Forced out of a self-imposed exile, one woman faces a lifetime’s worth of secrets and betrayal–all in the name of staying alive.
Nicole Blake had planned to leave her criminal life in the past. She had done her time in a dank prison in Marseille and relinquished the world of forgery and counterfeiting for an unassuming career as a freelance consultant. Now her world is a small farm in the French Pyrenees, with daily fresh eggs and the companionship of her devoted dog.
But when U.S. intelligence operative John Valsamis shows up at her door, Nicole is reminded that she’ll always be an ex-con. Valsamis is after Nicole’s former lover, Rahim Ali, and soon Nicole finds herself back in Lisbon, tracking down Rahim in all their old haunts. Except now Rahim isn’t just a document forger–he’s a suspected terrorist.
Unwittingly drawn into an international web of fundamentalism, crime, and corruption, Nicole discovers that its threads stretch from the cobbled streets of Lisbon to the once-beautiful city of her birth, Beirut, and to the top levels of the government that sent Valsamis to find her. And as with any good web, the harder Nicole fights to free herself, the tighter it closes around her.
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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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Reading Group Guide
ALEX CARR’S NOTE ON THE BOMBING OF THE AMERICAN EMBASSY IN BEIRUT
On April 18, 1983, at one o’clock in the afternoon, a van carrying two thousand pounds of explosives blew up outside the American embassy in Beirut, killing sixty-three people. Among the victims were seventeen Americans, eight of whom represented the Central Intelligence
Agency’s entire Middle East contingent. In the years preceding the bombing, an increasing number of attacks on Western and
Israeli interests had been carried out by Palestinian and Muslim extremists,
but the Beirut bombing was widely seen as a watershed event for American policies in the region. With the exception of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran four years earlier, an act that was carried out within the framework of Iran’s Islamic revolution,
the embassy bombing represented the first time America had been so directly and bloodily targeted by Islamic terrorists for its military involvement in the Middle East.
It’s impossible to see why the United States was such an unwelcome force without an understanding of the history of Lebanon and the surrounding region, and of American and Western involvement in the politics of the Middle East in general. Though Lebanon has existed in one form or another since the ninth century b.c., the modern country of Lebanon was not established until 1920, when it was granted to the French as part of a system of mandates established for the administration of former Turkish and German territories following
World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, almost all of what we think of as the modern Middle East was shaped by these mandates.
America’s first direct intervention in Lebanese politics came in
1946. During World War II, Lebanon had been declared a free state in order to liberate it from Vichy control. But when, after the war,
Lebanon eventually moved toward full independence, the French balked, and the United States, Britain, and several Arab governments stepped in to support Lebanese independence. It was at this time that Lebanon’s system of political power sharing was devised. Well aware of the country’s shaky precolonial past and determined to keep
Lebanon intact, the fledgling nationalist government agreed to split power along sectarian lines, based on the numbers of the 1932 census.
It was a well-intentioned plan, but one that inadvertently set the stage for decades of strife and civil war.
The power-sharing government’s first major stumbling block came with the partitioning of the British Mandate of Palestine in the wake of World War II, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that followed. The ensuing influx of some 100,000 Palestinian refugees into Lebanon proved a strain on the carefully crafted power-sharing system. Tensions were further exacerbated in 1956, when Egyptian president
Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, provoking the
United States, along with Britain, France, and Israel, to respond with military force. While Lebanese Muslims wanted the government to back the newly created United Arab Republic, Christians fought to keep the nation allied with the West. In 1958, with the country teetering on the brink of civil war, the United States sent marines into
Lebanon to support the government of President Camille Chamoun,
thus inextricably linking itself with Christian forces.
