This thought-provoking thriller from the pseudonymous Carr features a heroine with an unusual background. Nicole Blake, the daughter of a Lebanese violin teacher killed by a car bomb and a corrupt American playboy whose primary contributions to her life have been U.S. citizenship and a prison term for forgery, reluctantly trades her quiet ex-con life in the French countryside for gunfire and skullduggery in Lisbon, where she tries to track down the players in a triple-cross that goes back to the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut. The smooth pacing is marred slightly by frequent flashbacks to her childhood and a long-ago romance, but the gritty atmosphere is perfectly drawn, and complex layers of lies and betrayal keep the reader happily guessing up to the end. Carr, the author of Flashback and three other novels under her real name, Jenny Siler, adds a timely postscript on the difficulty and value of writing fiction about real events. (Mar.)
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Home, Sabri Kanj reminded himself as the jet touched down and the massive engines whined themselves to sleep. Home, he thought. Fairuz on the radio, his mother singing along in the kitchen. Lamb sausages on the grill. A memory to see you through, his friend Khalid had told him once, speaking from experience. Something they won’t be able to take from you.
The plane paused, and Kanj could hear the two Pakistanis who’d accompanied him laughing in the front of the aircraft, then one of the men lumbered back and unshackled Kanj’s feet from the metal bar beneath his seat. An oddly intimate act, Kanj thought, as the entire business had been, the man leaning against him as he had earlier, when they’d stripped and blindfolded and diapered him for the trip. All of it meant to humiliate him, to cow him for what lay ahead. Though Kanj knew all too well where they were taking him, understood as they could not that fear never promised salvation.
“Stand up,” the man said. He was so close that Kanj could smell his most recent meal. Stale cooking grease and green meat. He put his hand on Kanj’s shoulder to steady him, and Kanj winced. The Pakistanis had broken his collarbone in the raid, leaving it tender and raw. Kanj quickly checked himself and the pain, then shuffled into the aisle and started forward.
“Where are we, stewardess?” he asked with mock cheer, expecting no answer and getting none. Instead, the plane’s front hatch popped open, and the stink of jet fuel filled the cabin. Somewhere not far in the distance, another plane was taking off, its engines laboring the giant craft skyward.
From out on the void of the tarmac, Kanj heard a snippet of Arabic, the accent clearly Jordanian. Not that it mattered. They could be in any of a handful of places: Syria, Egypt, Morocco. Black holes all, places where a man could get lost, where humanity held little sway against power.
Kanj squinted into the darkness of his blindfold, conjuring the house in Ouzai again, the sound of his mother’s voice. Prettier than Fairuz’s, he’d thought at the time, and she had been prettier as well. This, before the war had ravaged them all. In the living room his older sister was scratching out her math homework, her chin propped in her left hand, her dark eyes studying the page. The smart one of the family. A doctor or a scientist in some other world.
The man touched him on the shoulder, and Kanj felt his gut tighten for an instant. “Step down,” the Pakistani commanded.
Some other world, Kanj reminded himself, putting his foot forward, feeling the edge of the stair, the drop down toward the tarmac. This memory and the secret he had hoarded along with it all these years. One or the other would save him in the end. A car door popped open, and the man forced Kanj’s head and shoulders down, stuffed him into the seat. Then the door closed behind him and Kanj was alone, his skin prickling in the air-conditioned chill.
They drove for what Kanj guessed was an hour. No turns, just a straight line out into the desert, though in which direction Kanj couldn’t be sure. South, most likely, or east, for they had not encountered the city. In Kanj’s mind, the map of Jordan didn’t stop at the great river but pushed like a fist into Israel’s gut, with Syria edging in from above. And above Israel was Lebanon. Beirut and home again. The Corniche and the sea curving around Pigeon Rocks. The unrestrained bustle of Martyrs’ Square. The cafés along the rue Bliss, girls from the American University sunning themselves at outdoor tables. The city as it had been, once, and was no more.
It was evening when the car finally stopped and Kanj was pulled from his seat. There was a smell to the air that told Kanj the sun had just set, the perfume of relief and release. The memory of another home. The dirt beneath Kanj’s feet was fine as flour, packed hard by thousands of years of sun and wind, the rare wash of rain.
No one spoke here. There were only hands. Hands that led him down into the earth. Fingers that chained him to the floor. The sting of an open palm across his face. Then the blindfold was off, and Kanj was blinking up into the face of the man from whom he knew everything now would come. Pain and fear. Hope. Salvation, even.
