During the Arab Spring, an American spy’s final mission goes dangerously awry in this explosive and eerily realistic espionage debut from a former CIA officer that is perfect for fans of Daniel Silva, Alan Furst, and John LeCarre.
Shane Collins, a world-weary CIA spy, is ready to come in from the cold. Stationed in Bahrain off the coast of Saudi Arabia for his final tour, he’s anxious to dispense with his mission—uncovering Iranian support for the insurgency against the monarchy. But then he meets Almaisa, a beautiful and enigmatic artist, and his eyes are opened to a side of Bahrain most expats never experience.
When his trusted informant becomes involved with a murder, Collins finds his growing romance with Almaisa and Bahrain upended. In an instant he’s caught in the crosshairs of a revolution. Now he must rely on his skills to navigate a bloody uprising, win Almaisa’s love, and uncover the blurred lines between the dark secrets of both Bahrain and the United States.
“A breathless tour-de-force, the perfect spy tale” (Ian Caldwell, author of The Fifth Gospel) and dripping with authenticity, The Peacock and the Sparrow is a timely story of the elusiveness of truth, the power of love and belief, and the universal human desire to be part of a cause greater than yourself.
Release date: May 30, 2023
Publisher: Atria Books
Print pages: 320
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Peacock and the Sparrow
I hated the smell of Rashid’s cigarettes. He always lit up in my car, a beat-up Mitsubishi Lancer with just enough space to breathe. I hated the smell of his cigarettes, but I always took one when he offered. It was the ability to please that you learned as a spy: smoking a cigarette, offering compliments you didn’t mean, falling down drunk from having accepted too many vodkas.
His cigarettes were Canary Kingdom, a cheap Middle East brand that claimed to import its tobacco from Virginia. Virginia: That’s where CIA Headquarters is, I would inform Rashid casually. Link his source of pleasure to his source of risk, another trick of the manipulation trade. I’d offered to get him real American cigarettes with my ration cards on the naval base, but he’d refused, said he liked his native carcinogens. Anyway, he insisted on green apple, a flavor I’d never find in any of Uncle Sam’s packs. It was my misfortune that cigarettes were Rashid’s only vice; he was too pious to drink and I was never able to expense alcohol during our meetings.
Green apple had begun to mix with the odor from a nearby dumpster and our stationary car smelled like a rotting orchard. “We will not negotiate until they release Junaid,” Rashid was saying, shaking his head and looking out the window. The slums stared back at us, brown and uneven and stunted, as though they’d grown tired over the years, further from notions of a legitimate city. Late afternoon sun turned the car windows, caked with dust, to tarnished copper. I’d convinced myself that the car didn’t need a washing, that the dirt helped hide my informants.
Rashid’s eyes narrowed, his black pupils reflecting the dying rays of sun like rusty steel blades. He was getting self-righteous and indignant as he always did when talking about Junaid, the dissident poet who’d been rotting in a Bahrain jail since the early days of the uprising.
“Someday the king will answer to Allah for what he has done!” Spittle flew through Rashid’s crooked brown teeth. His youngish skin was dark and pockmarked, his curly hair greasy, undoubtedly styled with the cheap gel sold at every corner cold store. He looked leaner than usual—maybe the lingering effects of fasting for Ramadan—the concavity of his chest visible beneath his thin shirt. I never allowed him to wear his preferred white thobe when he met me—too conspicuous.
“If not to Allah, at least Al-Hakim will answer to the international community.” I smiled.
Rashid’s face turned conciliatory. “I forget you Americans do not believe in Allah. Yes, even the international community has condemned the meritless detention of Junaid.” His English was perfect, the product of four years at Oxford—or was it Cambridge? I could never remember.
“And Junaid is not the only unjust detention,” he continued. “Four doctors imprisoned last week for treating protesters. Simply providing medical care. Following Hippocrates—”
“Yeah, I heard about it.”
“Your country’s arms embargo is the only thing that keeps us alive.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Rashid took a drag, blew a cloud of smoke into my face. “Anyway… you understand our position.”
I opened the window a crack, threw out my cigarette, returned the pen flashlight to my mouth. “So what about Fourteen February? What’s your plan? Continue the war?”