It was an alliance that would be tested when, nearly two decades later, sectarian rivalries finally erupted into full-scale civil war. While
Lebanon had enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and between the United States and Iran, had escalated significantly, as had tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians. By the spring of
1975–when gunmen from the Christian Phalange militia attacked a bus in the suburbs of Beirut and massacred twenty-seven Palestinians on board in what is widely agreed to have been the first act of the civil war–the forces at work in Lebanon were not merely internal ones. The Cold War, as well as the larger Arab-Israeli conflict, were both being played out in Lebanon, and would be throughout the course of the war, as international players funneled weapons and money to the various Christian, Muslim, and Druze militias.
The United States was a major player in the civil war from the beginning,
providing mainly covert support for the Christian government,
with whom it had traditionally been allied. But it wasn’t until
1982, after the Israeli siege of Beirut, the assassination of Phalange leader Bachir Gemayel, and the horrific massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, that U.S. troops, along with other members of a multinational peacekeeping force, formally intervened in the conflict. The United Nations—backed coalition was meant as a neutral presence, but the complications of Cold War allegiances and the United States’ traditionally close ties to Israel and
Lebanon’s Christian government meant that the Americans were inevitably viewed by Muslim and Druze factions as anything but impartial.
It was in this environment, less than six months after the
Americans arrived as peacekeepers, that the embassy bombing took place.
There can be no doubt that the main goal of the bombing was to intimidate the United States into pulling its forces from Lebanon.
But there were other, less obvious but no less significant reasons behind the attack. Responsibility for the bombing, and the subsequent bombing of the marine barracks, was claimed by a radical wing of the
Iranian-backed Hezbollah. In the years leading up to these attacks,
Iran had taken an increasingly aggressive role in its support of
Lebanese Muslim militias, most of which were traditionally Shiite,
transforming what had once been a mainly political fight into a religious and moral one. Not only did Muslim radicals want American troops gone, but they wanted to rid the country of Western cultural influence–which they saw as mainly American–as well. In the bloody years to follow, the American University of Beirut, as well as
American and Western journalists, would be targets of a concerted campaign of kidnapping and intimidation.
Under any other circumstances, the Islamicizing of the conflict might have been yet another disturbing development in an already wildly fractured situation. But in the hothouse of the Lebanese civil war, Hezbollah’s fierce brand of anti-Americanism became not just a
Shia or Iranian cause but a Palestinian and therefore pan-Arab cause as well. In the years since the embassy bombing, the cause has taken on many faces, including that of the vast al-Qaeda network, but the anger remains undiluted. Not only is anti-American thinking still prevalent today in the Middle East, but it has become the uniting force for radical Muslims the world over.
Former high-ranking members of the Reagan administration have confirmed that how to respond to the embassy bombing and the bombing of the marine barracks was a subject of debate at the time.
There was a clear split within the White House between those who believed that force was the best response and those who argued that the use of military power would only add to the problem by antagonizing
America’s remaining friends in the Arab world. The lessons of
Vietnam, along with the horrific loss of life in both attacks, no doubt helped cement the decision to follow a policy of disengagement. In the end, the choice was made to pull all American troops out of
It’s no coincidence that I chose to make the 1983 bombing of the
American embassy in Beirut central to the plot of An Accidental
American. This is a novel about U.S. involvement in the politics of the Middle East, and the embassy bombing has shaped American policy in that region as few other events have. Disengagement is no longer the United States’ response of choice when dealing with Islamic extremism. In light of the September 11 attacks, it comes as no surprise that American foreign policy leans heavily on the swift use of military might. But the effects of the decisions made in the wake of the Beirut bombings are also at the root of this powerful policy shift. Those in Washington who argue in favor of unilateral military action can point to the message that the earlier withdrawal sent:
namely, that the United States could be intimidated by terrorists.
Writing about events in which real people lost their lives is always a delicate undertaking. Sixty-three people were killed in the embassy bombing, and it is not my intention to dishonor them. While I do aim for historical accuracy, my main focus as a writer is on my characters.
