Authors: Alex Carr
Tags: #Fiction, #Beirut (Lebanon), #Forgers, #Intelligence Service - United States, #France
None of us spoke. From time to time I could hear the counter girl choking back a sob, a rat scrambling by, cockroaches rustling. But mostly there was silence, the sound of my own heart, the blood hammering in my ears.
Graça went first and we followed behind, groping our way along the wall, feeling the old pipes and stones with our fingertips, stumbling over hazards whose real shapes we could only guess at, loose mortar and piles of rags, bits of metal that rang against the soles of our shoes. Or worse, what we wouldn’t let ourselves imagine. The detritus of some three thousand years of fear and occupations. The Romans and the Visigoths, the Moors and the Spaniards. And later, the assassination of Don Carlos and the rise of Salazar. Centuries of siege and plague and inquisition. The whole violent history of a continent borne by the ghosts of thousands of fleeing souls huddled around us.
It wasn’t far to the Largo Trindade Coelho, a five-minute walk aboveground. It couldn’t have taken us over thirty minutes to navigate the tunnel, but it seemed like hours. Near the end there was a rancid odor, the unmistakable stench of death, and I thought I might be sick. Then the walls opened up, and I could smell the rain.
Graça stumbled, and I heard her catch herself. “Stairs,” she warned, her voice moving upward.
My foot found the first step and the second, and then I could see Graça’s shadow above me, her head and shoulders silhouetted against the night sky.
Nicole was here, Valsamis thought, contemplating the landing, the two empty restrooms, and the closet. No windows and no way out. He turned and started back up the stairs, then stopped himself. He should have had her, and yet somehow she was gone.
He stepped back toward the closet and paused in the doorway, his gaze moving across the little room, taking in the cluttered shelves, the boxes stacked slightly askew. Nothing, he told himself. Or something? He moved forward and then froze. From somewhere far in the distance came the tinny wail of sirens, the sound moving louder and closer.
No, he told himself, he’d been right the first time. There was nothing to see, no way out. And no way out for him if he stayed. He glanced at the boxes again, the dark shadow where the ceiling met the wall. Then he turned and headed back up the stairs, back through the café, and out onto the rua Diário de Notícias.
ARM WATER AND WHITE SAND
and a sky so blue you could have dived into it. My first bikini, two canary-yellow swatches of fabric sent from France by my aunt. The saltwater smell of my skin after a day at the beach. This is what I remember of Jounieh. Among my friends there was an adolescent cynicism bred from the combination of privilege and war. A sense that everything was cheap and that nothing much mattered.
Our life continued much as it had in Beirut, my grandfather fighting to keep his shipping business alive, my grandmother determined to salvage the tattered remnants of Beirut society, each believing that the war would end sometime soon. There were dinner parties and ladies’ lunches, polished silver and crystal, and the same bone china that had traveled with me from Beirut.
My mother came on the weekends when she could, and we would take the
to Harissa or drive up the coast to Byblos and have lunch on the beach. For the first few months, she and my grandfather argued, but as the war dragged on and it became clear that my mother would not join us, even he gave in.
Nothing is simple in the Middle East, especially not war, and the Lebanese civil war was no exception. The roots of the conflict reached far beyond the country’s borders, into neighboring Syria and Israel, and further, even, toward the Western colonial powers upon whose shoulders the shaky dream of a unified Lebanon had been built.
The Syrians, fearful of a Christian-Israeli alliance, had involved themselves directly almost from the beginning, while the Israelis, alarmed at the prospect of a Palestinian stronghold to the north, had chosen a more covert path. After their attack on Palestinian bases in southern Lebanon in the spring of 1978 drew the ire of the United Nations Security Council, the Israelis withdrew from Lebanon, but not before establishing the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army to take their place. It was a well-managed alliance, and for the first few years, the SLA partnership, coupled with the Israelis’ Phalange allies in the north, were enough to satisfy Israeli interests. But in the spring of 1982, all that would change when the Israeli army marched into Lebanon, sweeping through the Bekaa Valley and northward until they reached Beirut.
Even then my mother stayed. Through the worst of it, we thought at the time: the Israeli siege of West Beirut and the bombing that left some twenty thousand dead in its wake; the horrific events at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps; the assassination of the young Phalange leader, Bachir Gemayel, and the chaos that followed.