“Yes.” Rashid tapped my notebook with his knobby finger. “Write that down. Inshallah, we will continue the struggle.”
Rashid’s silhouette disappeared behind Diraz Cemetery, a dirty ghost among the burial mounds. He was a decent source and an easy one. Help America learn more about the Opposition, I’d proffered, and he’d dived in, clothes still on. Pathetically eager to make his case and fund his revolution in the process. A planning officer within Fourteen February, he wasn’t perched on the highest echelon, but was good enough to provide the CIA its daily bread.
From the dashboard I removed the safety signal, a pack of cigarettes, took a gulp from my flask, turned my Lancer toward Juffair. The lampless streets were shedding their bulk, becoming paper-thin. I stopped for a soda at a cold store on Avenue 54, one of many Manama streets too nondescript and uninspired to warrant a name. Headquarters liked to remind us to run surveillance detection routes following meetings with informants, but after two decades in the business I could confirm their futility. Fine for younger, fresher case officers who needed the practice. Fine when you were going to a meeting and risked dragging the local intelligence service to your source. But useless after the fact.
When I reached the naval base in Juffair, the white of early evening had darkened to gray. The sky here was never blue. Always hazy and colorless, laden with dust so thick and constant you forgot it existed in the first place. I parked in a dirt lot sandwiched between opulent gated villas. Two-plus months in-country and I still didn’t qualify for a parking permit on base; you needed to hold an important position or learn the secret handshake, and I couldn’t seem to master either one.
The station was in a small annex at the rear of the base labeled OFFICE OF MIDDLE EAST ANALYSIS. It had the air of hasty and halfhearted officialdom—cheap cubicle walls, clean but shabby furniture, everything unoffensively decorated and slightly dusty, most things in acceptable working order—typical indecisive midpoint between peacetime and wartime operations. A frayed rattan ceiling fan attempted to cool the desert-infested space, buzzing like a dying mosquito.
Rashid’s information was thin and it only took a few minutes to type a report. Headquarters had been demanding new dirt, but there wasn’t much left. Almost autumn of 2012 and Bahrain had been stuck in a messy attempt at revolution for nearly two years, stalled in an advanced percolation stage: violent but not particularly deadly, a few casualties on either side, recycled rhetoric and sporadic material destruction. International newspapers had stopped reporting on the uprising, relegating it to the bin of petty civil wars. Bahrain’s Arab Spring, like its neighbors’, was doomed to the annals of inconsequentiality.
The cipher uttered its metallic click and the vault door swung open. Whitney put down his leather satchel, greeted me with a “Hey, Collins.” Like nearly everyone else, Whitney discarded my first name, Shane, although coming from his mouth it invariably sounded stilted and unnatural, like a high school boy unsure how to refer to a girl he’s dating. Whitney Alden Mitchell had the distinction of being the youngest station chief in CIA history, and if that weren’t fodder enough for ridicule, he looked even more juvenile than his twenty-eight years.
“What are you doing here?” Whitney asked as though it were the first time I’d worked past five o’clock.
“Writing up intel from SCROOP.” Rashid had the misfortune of receiving one of Langley’s uglier code names.
Unbuttoning the top of his shirt, Whitney glanced at my computer screen. He was softly bulging and short and had to lean forward to see what I’d written. “Anything good from our friends on the other side?” Friends on the other side. That’s what he called the Opposition.
“Not really. Same old shit. Continued protests, demands to release Junaid.”
Whitney’s blue eyes, framed by girlish lashes, sat eagerly in a round doughy face. Freckles on his neck, cement brown like his hair, quivered behind his starched collar. Every day he wore buttoned white shirts and khakis and penny loafers, and he still had the near-maniacal enthusiasm of a first-tour officer, his smiles uncomfortably close to genuine and his handshakes firm and compulsive. His parents were State Department diplomats, he liked to tell people as though explaining the polish and poise he’d acquired. Then he would make a joke and punch you in the arm, convincing you he had enough grit and humor to be spook material.
“What about Iran?”
I shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Collins.” Whitney’s penny loafers shifted. “We need details on the weapons and money. Where they’re coming from. How they’re getting here. H.Q. is going to be all over us.” He pronounced “H.Q.” as two letters, cozily, the way one would say a friend’s nickname.
“Understood, Chief.” (At my use of the vocative he blinked rapidly, feigned his usual discomfort.) “Nothing so far. But I’ll keep my eyes open.”
He smiled confidently. “It’s there. You just need to find it.”
Whitney had arrived a few weeks after me wearing a cheap heavy wool suit in the scorching June heat. Even before attaining station chief status in Bahrain, he’d been dubbed a “rising star,” the coveted term bandied about Headquarters, a title he wore with aspirational dignity like a Brooks Brothers jacket that didn’t quite fit or that he couldn’t quite afford. A lively contrast with me—twenty-five years a case officer, never a station chief. My prior tour in Baghdad had been the latest in a multiyear descent, a descent made worse by the disappearance of a few hundred bucks from my operational revolving funds and an official diagnosis of early-stage liver deterioration. With only a few miles left, I’d been assigned to Manama as the resident Iran Referent, tasked with uncovering the vast Persian conspiracy behind the Shiite uprising against the Sunni monarchy, putting flesh on our fears of Tehran’s regional domination. A suitable assignment before I exited the shadows permanently. Manama, as everyone knew, was a halfway house to or from places that mattered: Baghdad, Kabul, Sana’a. Generous living allowances, yearlong tanning, beachside villas—all the facets of decadence rarely seen on a government income—could not disguise the sepulchral reality. Manama was a place where spies came to die. Unless you were twenty-eight and a station chief.
“You do know who Junaid is, right?” I nodded toward my report.
Whitney nodded vigorously, freckles bouncing. “Of course. The poet. Poor bastard’s been in jail for… what? A year? Two years?”
Whitney’s hips were wide and curvaceous, I noticed, almost womanly. His belt struggled to circle the rotund waist, a snake clinging to its tree. And a peculiar odor emanated from him—baby powder mixed with sweat.
“You ever read any of his poetry?”
“I’ve heard his speeches here and there.”
Turning to the page Rashid had earmarked, I handed Whitney a leather-bound volume titled The Manama Verses. I’d only read a few poems and found them overly lofty and sentimental, but I was a good spy and had mastered enough material to talk intelligently with Rashid, pay homage to his hero. “Read it,” I suggested.
Whitney frowned. “It’s in Arabic.”
I flipped the page to reveal Rashid’s translation. Whitney’s eyes grew roundly suspicious, as though he were about to view a terrorist bomb plot.
“I can translate if you don’t trust SCROOP,” I offered.
“Looks interesting, but—”
“Please. Read it out loud.” I turned my hands upward: no sinister motive. “I haven’t read much of Junaid myself. We can both become enlightened.”
Whitney cleared his throat. “Tonight we hear echoes.” He glanced up to verify he was reading the correct poem. I nodded.
Tonight we hear echoes.
Tonight we hear echoes across the dunes
From Tunisia, from Egypt, from every maidan where people wear chains
And must stand on footstools
To drink the water from alabaster fountains on high.
Be warned all kings on mountaintops
Whose feet we can see and nothing more:
We are climbing the fountains, flooding your cities with their water!
We are eating your saffron and occupying your checkpoints!
We are shouting to each other, sharing our maps!
You bathe in diamonds but cannot afford freedom.
You are afraid of what will happen when the gems wash down the drain.
We are happening. We are moving.
We hear echoes and we are moving.
“Good stuff, eh? Stuff that would move the masses. SCROOP did a nice job with the translation.” I grinned. “Or maybe SCROOP’s a better poet than Junaid.”
Whitney handed me the book, rapped his knuckles on my desk. “So when can I expect your report?”
Back at his desk, shielded by glass walls, his corpulent fingers began typing. Always busy. The job of a station chief was never done.
I turned off my computer, stared at my image in the monitor’s cruel glass. Gray had spread across my black hair over the last few years like taunting cobwebs. My face neither American nor foreign. Nationless. My mother used to tell me I looked like Jack Kennedy but taller and darker, the less classical Irish strain. Women seemed to agree, at least in my thirties. Now I looked like an overtraveled bureaucrat or maybe Kennedy if he’d lived to regret Vietnam. My stomach was expanding and my knuckles had begun to ache in the morning—warnings, undoubtedly, that I was spending too much time at a desk. But I reasoned that I still had a full head of hair for the cobwebs to roost and, at a divorced fifty-two, some residual luck with women.
