Read An Accidental American: A Novel Online

Authors: Alex Carr

Tags: #Fiction, #Beirut (Lebanon), #Forgers, #Intelligence Service - United States, #France

An Accidental American: A Novel (6 page)

BOOK: An Accidental American: A Novel
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The old gas streetlamps were lit, and the firelight flickered off the shuttered windows and crumbling railings. Beyond them, I thought, a double bed with an iron frame, a single chair upholstered in faded green tapestry, and a dark mahogany dressing table. At least there had been.

The windows that faced the street were dark, but back in the interior of the apartment, where the kitchen was, a light burned. Someone moved across the doorway; a head was all I could see from where I stood. Then, as if on cue, the bedroom light snapped on.

I held my breath and waited, watching a woman’s silhouette skate into view, and behind her, the blurred shape of a man. The couple kissed briefly, their shadows merging, then the man stepped forward and brushed aside the curtains.

I don’t do this,
I could hear myself say as I watched the man lean out to pull the window closed. It was what I’d told Valsamis that first night in Paziols. And yet here I was.

But then wasn’t this what anyone would have done? One life for how many others?

Still, when the gaslight caught the man’s face, and I could see finally that it wasn’t Rahim, what I felt was only relief.

Another March, the spring of 1990. After two years in America, I’d come home to a Europe transformed. On Karl-Marx-Allee, in the shadow of the deserted guard towers, East Berliners were hawking broken pieces of the wall. In the flea markets of Prague and Moscow, tourists could buy a Red Army uniform for the price of a bottle of cheap vodka. Communism was on sale, and no one wanted to miss out on a slice of the profits.

“Money to be made,” my friend Martine had told me on my first night back in Paris, and she hadn’t been talking about souvenirs. By then the whole Soviet arsenal was up for grabs. But while everyone else was heading east, I went south, down to Marseille and the southwest coast of France. Trying to pick up the scent of my old life, I told myself, past clients and connections. Though I was really looking for my father, hoping and yet not hoping to find him.

I was still nursing my wounds from the end of the venomous relationship that had taken me to the States. Swearing off men, I’d told myself. Swearing, even as I watched Rahim cross the room toward me one night at a party at a friend’s house in Marseille. Knowing that if he offered, I wouldn’t be able to refuse. And he had.

What I wanted from him that first night was shamefully little. A place to spend the night. The sweet consolation of his body. The cool forgetfulness of sex, the simplicity of it. Nothing more than what I knew he would be willing to offer, though what I had to give was less.

Ours was the kind of company in which it wasn’t polite to inquire about income or means, but I could tell by looking, by the Swiss watch on his wrist and the buffed moons of his manicured nails, that Rahim had done well for himself. So I was surprised, later, when the taxi he’d called drove us up into the poor, mostly North African Quartier Panier and dropped us in front of one of the no-name immigrant hotels off the Place des Moulins.

It was late, but a group of young men had congregated in one corner of the square to smoke and talk. Someone had brought out a boom box, and the powerful beat of Algerian rai music hammered out onto the flat facades of the surrounding buildings.


Les hittistes,
” Rahim said, glancing at the men as we made our way up the hotel’s front steps. Realizing that I hadn’t understood the immigrant slang, he explained, “They have no jobs, so we say they are holding up the walls.
Tu vois?

I looked back at the group, at their cigarettes weaving and bobbing in the darkness. Several of the men were resting with their backs against the building behind them, earning the nickname.

Inside, the hotel’s narrow stairwell smelled of cooked lamb and spices, of garam and garlic and coriander. For an instant I was back in Beirut, in the hivelike streets of the old city. From behind the closed doors came the muffled reverberations of Arabic. The language of my country, though not my language, for in our home, as in others of our social class, French had been spoken almost exclusively, and my Arabic was poor at best. But there was something infinitely comforting about it, the sounds simultaneously exotic and familiar.

We reached the third-floor landing, and the automatic light clicked off, plunging the stairwell into sudden darkness. Rahim opened the door to his room, and through the open window, we could hear the music again, a man’s voice singing over the drums.

“What is he saying?” I asked.

“It’s a protest anthem.” Rahim translated the Arabic into French. “ ‘Where has youth gone? Where are the brave ones? The rich gorge themselves to death, the Islamic characters show their true faces…. We should run, but to where?’ ”

We were both silent, listening. Then Rahim reached out and put his fingers on the back of my wrist, and I could taste my heart in my throat.

 

 

I
T WAS A RAINY MORNING
on the Largo Trindade Coelho. On the steps of the Igreja de São Roque, four brave tourists huddled beneath umbrellas before disappearing behind the church’s somber facade. Beneath the dripping awning of the coffee kiosk, the air was rich with steam and sweat, the pungent reek of espresso.
Uma bica,
the Portuguese call it, thimbles of pure adrenaline. Out on the rain drenched square, a flurry of pigeons touched down, gray birds on gray stone.

I finished my Portuguese breakfast of coffee and more coffee, then slipped a handful of coins next to my empty cup and made my way across the square and down the dizzying steps of the Calçada do Duque.

As a general rule, criminals and cons tend not to stay in one place for long. Before my time at the Maison des Baumettes, I’d drifted not with the tides but with work, which often meant weeks or days before it was time to move on. Most of the people I’d known in Lisbon had lived in much the same way, but there were a few exceptions, old-timers with businesses or families, people who managed to hold the veneer of respectability. It was a short list, but a list nonetheless, and on the drive down, two names in particular, those of Amadeo and Gaspar Fielding, had percolated to the top.

