Paris – A Week earlier
If it hadn’t been for the Israeli deaths in the explosion at Kirkuk a week earlier, the photo might have remained forgotten in Chloe’s desk drawer. It turned out to be an awful, slow day at the office, and it started badly.
It was not the first time her husband had not returned home for the night. She had gone to bed wondering if it was all her fault. She had put his note, which she thought had said he would be back on Saturday afternoon in the pocket of her jeans. When he hadn’t arrived home late Saturday night, she had gone to check the note only to find it a mushy mess in the freshly washed jeans pocket. She assumed it must have said Sunday and went to bed disappointed, but when he didn’t return on the Sunday evening, she was concerned. She imagined accidents, muggings, affairs and general indifference. If there was a genuine reason for his absence, why didn’t he phone? It was a symptom of the problems their marriage faced, not the cause.
She arrived at the office with a bad case of the Monday morning blues, she was frustrated with her job and her personal situation didn’t help.
The new office décor was a study in porridge but in spite of designer attempts at bland, it was full of colour. Journalists were hoarders. It was the colour of the paper, the doodles, the shape of the torn out copy that helped your memory retain the information. No one trusted computers for the important stuff.
Now in the hexagonal interlinked micro-spaces, referred to as the pigpens, in her untidy, paper strewn, book-laden cubbyhole, she would settle down, phone a few contacts for a final quote or opinion and finish a piece she didn’t find satisfying. Jean Pierre, who covered French national security issues, worked at the next desk.
She briefly considered tidying her desk to pass the time, but the effect would be short-lived, and afterwards she would never be sure if she couldn’t find something or if she had thrown away a now vital piece of information in a fit of enthusiasm. She opted to do her expenses instead, and as usual, found items on her credit card statement she no longer had receipts for and receipts at the bottom of her handbag for expenses she no longer remembered incurring, and annoyingly found a receipt she couldn’t find last month when she did her expenses.
Journalists were milling round the office, more trips to the water cooler, frequent caffeine intakes, and longer lunches than usual. Towards the end of the day, Chloe gathered, with others at the bank of TV screens, scrutinising the scrolling items of breaking news, just in case a lead could provide compelling copy. They were also afraid carefully researched pieces might break on a competitor’s TV channel, before their presses even started to run.
Today, news comprised announcements of economic data and the sad but inevitable losses in post-war Iraq. A press agency newsflash trailed across the screen; bomb blast in Kirkuk, five Israelis killed. Yet the item never made it to the bulletins. Instead it ran as, “In Iraq another bomb exploded, this time in Kirkuk, five killed.” Editorial control had removed the presence of the Israelis altogether.
Chloe had a nagging concern, why edit the Israelis out of the story? After searching through piles of cuttings and notebooks on her desk, she eventually found a manila envelope in her desk drawer. The Iraqi postmark was two months old.
She took the photograph out of the envelope and ran her fingers along the edge of the card; someone had taken the trouble to mount the picture on a chamfered-edge art board, as if the quality of presentation would give substance to its credibility. It was a rather grainy picture, reminiscent of the number of fake pictures in circulation at the end of the Iraq war. The words Mossad Metsada were written in pencil under the image, together with a grid reference. Google Earth identified this as South West of Kirkuk, Iraq. It was a barren space with a couple of trees she could clearly cross-reference with the photograph.
Jean Pierre had returned to his desk where he sat, looking relaxed, almost smug. His chair was tilted back, one foot, in a polished black loafer, placed on the edge of his desk secured his recline, as he contemplated his computer screen. The mouse under his right hand occasionally clicked as he navigated around emails and webpages.
He was tall, good looking and ageing in the way men do, and women envy, and he knew it. About six-foot-two, naturally slim built – he ate without censure, hazel eyes, dark, short curly-hair with a few strands of grey at his temples. Maybe it was a lack of confidence, but he tried too hard to make a favourable impression and the result was unappealing, like an enthusiastic spaniel, cute, but after a while, tiresome.
He routinely flirted with Chloe, without any serious intent, she didn’t believe she was his type; she was just target practice. She had remarried six months ago, which was turning out to be a mistake, and he was getting over a divorce. However, it would be a lie to say she didn’t appreciate his attention; it gave her confidence a much-needed boost.
