12

Alligator Man

Orla Nyren deplaned at terminal three of Israel’s Ben Gurion airport.

She emerged from the air-conditioned hull into the mid-70s heat of the Tel Aviv afternoon and lifted her face to the sky. The sun felt good. Honest. It had been a long time since she’d set foot on Israeli soil, but for a while it had been her second home.

The ground crew swarmed over the asphalt, dragging the hose from the refueling vehicle toward the underside of the G5. They were all dressed identically in white coveralls and looked disturbingly like a hazmat team going to work. They moved with the efficiency of drones, each doing their part. The nearest gates were occupied by commercial airliners, tail fins showing their allegiance to each and every flag imaginable. Farther along the hardstand a huge Airbus 380 was taxiing toward the gate. The Airbus dwarfed every other plane on the ground.

Orla adjusted the lie of her skirt. Her heels tunked hollowly down the steel stairs onto the hardstand.

Her escort waited for her at the bottom of the stairs. He was a good-looking man, typically dark, with an olive cast to his skin, and carefully cultivated two-day stubble that was neatly trimmed. He wore a light linen suit and a white shirt that was rumpled around the collar. He held out a hand to her as she reached the bottom step. It might have been misplaced chivalry, or an offer to shake hands, she couldn’t tell. Orla took his hand and turned the gesture into a brisk handshake. His grip was uncomfortably firm. “Orla Nyren,” she said, stepping down on to the blacktop.

“Uzzi Sokol,” her host said, smiling tightly. “Walk with me.” He turned on his heel without another word and led her toward the terminal building. Sokol moved with the arrogance of a military man. Orla had to walk half a step faster than was comfortable to keep up with him as he steered her toward the special customs gate. She had met his type before a dozen times a day when she’d been operating in the Middle East. It was that arrogance that marked her as a second-class citizen. It was rooted deep in the male psyche. It was the usual kind of pseudo-sexual, dynamic bullshit that really infuriated her. Orla had known the guy less than sixty seconds and he was already trying to imprint his dominance over her.

Well, screw that, she thought to herself, and stopped trying to match his pace. She turned to look back at Sir Charles’ Gulfstream. It might have looked like the runt of the litter alongside the Airbus, but it really was a majestic piece of aeronautical design. She saw Ryan, Sir Charles’ man, on the stairs. His white shirt immaculately starched despite the long-haul flight, looking every inch the dashing pilot. He flashed Orla a smile and tipped her a two-fingered salute. She smiled back, knowing the few seconds she had taken out of chasing Uzzi Sokol should have been just enough to exasperate the Israeli. That was her intention, after all.

Sokol waited for her beside the security door. He could barely mask his impatience. Orla smiled, which just seemed to annoy him all the more. She followed him through the door into the terminal. They walked through a narrow glass corridor. She could see the hubbub of passengers through the glass walls as they milled around, waiting for their flights to be called. Before she was halfway through the corridor announcements had been made in five languages.

Sokol didn’t say another word until she was on the other side of the customs gate. The diplomatic tags on her briefcase prevented them from interfering with her luggage and meant she could bring her service piece into the country. He whisked her away into a waiting black Mercedes sedan bearing the insignia of the IDF intelligence Corps, Heil HaModi’in. He closed the door and came around to the other side of the car.

“We’ll be with Lieutenant General Caspi in a short while. I trust your flight was comfortable?” If this was his attempt at small talk, Orla thought, it was rather woeful.

“It was fine,” she said, looking out the window. Airports across the world were all a much of a muchness, she decided, as the car swept around a line of waiting taxis. A snake of cars crawled up the on-ramp into a multistory parking garage. The barrier was down and the sign read full, so for every car that went in, one had to leave. Out of the airport the streets were depressingly familiar with their low buildings and spray-painted facades. Five minutes out of the airport compound they passed a man selling stacks of eggs from a rickety roadside table. Two minutes beyond that a grandmother-every damned day of her hard life engraved deep into the creases of her face-sat selling fruit from a handbasket. A little girl on a bright red bicycle pedaled hard, the frame swinging from side to side as she raced toward the row of buildings. She had her head down and wasn’t watching the traffic. Twice other drivers sounded off their horns as she came dangerously close to cutting across them. There was no uniform design to the buildings. They seemed to have grown haphazardly from out of the desert, all different sizes and different shapes. She saw black spray-painted graffiti on most of them and recognized the word Yahweh, one of the seven names of God, repeated over and over amid other Hebrew words she couldn’t decipher.

Another two minutes down the road the houses gave way to empty desert-like fields of scrub. In one field, solar panels sprouted up like corn, their glass panels reflecting the sun back brightly. In another were the tents of a gypsy camp. This was Israel encapsulated in a few short minutes, the privation of the common people right beside the wealth of the high-tech industries.

As they neared the city proper she felt the car begin to slow.

She watched the yellow and red painted curb flash by with hypnotic regularity.

The driver indicated a right and slowed. He made two more tight turns. Telephone wires were strung up overhead. As the street narrowed, the houses towered over either side of the car, the wires loaded with washing. It wasn’t something he expected. Washing lines, yes, but on the telephone wires? It was peculiar enough for him to notice.