On the way out I stopped at Whitney’s door. A moment of generosity—guilt about the poetry book, maybe. “You wanna grab a drink somewhere? Heat’s starting to get tolerable.”
Whitney glanced at his watch, thrust his thumb at the monitor. “Thanks. But I really need to finish this cable.” His eyes jerked uneasily. “Jimmy left for the night?”
In mock curiosity I surveyed the office for Jimmy, our remaining officer, a counterintelligence guy who always left early on weekends. “It appears he has.”
“Appreciate the offer. I’ll definitely join you one of these nights.”
I made a child’s salute. “See you at the Admiral’s party.”
Usually humming purposefully with sailors and golf carts, the base was emptied for the weekend. It was a small base that people called quaint, picturesque. Palms, cacti, and bougainvillea lent the Fifth Fleet’s home a manicured feel; brick patios and grills hinted at a tropical party. INSHALLAH POOL and MOVIE SOUQ were etched onto whimsical arrows pointing in different directions. Names that were too cute, as though someone had used the only Arabic words they knew. Above the exit gate a ticker broadcast a message of good wishes for the weekend, followed by a list of hotels that were off-limits to U.S. military—located in revolution-prone areas, home to a surfeit of prostitutes. BAB AL BAHRAIN HOTEL, SEA SHELL HOTEL, CONCORD HOTEL.
Outside, the taxi stand had filled to capacity. Thursday night, beginning of the Middle East weekend. It was still early and cab drivers were reclining on plastic chairs beneath a crude awning, making persistent inquiries of any passing single male like a fly buzzing incessantly around a ceiling lamp. Piles of trash surrounded the taxi stand in the shape of a fort, too close to the base for Manama’s garbage trucks to heed, too far for American jurisdiction, a no-man’s-land. From behind the rancid heaps came the sweet contrast of shisha, favorite way to make the night go faster. One driver in particular always sat in the same chair at the same angle, inhaling his sugary mixture with a rapidity and seriousness that betrayed his addiction. Within a few years he’d probably drop dead from the poison, his twisted leathery features permanently at rest, and another driver would take his place, no one the worse for it.
Taxi, sir? You need taxi? Good fares.
American Alley, just beyond the taxi stand, was starting to glow. A mess of massage parlors advertising authentic Asian treatments in brash neon, antiques shops peddling rusty junk, American fast-food joints serving up burgers and fries and Cokes in sprawling quantities. Sailors would soon be staggering down its narrow sidewalks, Saudis in Land Rovers with tinted windows cruising like movie stars.
Thursday night traffic, as always, was a brutish cockfight, and my Lancer crept along Awal Avenue in inches. Tightly packed buildings rose to garish heights beside the street, limbs that had grown too quickly for their body during the oil boom years, an awkward metropolis desperate to prove its bulk and stature. Crawling at street level, like basement vermin, was the third world: tiny photocopy shops, overflowing dumpsters, beggars on bicycles. The city had none of the graceful colonial architecture or curving ancient construction one sometimes sees in the Middle East. Instead, there was a sense of disconnection—noncontiguous streets, noises without origin or purpose, angles that didn’t quite fit together—as though everything was an afterthought and nothing worth fighting for.
Outside the Juffair Mall a large screen mounted on a billboard announced the month’s events, made possible by King Jassim and the Jasri royal family: a culinary convention, a lottery with staggering rewards (Sharia-compliant, the video assured doubtful drivers), a garden show. Behind the billboard, plastered to the side of a building, the king’s five-story mustached visage stared down, gruesome and misshapen in its elongated form. It was a new poster and the king sported his latest fashionable apparel: sable aviator sunglasses, gleaming gold thumb ring. Directly opposite, a large placard admonished drivers to retain their vigilance amid the advertised pleasures: DOWN IRANIAN CONSPIRACY!
