with relief he could be my friend for just a few more seconds. “Albert Gastone is a kind man, Little O,” said Varos, using my father’s nickname for me. “And I’ll be there to guide you. You were made for this. You have all the skills you’ll need.”
The door hinges whined as two of Perun’s enforcers entered the room—Negar and Raykom. Raykom was my Sambo instructor, Negar weaponry. I’d never dreamed I would one day face them alone in a room. I’d never dreamed I would be expected to take their hits, offering none of my own in return. They carried several props to aid in their work: straps, a glass window, a two-by-four. My injuries needed to mirror those of a car accident. A bribe to a well-placed doctor would make sure no mention was made of my plastic surgery, but that was as far as a bribe could take me. For the rest of the hospital staff, and for Gastone, my injuries needed to be authentic. There were no shortcuts.
Varos pulled away after kissing my forehead. “For Olissa we fight. For your mother,” he said, offering his own salute.
Unable to speak or coordinate my actions, I only nodded in response. The pain was for a greater cause, and because of that, I would bear it with pride and dignity. I would do anything for the cause and for my country. It was an honor. Varos smiled weakly. “See you on the other side, Little O.”
I watched each step Varos took in leaving the room. Fifteen in all.
It took Raykom ten steps to reach me. Negar only eight.