His new god, Kanj thought, though the man didn’t look the part. He was short and stocky, his underarms ringed with sweat, his bald head glistening in the light of the room’s single bare bulb.
Kanj took a deep breath and raised his head, readying himself for what was to come. “I want to talk to the Americans,” he said, the same words he’d repeated over and over in Pakistan. It was all they would get from him.
I knew the first time I saw John Valsamis what he was. It was a warm afternoon, one of those early-spring snaps that won’t last. Barely March and shirtsleeves weather, the streams fat with runoff, the first green shoots of the crocuses struggling up toward the light. I had taken Lucifer out for his walk, and when we came home, Valsamis was parked on the road just outside my driveway, a small neat man in a white Twingo, a rental. Though I didn’t know why, I knew as surely as if I had invited him that he had come for me.
He could have been any tourist, I suppose, a solitary American lost in this unimportant corner of the world. A wrong turn on the way to Tautavel or one of the Cathar fortresses, and this stop just to check his map and get his bearings. Could have been but wasn’t. Even Lucifer could tell something was wrong. Impatient to get home, he’d taken off ahead of me, but when I rounded the last corner toward the house, he was stopped dead in the middle of the road.
An ex-con like me, the old shepherd-cross mutt knew the meaning of loyalty, the value of a good home. I’d rescued him from the shelter and the imminent jaws of death, and he repaid the favor each day with his own fierce brand of love. His ears flattened now and his tail lowered, curling between his powerful back legs. The dark fur along his neck grew stiff as a straw broom. He turned his head briefly in my direction, then let out a low growl. I had to walk on ahead of him, pretending everything was all right, and even then I was halfway down the drive before he gave up his post and followed behind.
Valsamis stayed in his car while the dog and I went inside. I could see him from the kitchen window while I got Lucifer his food, the car framed perfectly by the single pane of glass, as if he’d parked there deliberately, wanting to give me a view. His face was unmoving behind the windshield, half masked by the reflections of the bare trees overhead. I didn’t recognize him, couldn’t remember what might have brought him to find me. He didn’t look like an old client, and he wasn’t a cop, of that I was sure. If anything, he seemed more like a con.
I gave Lucifer his bowl, then went into the pantry, climbed up past the shelves of homemade apricot jam and pickled beans I’d put up the previous fall, and took down the battered old twelve-gauge I’d found in the attic when I first moved in. It wasn’t much of a gun, but I felt better having it, and it was loud enough to convince the foxes that had ravaged my henhouse that there were better places in the valley for a free meal.
Hoping it would do the same for my visitor, I hefted it prominently in my left hand and headed out the kitchen door. I wanted to get a better look at the man, wanted to let him know for sure I knew he was there, but when I stepped outside, the Twingo was gone.
I stood on the gravel drive, wishing I hadn’t quit smoking, wishing I had a cigarette to steady my hands. The wind kicked up just slightly, and the brittle branches of the trees in the garden lifted and resettled against one another, the rustling like gossip spreading through a crowd. Rubbing my bare arms, I smoothed away goose bumps and scanned the empty road, then turned back inside. Gone, I told myself, and maybe I’d been wrong. I’d let the old paranoia get me, the old prison fears. Not every parked car held some dark specter of the past. And yet I didn’t believe my own story.
I spent the rest of the afternoon putting the finishing touches on a copy of the new Angolan passport I’d been working on. The geeks at Solomon, the document security firm for which I freelanced, had come up with a new kind of multilayer infilling system that was a bitch to beat, but I’d cracked it in the end, and my final result was about as close to perfect as possible, a far better match than what would be needed to fool the immigration officers in Luanda. Bad news for my employers, but that’s what I was paid to deliver. If I could beat their security, there were others out there who could get around it just as well.
It was close to five by the time the FedEx truck came to collect my package for Solomon.
“Running late,” the driver, Isham, offered breathlessly as he fished in his pocket and pulled out a biscuit for Lucifer. “Sorry.”
I smiled. “Did Madame Lelu need your services?”
Isham nodded. “The lightbulb in her bedroom was out again.”
“Of course,” I remarked. “And you’re so tall.”
My neighbor down the hill and her less-than-subtle attempts to lure the young man inside were a running joke between us.
Isham patted Lucifer on the head and grinned up at me. “You know how it is with these lonely older women,” he countered playfully.