“And how is my petite blonde today?” He emphasised the word ‘my’.
She didn’t think five-foot-five meant she was little, and the blonde was more about the highlights applied to the typical northern European brunette – not brown enough to be interesting, not pale enough to be mousy. The proprietorial use of the possessive pronoun she overlooked, because he was her essential guide to internal politics in the newsroom, which he believed meant he held a special position in her life. He could wish or maybe she hoped he would continue to wish, she wasn’t sure.
When the photograph arrived, she had taken the view checking out this story wouldn’t pay off, either because national security issues would block publication, or you couldn’t get any facts to support it. She didn’t feel any differently about it now. It was too vague to be anything but a tease.
Chloe thought it unlikely anyone could find Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence Service in Iraq. They were like ghosts; they came and went without trace. But the news that a bomb had killed five Israelis in Kirkuk, alongside the suggestion from the photo that Mossad was active in Iraq needed further investigation.
She ignored his greeting, because there would be a lengthy amount of banter to follow if she indulged him and she got down to business.
“Who are, or what is, the Metsada…”
“Mossad,” he replied without looking up. “Israeli Special Operations Division which conducts highly sensitive assassinations, paramilitary and psychological warfare projects. In other words, don’t mess with them. Why?”
“I was sent a photograph.”
“Yes, I know, you’ve had it in your drawer for two months. You managed to suppress your usual curiosity. Why the sudden interest? I assumed you had wisely decided to leave it alone.”
His knowledge of her desk drawer contents didn’t altogether surprise her. They opened all post in a secure room to protect employees against explosive devices and pathogens. It was a precaution mainly against cranks; serious attempts would probably be successful. The process bred rumours. Little remained confidential.
“Your first instinct was better,” Jean Pierre continued, “you should leave this alone. It’s either a fake, or an anti-Israeli campaign. I doubt you’ll get any budget to investigate. Anyway, what can you see on the photograph? A group of guys burying rugs shrouded in white sheets, ready for excavation when life settles down again. Perhaps they’re going to make an insurance claim.”
“I don’t think so! Surely the implication is Mossad is involved in mass burials.” Not only did he know she had a photograph, but he had taken the trouble to examine it closely. She wondered if he would have stolen the story from her. He was competitive and it troubled her she didn’t know the answer. Journalists were a cutthroat breed; each one thought they had the divine right of exposing the truth, and were unique in the qualities they brought to a particular story. Clearly putting the photograph under a box of winged female products was no deterrent.
“Maybe, maybe not – who knows?” He chuckled.
Jean Pierre was right, but Chloe was bored, frustrated with ‘establishing trust with the readers’, ‘gaining a readership’ and other such similar phrases from her editor. She was desperate to get involved in a good story. She had arrived at La France a couple of years ago, recently widowed and expecting scope to continue her former role at the Washington Post as an investigative journalist.
At first, the editor felt she didn’t understand France’s privacy laws and developed other excuses to keep her involved in European Union stories. Recently Chloe had discovered no one liked covering these stories and the editor usually left new reporters to cover the EU until they resigned, or came to her with such a fabulous story she was compelled to let them investigate. Chloe hoped this story might be her opportunity to escape the monotony of the EU, and a cursory look into known activities of Mossad in Iraq had to be worth a few calls and emails.
“Hi, Chloe, it’s good to hear from you. Interesting questions, but I can’t give you answers. I can confirm Israeli Security Services have been operating with the Kurds in Iraq since 1968.” Marlene, the Washington CIA press officer, a friend as well as a work contact was usually helpful.
“So do Mossad have an office in Kirkuk?” She had to ask the question but didn’t think Marlene would answer it, even if the CIA knew, the press officer wouldn’t know, or wouldn’t tell, it didn’t make any difference.
“I couldn’t say, but the six men killed in the Kirkuk bomb blast were Israeli.”
Chloe made a note, the death count had risen. “How many were injured?” Perhaps she could interview a survivor, if they hadn’t already been spirited back to Israel.
“I’m sorry I can only repeat information from Israeli intelligence, this is as up to date as we have, you might get more with a direct approach.”