Past the Grand Mosque, domes of Italian marble gleaming in the electric lights. Right on Airport Road. Planes descended toward their runways, armored vehicles ringing the airport in jittery concentric defenses. From minarets across the city the maghrib call to prayer somersaulted through the streets, beckoning Muslims to pay homage to their god one last time before the sun went down.
Across Hidd Bridge, north on Dry Dock Highway (south was Dry Dock Prison, Junaid’s cozy abode), the Gulf murmuring sweet nothings to the east, calm in the emerging china-white moonlight, the only really beautiful part of Bahrain. Squat date palms rushed by in neatly pruned rows, creating the illusion of a fecund wall, the sole greenery that grew in the arid soil without extraordinary assistance, an unconvincing reminder that this once-feracious island was the storied location of Eden. Along the coast newly erected houses gleamed like sugar cubes, dregs of the decades-long construction boom still riding the last drops of oil. Rashid insisted the monarchy had promised these beachside rent-controlled homes to disgruntled Shia, but when a Saudi royal glimpsed them, he said, they’d turned to luxury properties within weeks. From the top of each home a Bahraini flag fluttered, its zigzag pattern wolf’s teeth in the night.
Amwaj Islands drew near, an archipelago of gilded neighborhoods housing an assortment of diplomats, foreign oil executives, and Gulf Air pilots. The safest place to be on the island, at least according to wishful conjecture, a sanctuary if the war ever took a bad turn. RETURNING WATERSIDE LIVING TO THE PEOPLE OF BAHRAIN, a sign proclaimed.
The unarmed guard at the gate waved me through. Creamy villas, windowpanes bright with the refracted light of crystal chandeliers. Alosra, gourmet grocery store stocked with Western favorites like potato chips, frozen pizza, and microwave popcorn. Harsh crooning of a Rod Stewart tribute band from inside the Dragon Hotel. Place was probably crawling with Brits, a rowdy indulgent crowd thrilled to exchange their native rain clouds for sun and palms but who clung to their music and alcohol with Churchillian tenacity.
An Indian loafing on a bicycle jumped at the sound of my car entering Floating City. He emerged from the shadows of a trellis where several other Indians had gathered for the night, their worn jean cuffs rolled up in the unthinking laborer’s way, sunburned faces black in the darkness. One of them, I suspected, was mentally disabled; for nearly two weeks he’d knocked on my door looking for odd jobs though I’d told him I had none, and he looked at me through unfocused eyes that never seemed to see or comprehend.
“Car wash?” the brave leader shouted through my open window. He held up dirty rags to advertise his wares, approaching just close enough to make his case, not close enough to make me feel threatened. It was the dance of the impoverished in the Kingdom of Bahrain.
The disabled man stared past me, his starving eyes reflecting my headlights like a nocturnal animal.
Inside my small villa I didn’t turn on the lights. Even without looking, I knew exactly what uninteresting furnishings awaited me, lurking like silent conspirators. A worn beige leather couch that had survived all my overseas assignments, more durable than my marriage; a gilded upright globe my son had given me before he’d stopped talking to me; bookshelves filled with a few nonfictions, Arabic textbooks, the occasional Graham Greene or le Carré novel through which I’d futilely tried to make sense of my life choices. My walls were bare; the only art I’d amassed over the years consisted of dated mementos and cheap gifts from informants. At least the place was clean; the maid had come that morning and the cloying lemony scent of her disinfectant hovered in the stillness.
My cell phone rang.
“Collins.” Whitney’s voice had that officious nasal quality, the kind that makes information seem prematurely unimportant. “Listen, you need to come back in. Just got a call from our friends. Big dust storm predicted tomorrow. Wind coming from the north this weekend.”
It was code: There would be a major uprising the following day and a shipment from Iran that weekend—arms, money, some variety of revolution-aiding materiel—information conveniently supplied by our Sunni partners in the Bahrain Intelligence Service, information we received with numbing and comical regularity that had yet to bear fruit.
“Doesn’t sound like anything new.”
“Collins, I need your help. This is your job.”
I hung up. In the Palladian windows that overlooked the lagoon my reflection emerged and disappeared on the black ripples in malicious repetition.
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