A riveting and intricate literary thriller from the author The New York Times Book Review says “speaks up in a voice that gets your attention like a rifle shot . . . clean, direct, and a little dangerous.”
Army Intelligence reservist Kat Caldwell is teaching Arabic at a military college in Virginia when the order comes: Retired spy chief Dick Morrow needs to find a CIA informant who has slipped away from his handler in Spain and may be heading to Morocco.
Jamal was a prisoner whom Kat interrogated when she worked at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. Having gained his trust, she is now expected to discover his whereabouts on a treacherous trail that leads from Madrid’s red-light district to the slums of Casablanca. But when a British Special Forces soldier is murdered just as he is about to give testimony on the death of a Bagram detainee, Kat begins to suspect that the real story here is one of the cover-up of U.S.-sanctioned torture. And when in desperation Jamal contacts his former CIA handler, he unwittingly rekindles a bitter struggle between the one man who can save him and the one who wants him dead.
Praise for Alex Carr’s An Accidental American
“A swift, clean, nuanced thriller . . . deeply atmospheric.”
–The Seattle Times, Best Crime Novels of 2007
“Demonstrates fiction’s power to follow a shard of glass from the great explosion, to examine its bloodstained edges and explore the passion, foolishness, tragedy and flawed humanity traced by its journey toward discovery . . . In this novel, we learn how to decipher the language of war, its mismanaged intent and complex ramifications.”
–January Magazine, Best Books of 2007
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Alex Carr, otherwise known as Jenny Siler, is the critically acclaimed author of An Accidental American, Easy Money, Iced, Shot, and Flashback.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
So, then, Jamal," the American said, resting his hands on his knees as was his habit. "How's everything going?"
He was a tall man, his arms and legs too long for his torso, his head square, with a neatly shorn cap of blond hair, pale eyelashes set in a pale face. Justin, he had insisted more than once that Jamal call him. But the boy could imagine nothing more awkward than addressing him this way. It was evening, still barely light outside, and through the open window Jamal could see into the apartment across the street, where the woman in the pink abaya was cooking dinner, as she almost always was during these meetings with the American. Harira, Jamal thought, smelling the heady odor of garlic and spice. Last week there was lamb. And, the week before, the pleasant aroma of sugar and cinnamon. The promise of seeing her was the one thing about these weekly meetings that Jamal did not dread. "There are some very important men coming to see you," the American announced, not waiting for a reply to his earlier query, apparently not wanting one. "They're going to ask you some questions about Bagheri." Jamal's mind raced anxiously back through everything he had said. He had not meant for it to come to this, and now he wasn't quite sure what to do. Somewhere in the building, a baby was crying. A baby was always crying, though whether it was the same baby or different ones Jamal could not say. "From Washington?" he asked, trying to conceal his panic. The American nodded, the gesture somehow both encouraging and unkind. "Just tell them what you know, what you've told me, and everything will be fine." Jamal thought for a moment. "Will Mr. Harry be there?" The man sighed, clearly exasperated. "We've talked about this, Jamal. Harry-Mr. Comfort, that is-doesn't work with us anymore. But you have me now." He conjured a smile, leaned forward, and handed Jamal a scrap of paper with an address scrawled in black ink. "There's a safe house in Malasaña. We'll meet there at midnight tomorrow." Jamal took the paper. "And after I tell them about Bagheri I can go?" "Of course." The American shrugged, pressed his hands against his knees, and unfolded his long body from the chair. "You can go right now if you'd like," he said, not understanding. "No." Jamal followed the man's face as he rose. "I can go to America?" The man paused to recover himself. Clearly he had not expected this, and his mouth was suddenly grim in the room's fading light. "Yes," he said at last. "Yes, of course. We'll talk about that later." Jamal nodded, sensing that this was the right thing to do, though he knew the American was lying. He had seen this same look many times before. Not pity but guilt. Shame at what had been done, at what was about to be done. "Trust me," the man said. Pulling his wallet from the back pocket of his pants, he slipped a hundred-euro note-much more than the usual payment-from the billfold and handed it to Jamal, then turned for the door. Jamal could hear the American's footsteps as he made his way down the stairs, the scrape of his leather soles on the gritty concrete. Then, far below, in the building's foyer, the front door slammed closed. Give me five minutes, Mr. Harry used to say after he and Jamal had played their usual game of gin rummy. He'd had an easy way of talking, as if it was all just a game, a joke between the two of