Authors: Alex Carr
Tags: #Fiction, #Beirut (Lebanon), #Forgers, #Intelligence Service - United States, #France
Valsamis dipped the corner of his napkin in his wine and wiped the tines of his fork, suddenly wishing he’d braved the fog to find the restaurant two towns over, the one Dick Morrow had recommended back in D.C. The best cassoulet in France, Dick had boasted. True or not, it would have been better than the watery pot-au-feu Valsamis no doubt faced now.
In any other car, he would have made the trip, but he hadn’t trusted his tin-can rental on the slick mountain roads. Valsamis silently cursed the rental agent in Perpignan, the girl’s surly smile as she handed him the keys. “It’s all we have left, monsieur,” she’d said, and he’d seen there was nothing to be done except smile back.
The local wine was drinkable, a bit rough but with a character that Valsamis could appreciate. Like the wine his father had made each fall in their cellar in Anaconda, the stench of the fermenting fruit wafting up through the floorboards. Though those had been California grapes, shipped into Montana on a railcar for the Italian mine workers.
Valsamis took a sip, then slid his cell phone from his pocket and punched in the Virginia area code and Dick Morrow’s number.
As always, it was Morrow who answered, his voice tight, slightly irritated. Midafternoon on the East Coast, Valsamis thought.
“I’ve found her,” Valsamis said.
“More or less.”
Morrow coughed. “Which is it?”
“She’ll do it,” Valsamis assured him, thinking of the look on Nicole’s face when he’d left, how she’d watched him. Yes, he thought, he had gotten to her. She would agree in the end.
“You’re sure she’ll be able to find him?”
“Yes,” Valsamis said, though in truth he wasn’t so confident. Twelve years was a long time.
There was silence on the other end of the line, then finally Morrow spoke. “I want you in Lisbon.”
Valsamis flinched. “I thought you had someone else to clean up the Portuguese end of things.”
“Change of plans,” Morrow said, trying to sound just a bit too cheerful about it, as if the whole thing were a picnic that had been rained out and now they’d be eating inside instead.
They’d had him in mind all along, Valsamis thought, but hadn’t bothered to tell him.
“I thought you’d be pleased, actually,” Morrow continued. “After all, it’s been your project, and it was your idea to use the woman. This will give you a chance to finish what you started.”
“Of course.” Valsamis recovered himself. “Just surprised is all.”
Morrow cleared his throat. “I don’t have to remind you, John. We can’t afford to have anything go wrong this time.”
No, Valsamis thought, it was he who couldn’t afford another mistake.
“No loose ends,” Morrow cautioned. “Understood? You’ll take care of them when this is finished. Ali and the woman both.” Not a question, not even a request, but a command.
“Yes,” Valsamis agreed. So this was why they wanted him in Lisbon. For the dirty work as well as the clean. “I understand.”
“Good.” Morrow went to hang up, but Valsamis stopped him.
“Any news from the Pakistanis?” he asked casually.
“Not yet,” Morrow replied. “But you know how it is. We’ve got to oblige our hosts. Let them at least believe they’ve got a hand in things. I imagine we’ll be sending someone over in a few days. That’ll give Kanj time to soften up, anyway.”
Time, Valsamis thought, but not much, not enough. He’d have to work quickly, but if things went smoothly in Lisbon, he’d have all the time he needed. There was a dull hum of empty air, and Morrow clicked off.
Valsamis put away his cell phone and lifted his glass again. Yes, there was definitely something to the wine. Lavender and wild thyme and rosemary, the taste of the Pyrenean scrub.
He closed his eyes and thought of the house in Anaconda, the high-altitude sheen of Indian summer. In the backyard, his father’s old winepress, the wood stained with dark juice, and his father smiling up at him, the neck of his shirt ringed with sweat, his big hands on the iron crank.
The kitchen door swung open and the waiter appeared. He set Valsamis’s food down in front of him, a hunk of grisly beef, a few pale vegetables floating in a greasy broth.
” Valsamis said, but the man was already gone, leaving him alone again, the sole diner in the oversize room. He took a bite of the meat and chewed, the food no better or worse than he had expected.
Yes, he told himself, there would be no loose ends. He would find Ali, and he would put it all to rest.
Lucifer woke me at seven the next morning, huge paws prodding me through my blankets, wide-eyed as a puppy and ready for the day ahead. Such boundless energy that I had to let him out the back door while I gulped my first cup of coffee and slipped into my boots and coat for our morning walk. It was a cold day and clear, the fog peeled back to reveal the valley, the hills dew-drenched and glistening in the bright morning sunshine. I let Lucifer run ahead on our daily circuit, nosing his way briefly along the road, then up the narrow path that led to the windy ridge above the house and back again.
The dog had put a fair bit of distance between us by the time I emerged onto the road, but when he reached the driveway, he stopped, as he had the day before, feet frozen in the gravel.
“Good dog,” I called, patting my thigh, urging him back to me, but he held his ground, his steely eyes shifting from me to the house and back again.