The unlikely offspring of an English father and a Portuguese mother, Amadeo and Gaspar ran Saudade, a tourist shop on the rua Augusta named for the particular form of longing that is Portuguese melancholy. The store housed a dubious collection of “native” wares, but the brothers’ real bread and butter was in the more upscale merchandise at the back of the shop.

Dinosaurs of the Baixa, the Fielding brothers sold just about anything that could be faked. Louis Vuitton handbags, Dunhill cigarettes, Calvin Klein perfume, whatever their Calcutta supplier had in stock. They’d had the store for years when I’d known them, and I figured if anyone was still in business, it would be Gaspar and Amadeo.

It was midmorning by the time I found my way to the orderly streets of the Baixa. The rua Augusta was bustling with pedestrians, sophisticated Lisbonites and tennis-shoe-wearing tourists braving the soggy weather. The windows of Saudade were brightly lit, showcasing the same dusty merchandise I remembered from over a decade earlier. Gaudy pottery and Nazaré fishermen’s sweaters, linens from Madeira. Closing my umbrella, I ducked out of the rain and into the store’s warm interior.

A young man peered out at me from behind the counter. Gaspar’s taste, I thought. Dark eyes and dark hair, lush curls falling around his face, with an adolescent slimness, the hips of a young girl. Amadeo, I remembered, appreciated a rougher, more muscular look.

“How can I help you, senhora?” The clerk smiled, immediately sizing me up, taking me for the foreigner I was. His English was perfectly flawed, airy and seductive.

“I’m looking for the brothers,” I told him. “Are they here?”

“They are expecting you?”

I shook my head. “Old friend.”

“Your name, senhora?”

“Nicole,” I told him. “Nicole Blake.”

He nodded, eyeing me skeptically as he picked up the phone, punched a second line, and relayed my request in rapid Portuguese.

There was a moment’s hesitation, then the clerk set down the phone and blinked up at me from beneath his full lashes. “Gaspar will see you,” he said condescendingly, then motioned toward the rear of the store.

I wasn’t expecting a hero’s welcome, from the Fieldings or from anyone else in Lisbon. I’d done my time in Marseille, done it fair and square, but I knew from experience that I was irrevocably tainted by my brush with the justice system. Prison is a desperate place, and any number of things can happen on the inside; any number of deals can be made, even by the best of us. But I knew Amadeo and Gaspar as well as I knew anyone, and I was hoping their good manners wouldn’t let them forsake me completely.

Gaspar was waiting for me outside the office door. He had changed little since I’d seen him last. He was older, of course, but well preserved, still in his standard uniform of a blue blazer and a neat bow tie.

“Nicole Blake,” he said. “Christ, it’s been a long time.” His accent was perfect British uppercrust, an unnecessary affectation, for it was common knowledge that his origins were less than pure. He planted a hasty kiss on both my cheeks, but I could sense a wariness beneath his warm facade.

“You look fabulous, as always,” I told him.

He dismissed me with a wave of his hand, then opened the office door. “Amadeo!” he called out as he ushered me inside. “Look who’s come to pay us a visit!”

The office was small and cramped, the single desk piled with unruly mounds of papers and disheveled files. In the center of the space was a massive armchair, its velvet upholstery mottled with stains. In the chair, like a dowager at a garden party, sat the older of the two Fielding brothers.

“It’s Nicole,” Gaspar said, raising his voice. “Nicole Blake.”

Amadeo leaned forward, squinting to see me better. He was wrapped in a thick afghan, his feet encased in wool slippers, his papery cheeks rouged with neat red circles. On his lap was the day’s
Diário de Notícias,
the paper spread out across his blankets.

It took an instant for him to place me, but when he did, his eyes flared in recognition. “Yes.” He beamed. “Yes, of course. Nicki.” He clapped his hands. “I’d say a celebratory drink is in order,” he directed Gaspar in the same theatrical English his brother used. He turned to me. “It’s been the ruin of me, you know. Too much of a good thing.”

“I doubt Nicole has come to celebrate,” Gaspar said, focusing his gaze on me. “Now, have you, dear?”

I shook my head, but Amadeo wasn’t going to be denied.

“Don’t be such a pill,” he told his brother. “Besides,” he offered, motioning to the newspaper in his lap. “There are the Turks to toast as well. They’ve told the Americans to go screw themselves, you know?”

I nodded, though I hadn’t known, hadn’t given any of it much thought. I glanced down at the paper. TURKISH PARLIAMENT VOTES AGAINST U.S. TROOPS, one of the headlines read. “I don’t think there’s much anyone can do to stop the Americans now,” I remarked. “They’ll be in Baghdad in a matter of weeks.”

Amadeo shook his head vigorously.

“My brother, the eternal optimist,” Gaspar said, his voice touched with just a hint of paternalism.

“Not at all,” Amadeo protested. “But I do believe it’s up to the mongrels among us to care. After all, we’re the only ones who can really see, aren’t we?”

“I’m afraid Amadeo believes rather irrationally in the triumph of goodness. I, on the other hand, see this for the pissing contest it is. It makes me wonder if your president isn’t compensating for something.” Gaspar winked at me. “Not at all like the last fellow.”

Amadeo nodded appreciatively. “Clearly size wasn’t an issue for him.”

“Clearly!” Gaspar agreed. He cleared a stack of books from a chair and motioned for me to sit, then settled himself behind the desk, having either forgotten or chosen to ignore his brother’s earlier request for a drink.

“In France now, aren’t you?” Amadeo asked me. “I seem to remember hearing that.”

Gaspar cleared his throat and shot his brother a look of warning.

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