Isham was a nice kid, a first-generation Frenchman with a good Arab name and manners to match. He took my ribbing in good humor and gave as good as he got, but I could tell by the way his face colored that Madame Lelu’s attentions made him slightly uncomfortable.
“You’ll take some eggs, won’t you?” I asked, handing him my package.
Isham nodded, too polite to refuse, though the courtesy would make him later still. Then his eyes shifted to the shotgun propped up against the front hall table, and he stepped back slightly.
“Le renard,” I explained, my eyes following Isham’s.
“Oui, madame. Of course, the fox.”
“I’ve lost two hens already this week. I just want to scare him a little. And you know how Lucifer is, a softie at heart.” I smiled easily, nothing more to it than that, then turned for the kitchen.
“They’ve been laying like crazy all week,” I called as I grabbed the basket of eggs I’d reserved for Isham off the counter, then padded back into the foyer. “It must be the warm weather.”
“Yes,” he agreed, one foot already out the door as he took the basket. “Or it could be the fox. I’ve heard fear will make them do that.
“Bonne nuit,” he added. Then he jogged across the gravel drive and swung himself up into his truck.
I watched the FedEx truck pull out into the lane, then loaded Lucifer into the back of the Renault and headed to town for dinner provisions. There was no sign of my visitor on the darkening road, but I was thinking about him. His disappearing act had made me nervous, as I was sure it had been meant to do.
I made several stops, and it was late when I got back to the house, well past dark. The Twingo was there again, though this time Valsamis had pulled right into the driveway. When I swung in off the road, my lights flashed across his back window, and I could see his head inside, his shoulders low in the bucket seat.
I cut the engine and sat for a moment, trying to decide how to play things. I’ve seen people run when they didn’t have to and get into a lot of trouble because of it. On the other hand, I’ve always thought it best never to volunteer anything.
In the end, Valsamis made the first move. The dome light snapped on as he climbed out, momentarily revealing his trim frame. He had the body of a featherweight, compact and muscular, but he was dressed more like a salesman or a lost member of some middle-agers tour group: loafers, pleated chinos, a blue button-down shirt. In his right hand, he held a brown leather briefcase.
I opened my car door, and Lucifer leaped across me, paws scrabbling on the drive’s loose gravel as he darted toward the stranger, teeth bared in an unfriendly greeting.
The man didn’t flinch. He snapped his fingers once, and the dog quieted.
“Luce!” I called, patting my leg. The dog gave Valsamis one last look, then stalked back toward me, his shoulders rippling beneath his black coat.
Valsamis closed his door and the light switched off, leaving him in darkness again. “Hello, Nicole,” he said, coming toward me.
“Did Ed send you?” I asked, bringing my right hand to rest on Lucifer’s broad head. If the man was another con, I figured he must be a friend of my father’s, that Ed had run out of money and sent one of his rummy pals to track me down.
But Valsamis shook his head, all teeth and eyes swaying slowly from side to side. “Why don’t we go inside?” he proposed.
“You’ve got a nice life here,” Valsamis observed as I closed the door and switched on a light. Lucifer squeezed past us, giving me a protective glance before heading for the kitchen.
“I don’t have any money,” I told him, struggling momentarily to make the transition from French. Like everyone else in my business, I spoke English out of necessity. I’d spent several years in the States, but French was what I’d grown up with.
Valsamis didn’t say anything. There’s a certain lazy arrogance that comes with being a native English speaker, a self-assuredness born of the knowledge that yours will always be the common language and that you will have a distinct advantage because of it. I could sense this conceit in Valsamis. He stood with his arms stiff at his sides and glanced around the old farmhouse. It was by no means a mansion, but it was nicer than what a lot of people have, nicer than anything I’d ever had in the past. It was a place I took pride in, each inch of centuries-old stone and wood restored by my own hands.
I moved back toward the kitchen, letting Valsamis get a good look at the twelve-gauge. I’d already decided I wasn’t playing the guessing game with him. I had a talent for waiting people out, and sooner or later, I figured, he’d have to tell me what he’d come for.
The story OK, but disjointed. Difficult to focus on theme. After reading to the half-
way mark, I stopped. Rather boring.
I'm not sure what I think of this book. Carr is certainly a good writer. The plot is intriguing and the characters interesting. Read morePublished on April 14, 2013 by Conservative in Excile
Picked up this little gem on CD to pass the time during a long drive. Bottom line: if you're the type that revels in the disgrace and degradation of Americans and looking for... Read morePublished on August 6, 2012 by unkqty