The next turn took them off the main road. Palms lined the road leading up to a hill. A vast area had been cleared out, and construction workers were busy working with girders, rebar and concrete, setting the foundations for what would almost certainly become another skyscraper dominating the Tel Aviv skyline. It took Orla a little while to get her bearings. A lot had changed even in the few years since she had last been in the city.

They were driving up Shaul Hill-ul’s Hill. There were no IDF buildings up the hill, or there hadn’t been when she’d lived in Tel Aviv. If she remembered right, the only military establishment anywhere on the hill was Kiryat Shaul, and that wasn’t anything to do with the Intelligence Corps. It was the military cemetery where, among others, lay the victims of the Yom Kippur War.

She looked quizzically at Uzzi Sokol. The Israeli ignored her scrutiny, staring straight ahead. He reached forward and tapped the driver on the shoulder. The man nodded and slowed the car, indicating a left turn into the cemetery gates.

“Where are we going?” Orla asked.

“To see Lieutenant General Caspi, as per my orders. You do want to see Akim Caspi, do you not?”

“He’s meeting us in the cemetery?”

“It is as good a place as any in the city,” Sokol said, without the slightest trace of humor. “Unless you are frightened restless spirits might eavesdrop on your conversation?”

Nothing felt right about this.

Orla shook her head.

A moment later the driver brought the car to a stop beside the visitor’s center. “If you would be so kind?” Sokol asked, indicating the door. Orla opened the door and climbed out. High on the hill the sun was the same, but the wind brought the temperature down markedly. It was that, or the fact they were in a cemetery, Orla thought. Sokol indicated for her to follow, and he led her through the graves.

Finally he stopped in front of a small stone. The grass around it was neatly trimmed, and a fresh bunch of sunflowers were in the small glass jar beside the headstone. Someone obviously still tended the grave regularly. She read the name and dates carved into the headstone. Akim Caspi, beloved father, cherished husband, loyal servant. There was an engraving of what appeared to be an alligator at rest at the base of the headstone. According to the dates, Caspi had died in June 2004, age 56. And if Lethe was right, that meant he was pushing up daises a month before two massive insurance payouts had been made in his name.

“There are several people who are very keen to know why the hell you’re so eager to talk to a dead man. Perhaps you would care to explain,” Uzzi Sokol asked.

She looked up from the grave to see the Israeli’s Jericho 941 pistol drawn and pointed at her. The slide was cocked and locked, Sokol’s finger a hair’s breadth from squeezing down on the trigger. The move didn’t surprise her. She’d been expecting Sokol to pull something the moment he had met her off the plane. Lethe had uploaded both sides of the photograph Ronan Frost had found in Sebastian Fisher’s Jesmond flat to the G5’s onboard computer. He had drawn a red ring around one of the faces. On the back he had underlined Akim Caspi’s name. The second photograph he had uploaded was taken directly from Caspi’s IDF file. Akim Caspi had either undergone radical reconstructive surgery and simultaneously turned the clock back about a decade, or she was looking at two very different people. In this case she was pretty sure it was the “or.” She had made a hardcopy before the plane landed. Given this turn of events, she was glad she had. Orla turned slowly so that the pistol’s black eye pointed squarely at the center of her chest.

“I think a gun is rather like a cock,” Orla said, inclining her head slightly toward the black eye. “Just because you have one doesn’t mean you have to stick it in a girl’s face.”

“Cute. You’ll excuse me if I don’t laugh. Now, answer the question.”

“It’s better if I show you,” she said. “Assuming you aren’t itching to pull the trigger on that penile extension of yours as soon as I make a move?”

“It’s a risk you will just have to take.”

She interpreted his curious inflection as an invitation to test him. Moving slowly, Orla knelt beside her case and broke the diplomatic seals. Sokol had to know that the whole purpose of the seals was to allow her to bring her Sig Sauer P228 compact into the country. “I’ve got a gun in here,” she said, releasing the clasps and opening the briefcase’s lid. “I am not going for it, but the papers I need are beneath it.”

“Open the case,” Sokol said.

Orla nodded and stood again. She lifted the lid so the case opened facing toward the Israeli. “The photographs are in the manila envelope beneath the gun. There’s more information in the files, but for now you need to see the photograph.”

Uzzi Sokol reached into the case with his free hand. His Jericho’s aim never left her heart. He teased the envelope out from beneath the Sig Sauer and stepped back, reestablishing the slight safety of distance between them. Orla could have taken the man-she was relatively certain-if she had had the inclination. And the moment to do it was now, as he was distracted taking the phoograph from the envelope. It would have been easy, throw the briefcase in his face, and as he instinctively recoiled sweep his legs out from under him. She would have had less than two seconds to disarm him, but she wouldn’t have needed more than one. Orla had no intention of turning this into a fight. Akim Caspi’s death only served to ask more questions, and the whole point of her coming to Tel Aviv had been to find answers, not get bogged down in a wild goose chase for the truth.

She waited for Sokol to slide the photograph out of the envelope.

Sokol studied the image, then grunted. “What is this supposed to prove?”