Truthfulness for me means looking back on the events of history through the flawed lens of human perception. This means creating characters who are as real as possible, and whose motives are often less than pure and always complicated. I strongly believe that I can best respect the real inhabitants of history by struggling to portray my fictional inhabitants as honestly as possible.
Most of my fictionalization of the embassy bombing in An Accidental
American adheres closely to the facts. The van used to transport the explosives to the embassy had, in fact, been stolen from the embassy pool the summer before the bombing. It is universally acknowledged that the Syrians, as well as the Iranians under the guise of Hezbollah, were behind the attacks. Among the people killed that day were the CIA’s chief Middle East analyst, Robert C. Ames, and station chief Kenneth Haas. Both Ames and Haas were brilliant men and rising stars, and the consequences of their deaths are still being felt within the intelligence community. But the idea that a rogue CIA
official was actually behind the bombing is entirely fabricated, as are all the characters involved.
In recent years, there seems to be a growing uncertainty concerning what, exactly, separates fiction from nonfiction. The meteoric rise of the memoir and other forms of “creative nonfiction” has further blurred an already fuzzy line between minor embellishment and outright fabrication–while the popularity of a certain kind of fiction,
which claims to illuminate long-concealed truths, has led readers to confuse clever fabrication with fact. In the wake of this uncertainty has come outrage and even anger. I have to admit, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Stories are meant to transport–at its best, historical fiction can even offer us a wise perspective on our own condition–
and if readers are denied the joy of suspending their disbelief,
they might as well not read at all.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we should substitute the watered-down truths of historical fiction for the real thing, or the musings of a fiction writer, whose ultimate loyalty lies with his or her story, for the more measured presentations of historians and journalists,
whose allegiances are with the truth. We live in a world in which the costs of ignorance are simply too high.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The first time she sees John Valsamis in her French countryside driveway, he says nothing before driving away. He returns the next day at the same time saying he needs her help. He wants her to find her former lover Rahim Ali, who he claims is a terrorist recruited by the Islamic Armed revolution he also shows her pictures of what the LAR has wrought on innocent people.-------------------- She agrees to help the DOD agent and journeys to Lisbon where he lives as a documents forger. Word gets around that Nicole Blake seeks Rahim Ali. When they finally meet, John shoots Rahim, but before he dies he directs Nicole to go to his office where she finds a suspicious looking document and its forgery. John plans to kill Nicole, but she eludes him while wondering what is going on and why evidence points toward Beirut just after the embassy bombings.----------------- Readers who like dark thrillers in the tradition of Le Carre will enjoy AN ACCIDENTAL AMERICAN. Nicole is a gusty quirky heroine who wants to be like her father even though he gave her up to the police. Her years in prison strengthened her resolve. Espionage thriller fans will enjoy her cat and mouse battle with a clever killing machine............Harriet Klausner
I wasn't paying attention when the Beirut Embassy Bombing of '83 (the core of the plot of this book) took place. In fact only recently have I begun to learn about the world outside the US, a deficit I regret and which definitely leaves me unprepared to read books like this. For that reason it's possible this book deserves a higher rating.Addressing only what I feel qualified for, I liked the mix of first and third person. I didn't mind the jumps forward and back in time. The slow unfolding of the plot seemed right, as at times the most gripping action was internal, in the minds of the characters.On the other hand, the characters felt like types or even symbols to me. (With the exception of Valsamis: he seemed like a grade-b spy novel bogeyman. Ick.) I don't think anyone really acts like the characters in the book did, but the *idea* of a woman who has lost everything but an echo of her ideals, a lover whose only crime is her youth, an old man almost welcoming his death - these are all blocks AC uses to build the tale. But it's not enough for me; if characters don't feel like individuals I nod off.Still, I also nod off when books are outside my experience and comprehension, and this is what I felt like here - as though I was a beginning student borrowing my older sibling's honors textbook.
Very different style of story telling. I found it very interesting and educational, but unfortunately I just didn't understand the ending..... So hard to give it more stars. Sigh.