I didn’t see Valsamis when I first stepped into the driveway. The little white Twingo was there, Valsamis’s briefcase and a white paper bag resting on the hood, but the car itself was empty. At first I thought he’d let himself inside, but then the door of the henhouse opened, and he stepped out and came toward me through the side garden. His hands were up in triumph, and in each palm were two eggs.
“Breakfast!” he called out as I started forward, catching Lucifer by the collar, hooking in his leash.
“I stopped at the bakery,” he said, nodding to the hood of the car, slipping the eggs into his pockets.
I watched his hands disappear, his meaty fingers against the clean brown shells. Lucifer growled, tugging at his leash, and I pulled him back.
Valsamis picked up his briefcase and the paper bag. “I was thinking you could make some coffee.”
“You know, you’re a hard woman to find,” Valsamis remarked, settling himself at my kitchen table.
I stripped off my coat and filled Lucifer’s bowl. The dog eyed Valsamis one last time, then warily began to eat.
“Even your father doesn’t know where you are.” Valsamis slid the eggs from his pockets and set them in the center of the table. Not breakfast, I thought, but a reminder of what he could do to me and when. “What is it, fifty, sixty kilometers from here to Collioure? And you haven’t once paid him a visit.”
I scooped some beans into the coffee grinder and turned on the little machine, then packed the espresso maker and set it on the stove alongside a saucepan of milk. “You didn’t come all this way to talk about my father,” I told him.
“You’re right,” Valsamis agreed. “I assume you’ve given our conversation some thought.”
“Why me?” I asked. “I mean, why do you need me to find Rahim? Isn’t that what people like you do? You found me.”
“He knows we’re looking,” Valsamis said. “We need someone he trusts, someone who can ask around.”
“And how do you know he’ll want to see me? It’s been a long time.”
Valsamis opened the paper bag and surveyed the contents, then pulled out a
pain au chocolat
and offered it to me.
I shook my head.
“You were quite the couple once, as I understand it. Love of his life and all that,” Valsamis observed.
“Well, things change, don’t they?” I turned off the heat under the milk and poured out two mugs, then topped them with espresso and handed one to Valsamis. “Okay,” I agreed. “Let’s say he would want to see me. What makes you so sure he’s even in Lisbon?”
Valsamis sipped at his coffee, then tore off a piece of his croissant and smiled slightly, clearly pleased at my capitulation, at himself for having known I’d eventually agree. “We have reason to believe it’s in his best interest.”
“I’ll bet you do.”
Valsamis ignored the remark. He opened his briefcase and produced a thick stack of euros. “
Pour les frais,
” he said. For expenses. “You’ll leave this morning.”
“I’m to drive?” I asked, momentarily thrown off by the language leap before finding my footing in French.
“And once I get to Lisbon?”
“There’s a room in your name at the Pensão Rosa. Do you know the place?”
I shook my head.
“It’s in the Bairro Alto. On the rua da Rosa. You’ll find it easily. Someone will contact you when you get there.”
His accent was immaculate, his French flawless, unquestionably better than my English, and this was a statement, I thought, as the eggs had been. A way of making me acknowledge the inherent inequality in our relationship.
Valsamis shut his briefcase and stood up from the table, leaving his coffee and croissant nearly untouched.
“And when I find him?” I asked.
“We’ll worry about that.” He started to go, then turned back to me as if he’d forgotten some important piece of information. “Just think of it as giving back to your country, Nicole.”
I once heard it said that there is no such thing as an accidental American. That we are, all of us, citizens by conscious choice. Of course, it was a Frenchman who posited this, some self-proclaimed modern philosopher on one of the political discussion shows on France 2, so I’ve always taken the theory with a grain of salt. After all, to be an American has never been my choice. I was raised in Lebanon and have lived most of the rest of my life in Europe. I’ve claimed France as my home and chosen the one profession in which these things can be changed. I’m my own universal consulate. I can whip out any decent passport in a matter of hours.
If anything, I am a mongrel, the daughter of a father who was, himself, a drifter and a con man. My mother was a half-breed with French and Maronite parentage and an Arabic name. A woman whose own country had been stitched together by naive outsiders to form an optimistic whole.
“Just this one thing,” she used to say, speaking of her last meeting with my father and what little she’d asked of him. She was proud of the fact, proud to have done for herself. Six months pregnant and on her own, her possessions only what she could carry in one small bag. Two loaves of bread and a spare change of clothes.
And the one thing? Certainly not money. No, what my mother had wanted was merely a signature, an acknowledgment of paternity. The only thing of value she thought my father could give me.
Not a name or even legitimacy but a life she imagined for her child, a certain freedom and power. The amphibious vehicles of the Sixth Fleet swarming in the Beirut harbor. An adolescent memory of the young marines with their GI haircuts and broad smiles. Rock and roll and Jackie Onassis. Places my mother and her sister had visited four years earlier on a trip to New York City. Greenwich Village jazz clubs. Hordes of overcoated diners at Schrafft’s. The crush of rush hour on the subway. Women in stockings and high heels. Women who worked.