Chloe doubted that. It was a useful confirmation, but nothing new, and not as much as she had hoped for, “Thanks, Marlene. Have a good day.”
“You too girlfriend, you should drop in for lunch next time you’re in town, although I don’t suppose you want to swap Paris for Washington. In fact, how do you ever get back to the office from lunch, with all those opportunities to shop? I should visit you. We miss your challenging intellect here.” Marlene laughed. “There’s just an excess of testosterone over common sense in the press room.”
Chloe couldn’t remember the last time she had been shopping in a ‘let’s have fun’ sort of a way. She had bought a pair of boots on impulse a week ago, they were on sale, and feminine in an impractical way. It was a spur of the moment thing, not a planned ‘shop’. If Marlene came over they wouldn’t be socialising, it was against CIA policy to get close to the press. Marlene always kept things professional, an occasional sandwich lunch with members of the press was as much as Marlene allowed herself and Chloe respected her more for it.
“I’ll keep that in mind. Let me know if you want to come over. I hope to see you soon,” Chloe paused. “There wasn’t anything else you could add to this line of enquiry was there?” Another pause. “Was there any other information that might be relevant?” Chloe waited, and let the silence work. So far, Marlene had given her standard responses, straight off the briefing sheet. The most useful information would come from information Marlene had, but would have to think about. If she waited with an expectant silence, she might get more. Silence was the best interview tool any journalist could master.
“You could email Jonah Evans at Fort Detrick. They might have answers for you.” This was a typical Marlene response, saying nothing, but merely suggesting a follow up enquiry, implied there might be an interesting story. A chill ran through Chloe. Someone had just walked over her grave.
Chloe hung up. She was pleased with the lead, and feeling nostalgic about her time in America. She wondered, not for the first time, if it had been a mistake to come back to France. But with this story, it now felt worthwhile.
Why did Mossad need an office in Kirkuk? It wasn’t difficult to join up the dots. If the troops couldn’t find weapons of mass destruction, it didn’t mean Iraq didn’t have the capability to produce them, they just didn’t have any stockpiled. Rumour had it that the stockpiles had been sent over the border to Syria. The issue was all about the knowledge, the people involved, who knew what to do and where to find the materials to commence manufacture.
Chloe e-mailed Jonah Evans at the National Interagency Confederation for Biological Research, at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
His response was simple and direct; Mossad had been getting detailed information from UNSCOM, the United Nations Special Commission, about scientists working on potential Atomic, Bacteriological and Chemical activity. The list contained the names of three hundred Iraqi scientists, all working on ABC weapons.
ABC weapons. Chloe shook her head in disbelief; only the military could select an acronym more suited to the nursery and innocence than weapons of mass destruction.
It was not enough for an international investigative journalist. It summed up her day, nearly interesting but not quite there.
She was preparing to leave when Charles Forbury, a former colleague at the Washington Post, returned her call. His office colleagues referred to him as a stiff-assed Brit with a first class mind and a Pooh-Bear body; an Oxford graduate with a first in PPE from Brasenose College. He embodied the best and the worst of a public school education: self-confident, competitive, polite, sexist, full of charm, and an uncanny ability to fit in anywhere. They had been friends, as well as colleagues, expats spending American holidays together. Smoke-filled backyards on Independence Day, copying the best barbecue traditions; turkey and stove-top stuffing at Thanksgiving; it was imitation American culture, like Disney reproducing Europe, in essence correct but not quite right. They were happy days.
“There was an Iraqi establishment at Mosul known as Group Four looking into long range missile development,” said Charles. “It appears Mossad are killing all the scientists on the UNSCOM list, possibly including those at Mosul. And the only thing I know about Mossad at Kirkuk is their bomb making factory exploded last week.”
Chloe was busy taking notes of three unrelated facts that together seemed significant and wondering why the Israelis had a bomb-making factory in Iraq when he continued.
“Look, Chloe, if unexplained deaths of scientists involved in biological warfare is of interest, there are seven or eight in America, three in England, a dozen or more in Russia, four in France and several in Germany, about forty in total; they’d all be interesting. Anything’s better than going to Iraq on a wild goose chase. Even if you find the bodies you’d have a hard time linking it to Mossad.”