them. Make them think we've been up to something in here. But Jamal was in no hurry to leave. After the American left, he sat alone in the apartment and watched the woman cook. It was not something he had ever permitted himself before, and though she was neither young nor beautiful, watching her felt somehow unclean. Pornographic. Jamal could not make himself stop. Emboldened by the darkness, he inched his chair closer to the window. In the kitchen's halogen glare the woman's abaya was bright as a pomegranate, the fabric shifting as she moved from one task to another, stirring and chopping and setting out the dinner dishes. She was so close, the space that separated them so narrow, that for a moment Jamal forgot himself and was there with her. Then someone passed in the street below, a singer unaccompanied except by one too many glasses of sherry. He could always go back, Jamal told himself, contemplating his slim options. To Tangier or Casa. Ain Chock, even. He did not think the Americans would come to Morocco. If they did, it would not be easy for them to find him. Though even as he thought this he knew that going back was not something he could bring himself to do. Not yet. And the truth? Never tell them the truth, Harry had cautioned him once. They'll just use it against you. Suddenly Jamal missed the man with a desperation he rarely allowed himself. If Mr. Harry were here, Jamal thought, he would know what to do. They would sort this out together. Though, of course, if Harry were here things would never have come this far. Below in the darkness the singer passed, the twelve-count rhythm of the Verdiales fading into the quarter's crooked street, the words slurred beyond recognition. For a moment everything was quiet, then the baby started up again. No, Jamal told himself, fighting back tears as he fingered the hundred-euro note in his hand. He had started it and he would have to see it through. If he played things right, he might even come out on top. Now that he understood just how much Bagheri meant to the Americans, he would be asking for more than the usual handouts. two It was barely eight by the bar clock at the Kings Cross Coopers. Just enough time, David Kurtz thought as he watched Colin Mitchell shoulder his bag with his good right arm and make his way to the bar, for a quick pint before the next train north. The Coopers was not a place to linger, yet there was something to be said for the unapologetic grubbiness of the establishment. A good station pub wasn't meant to be pleasant. Squalor was part of the allure, a distraction from the open shame of the patrons, men on their way to places they didn't want to go, medicating themselves for the trip. From his seat at the back of the room, Kurtz watched Colin squeeze into one of the few free spaces at the counter and bark his order over the din. It had been two years since their last meeting, since that night at the Bagram Special Forces camp. Hardly long enough, Kurtz thought, for time to have taken such an obvious toll on the other man. Yet it had. The barman set down a full pint and Colin hunched over the glass, looking up at the television, trying, Kurtz knew, to avoid his own reflection in the bar's mirror, the sight of his stiff left arm hanging awkwardly at his side. Hand and wrist and elbow that, after two years, obviously didn't feel like his own. But there was more to Colin's transformation than just the loss of his arm. His entire body seemed diminished by the injury, as if the absence were not merely a physical one. Watching his graceless gestures and slumped back gave Kurtz a sense of overwhelming satisfaction, as if some kind of justice had been achieved. Colin ducked his head and turned away from the television, letting his eyes wander across the room. It was a motion Kurtz was familiar with, cautious and searching, the look on his face that of a man who felt he was being watched. And Kurtz, wanting his presence known, allowed himself to be found. Colin's gaze slid toward Kurtz and stopped, his expression shifting suddenly from confusion to contempt. It was the same way he and the other soldiers had looked at Kurtz so many times before, their disdain indelible. And this time Kurtz, thinking of what was to come, couldn't stop himself from smiling. "Mitchell?" He raised his hand and waved, forcing surprise-an old acquaintance caught off guard by an unlikely meeting-then stood and jostled his way through the crowd toward the bar. "I thought that was you!" He was not good at false sincerity, never had been. "Buy you a drink?" he proposed, wedging himself next to Colin, patting him on the back for the benefit of whoever was watching before signaling the bartender for a fresh round. "For old times' sake." "Save your money," Colin told him icily, looking up at the television again. There was a rugby match on, Hull at St. Helens, the teams locked together in comic futility, like a group of drunks staggering home from the bar on a gusty evening. "I've got a train to catch." "Just five minutes," Kurtz said, knowing full well that the Edinburgh train wasn't leaving for another half hour. The barman set two fresh pints on the counter and Kurtz paid him. "I never could understand rugby," he observed, motioning to the game with his right