Later, much later, I would come to better understand what had happened during those years. But at the time, what I knew was only what I heard from those around me, snippets of dinner conversation, the sound of Gemayel’s voice on the radio while my grandmother and her friends played 41 in the living room. Another crisis in the south. Another massacre by the Palestinians. These people, these terrorists, who had already taken too much and would take our country if we didn’t stop them.
Beirut was only twenty-one kilometers away, but from my bedroom in Jounieh, with its crisp sheets and lemon-yellow walls, its posters of adolescent longing, the war seemed a faint and hollow thing. What I remember most clearly from that time is neither fear nor grief but my own shameless anger. Hating neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians, nor the outsiders who had taken our country hostage, but my mother for having chosen to stay, for having chosen him instead of me.
By then I knew his name, had heard it through the walls of my bedroom after my grandparents thought I had gone to sleep. Sabri Kanj. And my grandmother’s voice, an angry whisper now:
She will wind up dead because of this man.
“How did he know where to find us?” Graça asked.
I exhaled, long and slow, and looked out through the smeared windows of the dockside café at the ferry sliding toward us across the Tagus, the black gap of the river laced with twin wings of foam.
I shook my head, thinking of Sergei’s messages, always some bait to come back for. And yet my heart and my gut told me without doubt that the Russian would not have set me up, that if anything, Sergei was in danger now because of me. “Valsamis must have been tapping into my e-mails.”
“But how—” She started and stopped herself, alarm registering on her face as she answered her own question. Not only had Valsamis been reading the e-mails, he’d known where they were coming from.
A gust of wind slammed the windows and knocked free a few stray drops of rain. A storm was pushing inland, Adamastor and his furies. We had lost the girl from the cybercafé not long after emerging from the tunnel. Now it was just me and Graça and a few night-owl stragglers waiting for the late ferry. A man in a janitor’s outfit. A drunk sleeping uncomfortably in his seat. A young couple kissing desperately, bodies interlocked beneath their coats. And on the bar, the day’s flotsam of discarded newspapers. The ubiquitous
Correio da Manhã,
respective authorities on sports and gossip, and the relatively staid headlines of
Diário de Notícias
On the front page of the latter was a photograph of a beleaguered United Nations weapons inspector, a tired Swede whose face betrayed his own inevitable defeat. One of Amadeo’s mongrels, I thought sadly, glancing at the headline: YES OR NO? All at once the wrongness of the shipping invoice made perfect sense, the poorly disguised missiles and their destination. The question so simple I’d overlooked it all this time.
No, I thought, there were no rockets. The Americans had arranged the forgery through al-Rashidi to make it look as if the Iraqis were buying the Alazans from Trans-Dniester. In fact there were no Alazans, no dirty bombs headed for Basra. It was the invoice itself that mattered, the invoice that would provide the proof the weapons inspectors had failed to find, the proof the Americans needed to go to war.
The forgery had to be done in such a way that the cargo’s dimensions would be a red flag to anyone who knew better, so it would seem obvious that the cargo wasn’t really steel cables but Alazans. But the forger himself couldn’t know or the lie would be blown. That was why Valsamis had asked for an amateur when he went to Vitor Gomes. That was why he’d hired Graça Morais. He hadn’t counted on her bringing in Rahim.
All of it was part of whatever deal al-Rashidi had made with the Americans, with his old friend Valsamis. His loyalty in return for a new country for his son. And more, no doubt, once Saddam was defeated.
Shivering, I slid my hand into my pocket and fingered the FEG. Though if I was right about the invoice, the gun could do little to protect us now.
“What is it?” Graça asked.
Her face was drawn, her eyes hollowed by the café’s fluorescent lights. So delicate, I thought, as Rahim must have seen her, here in this same place, perhaps, in this same shadow. So vulnerable, as we all were.
I shook my head, wishing I didn’t know. “We have to get out of here,” I said, pulling a handful of coins from my pocket, piling them onto the bar.
Graça nodded out the windows toward the river. “The ferry’s got a good ten minutes, at least.”
“No,” I told her. I grabbed her arm and pulled her off her stool. “We’ve got to get out of Lisbon.”
A goddamned wasteland, Richard Morrow thought as the Gulfstream banked into its final turn and the lights of Amman rolled into view beneath them, the crooked cross of the runway, and the city’s minarets piercing the night sky. All those years in Near East, and he still preferred the landscape of his childhood, green hills, trees and more trees, a smudge of mist on a wet spring morning, the forest laced with dogwoods. There was something so utterly vulnerable about the desert, the land naked and scarred, like a scalp freshly shaved. Exposed, even under the cover of darkness.