“Oh, it’s all sound stuff. I just ran out of budget for an investigation. It’s also not politically acceptable as a topic – you know you’re either for us or… you know the rest. Look, I can send you a synopsis and if you can get approval, I’ll bring the files over next week. I could do with a break. How about four days by a Normandy beach.”
“Charles you’re delusional. It’s autumn. It’ll be cold…”
“I know, I like cold – it’ll be wonderful. Cosy open fires, thick coats, woolly mittens…”
“Oh stop; you’re beginning to sound like Julie Andrews.” She hung up.
One news flash, one photograph, fake or not, had aroused journalist curiosity, and an unrelated inquiry. No matter how dramatic the subject, unless the readership of the paper was interested, it was unlikely to get a budget.
Charles emailed through his synopsis. It was brilliant, detailed, and provided her with a compelling argument for further investigation. The facts would have to be overwhelming to spark a debate about the dangers of so many countries having biological and chemical weapons programmes, usually in the guise of ‘defence projects’. She felt sufficiently confident to make an appointment with her editor for the next morning.
The final blow in her day came when Monique cancelled their squash game. Chloe swore gently as she put the phone down; she wanted a game to release her tensions before she went home. Any conversation with her husband would need to be calm and quiet. All day, gnawing away in the back of her mind, she had worried about Walid. What if something had happened to him? The fact this was the sixth time in four months he had disappeared without letting her know his plans left her worried and annoyed. It was at best rude, and left her uncertain as to whether to look hysterical, and contact the police again, which is what he had called her reaction to the first time he disappeared for two days. What concerned her most was she didn’t feel jealous any more. She was questioning in her mind if she loved him, or just the thought of him. She couldn’t tell. She needed to see him. The fact she was away so much didn’t help matters. But, he knew she would be away two or three nights a week, when he married her.
She phoned home again, but there was no reply. He chose not to pick up the phone in the apartment, so it didn’t mean anything. She tried his mobile phone again, but it was switched off, which was usually the case. He didn’t switch it on unless he wanted to make a call, and never listened to messages.
“You’re having a bad day,” Jean Pierre returned his chair to the upright position, the metallic clunk of the mechanism protesting at the stresses beyond its design limitations. In two years, he had broken four chairs, but it didn’t stop him tilting them back. He was sufficiently skilled at his job for it not to be an issue.
“Would you like a squash opponent? I’m sorry. I couldn’t help over-hearing your conversation.” Chloe looked at Jean Pierre. It seemed a serious offer, it seemed genuine concern, but all the same she waited for the banter and the jokes to start when he continued.
“I could do with the exercise, and you could do with the stress relief. I’m divorced. I know the signs. You’ve tried to call Walid at the office, you’ve left endless messages, in return, you’ve suffered from the unanswered telephone calls, the ignored texts, and you’ve even used the office phone to check if your cell phone was working. And if I’m not mistaken, at one point you even sank as low as asking his department secretary for his whereabouts.”
Chloe shrugged. He was observant; he was a journalist, paid to read people and situations. She didn’t want to discuss it. She accepted his offer graciously.
They were both members at the Aquaboulevard club and he gave her a lift round the Périphérique and parked with ease. She noted this fact with envy, she would have spent an age looking for a space, one seemed to just open up for him. He didn’t seem surprised by the ease of parking and she had the uncanny feeling it was always like this for him.
They changed, and went to the court where he started to thrash her. This had been a really bad idea, she was an adequate player and usually did well in the women’s league at the club. After twenty minutes, he stopped, and said, “You feeling better?”
“No. More stressed,” she was sweaty and panting. “It would be really nice to actually hit the ball.”
Jean Pierre laughed. He came over and started to coach her. After ten minutes, she had mastered a return to the tricky corner shot he kept playing. They started to keep score again and this time she managed a few points and felt considerably better by the end of the game.
Jean Pierre made his farewell at the court. He clearly had a date and was in a rush. She was grateful for the game. After a shower, she felt she could face anything, including the difficult conversation with Walid, assuming he was at home.