hand, fingering the vial in his breast pocket with his left. Minutes, he reminded himself. Once he takes that first sip it will be a matter of minutes till it's over. "Same with cricket. Here, for instance. Was that a goal or a try? I can never remember which is which." Colin's skin was sallow in the nicotine-dulled glare of the pub's lights, his face that of a junkie in need of a fix. Yes, Kurtz thought as he moved his hand across Colin's glass, letting the contents of the vial drop as he did so. Here was a man whose death would be a surprise to no one. Kurtz slid the empty vial back into his pocket, then lifted his own glass and admired the contents. "You still in touch with Kat?" he asked. "She was somewhere in Virginia, last I heard." Like picking an old scab. Colin shrugged, took a long, slow sip of his bitter, then turned to face Kurtz. "You here to make sure I haven't gotten cold feet?" "Something like that." "Well, you shouldn't have bothered. I'm not planning any sudden changes of heart, and neither is Stuart. So unless your Mr. Bagheri decides to make an unscheduled appearance at the court-martial, you've got nothing to worry about." Kurtz laughed. Just a bit too easily, he knew, but it didn't matter now. Neither of them spoke then, and for a moment it was almost as if they were, in fact, what they appeared to be: two old acquaintances passing in transit, two men making a truce. All of it behind them now, al-Amir and the Iranian. Kat, even. Colin finished his beer and glanced at his watch. "Time's up," he said, hefting his bag with his good right hand. He moved to push himself back from the bar, but his prosthetic hand slipped on the wet counter and he pitched awkwardly forward. "You okay?" Kurtz asked jeeringly. Colin struggled to stand. His face was damp, his mouth open wide, his breathing ragged. Kurtz slipped Colin's arm across his shoulder and helped him up, steering him away from the bar and toward the bathroom. A woman lunged at them from the crowd, her mouth a sharp red slash, her fat face smeared and stained. A drunk recognizing her kin. She fell against Colin, pawing him sloppily. Disgusted, Kurtz shoved her away and kicked the bathroom door open with his boot. Colin stumbled out of his grasp and into one of the doorless stalls, dropping to his knees before the toilet, retching up beer and bile. Kurtz locked the door behind them. "That last pint must not have agreed with you," he sneered. Pulling a pair of black leather gloves from his jacket pocket, shoving his hands into them, he reached for Colin's bag and unzipped it, shuffled through the meager contents. Dirty underwear and T-shirts. A few toiletries for the overnight to Portsmouth. "Open up!" There was a flurry of impatient voices from the other side of the door, a barrage of fists. Kurtz paused briefly. "Fuck off!" he barked over his shoulder, then he pulled Colin's half-finished bottle of morphine sulfate from the bag. "You know," he remarked, nodding toward Colin's bad left arm, "this was supposed to have happened at al-Amir." He dumped the remaining pills into the toilet, then set his boot on the steel lever and flushed. "Don't worry," he added. "It'll be over before you know it." three It was just past midnight when Jamal started across Puerta del Sol. Late already, he thought, glancing up at the clock tower on the Old Post House, not bothering to pick up his pace. The Americans would wait for him, he reminded himself. They would have to. It was a warm night, early fall in all its perfection, and the outdoor cafés that ringed the plaza were filled to overflowing. The crowd was mixed, Madrileños and tourists both, all young and attractive. Bare shoulders and legs, skin burnished and dark from the August holidays. In the center of the plaza a fountain washed elegantly onto itself, the water lit from beneath, lucid as blown glass. This other Madrid, far from the dank streets of Lavapiés and Jamal's room above the halal butcher shop, the sounds and smells of slaughter. This city Jamal so seldom saw, in which he would always be an outsider. Picking his way through the crowd, Jamal crossed the plaza and headed north toward the Gran Via. He had been to Malasaña, the city's unofficial red-light district, before, on more desperate occasions than he liked to admit, always looking to make some quick cash. This wasn't his purpose tonight, but he could feel the fist of apprehension in his stomach all the same, fear of what he knew was to come. Fifteen Calle del Desengaño. Jamal repeated the address to himself as he walked, trying to focus on the task ahead, on what, exactly, he would tell the Americans. He had not gone back to his room the night before, but had stayed at the apartment on the Calle Tres Peces, working his story over and over in his mind until he'd almost believed it himself. Then, sometime just before dawn, he'd finally fallen asleep. Jamal could feel the angry stares of the whores as soon as he turned off the Gran Via and onto the Calle del Desengaño. These women had all been in the business long enough to know a threat when they saw one, and though Jamal wasn't trolling for tricks tonight, there was no way of convincing the whores that this was the case.
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