“It is a photograph of an archeological dig at the Sicarii fortress of Masada. It was taken in 2004. You might recognize some of the names on the reverse, if not their faces. They have been in the news over the last few days.”

Sokol looked at the back side of the photograph. He shook his head. Then paused, turning the photograph back over so that he could study the faces of the young archeologists again. It was obvious he was having trouble reconciling the name Akim Caspi with the face of the lieutenant general he had served under.

“This is not Caspi,” he said, finally, looking up from the photograph. “But you know that, don’t you?”

Orla nodded. “I do, although it is a fact my people have only just learned.”

Sokol made a curious clucking sound in the back of his throat, his tongue clicking against the roof of his mouth as he weighed up what he was about to say. “This is the man you wished to speak to?”

Orla nodded again.

“Why?”

“The other people in the photograph are dead,” she began. “It is the circumstances surrounding their deaths that we’re interested in.”

“And you believe this false Caspi can help you somehow?”

“Something like that. Though, of course, we thought he was the real Akim Caspi less than five hours ago.”

“How do I know this is not some sort of elaborate ruse concocted by your government?”

Orla breathed deeply and let that breath out slowly. “At precisely 1500 hours Zulu Time yesterday, thirteen people committed suicide in thirteen different European cities.”

“I watch CNN,” Sokol said. “The whole world knows what happened yesterday, and what happened in Berlin this morning. This is not news. Why should any of this be of concern to Israel?”

She pointed at the photograph.

“You’re telling me this is a photograph of those people who burned themselves alive?” He waved the photograph imperceptibly.

Orla nodded again, slowly this time. “The Masada dig is, as far as we can tell, the one thing they all have in common. I’d hoped talking to Lieutenant General Caspi might shed some light on what happened yesterday, but…” She looked down at the well-tended grave and trailed off.

“But you said this photograph was taken over five years ago. Why would you think the lieutenant general would know anything about what happened yesterday?” Uzzi Sokol stopped talking then and looked at Orla Nyren-really looked at her. His scrutiny made her uncomfortable. She felt dirty beneath his gaze. “Unless, and now I am reading between your rather unsubtle lines, you believe Israel is somehow behind this latest wave of terror attacks in your country? Is that what you are telling me?”

“I’m not telling you anything, Uzzi,” she said, using his name for the first time. “I don’t know anything. I’m looking for links. Leave no stone unturned. It’s the only way to do this. You’d be doing exactly the same in my place. Don’t pretend you wouldn’t be. Masada is the one constant in these people’s lives, the one place and time that links them all together. What it means, if anything, I don’t know; but if something happened there, anything that might help make sense of what’s happening now, this man, whoever he is, could be the key. All of the official records list Akim Caspi as leading the dig. That’s why I wanted to talk to him.”

“I don’t think you will find your answers in Israel,” he said without conviction.

She hadn’t expected him to say anything else. Israel was a country of secrets, and its dirtiest it kept to itself. “But you understand why I have to ask?” He nodded. “So you’re not going to shoot me, then?”›

“Not today. Maybe tomorrow, if you go stirring up trouble in my country.”

“I can’t promise anything,” Orla confessed. “There’s a second set of papers in the case. Do you trust me to take them out?”

Sokol nodded again. Orla fished a second manila envelope out of the case and took a thin sheaf of papers out of it. She handed the first two to Sokol. “In July of 2004 two substantial payouts were made to Lieutenant General Akim Caspi, one by The Silverthorn Trust and the other by something called Humanity Capital.”

“Payouts to Caspi’s widow, no doubt.”

“It’s feasible. Humanity Capital are global underwriters. They specialize in insuring troops in war-torn areas, including Iraq and Afghanistan among others, and have close ties to the UN. That’s what they mean by human capital. But Silverthorn? As of this morning our man hasn’t been able to find anything on this so-called trust-and believe me, what Lethe can’t find isn’t there to be found in the first place. So, Silverthorn deposited something in excess of seventeen million dollars into a numbered account in Hottinger amp; Cie, one of Zurich’s oldest private banks. The holder of that account, opened, coincidently, three days after his death, was one Akim Caspi.” She handed Sokol another print out.

“How did you get this stuff?”

“As I said, anything Lethe can’t get isn’t there to be found. He has a knack for finding out other people’s secrets.”

“So I see,” Uzzi Sokol said. “I would imagine someone like this Lethe of yours could be dangerous if he put his mind to it.” He chuckled at that. Orla didn’t contradict him. She knew enough about how numbered accounts worked to know that with some of the older Zurich banks the number was all you needed to make a withdrawal. It was all part of the arcane secrecy of the Old World banking system. Some were password protected, but she was in no doubt Jude Lethe could find that just as easily if he set his mind to it. What he did was rather frightening when she considered it. It went beyond invasive and into Orwellian Big Brother. These numbered accounts were meant to be among the most closely guarded secrets of a secret-obsessed nation, and Lethe had followed the money all the way back to the vaults of the Bahnhofstrasse in less than an hour. There were millions of reasons why anyone in their right mind might be tempted to try their luck.

“As you will see, withdrawals have been made as recently as three months ago. Deposits appeared to have ceased six months prior. That nine months of inactivity ended six days ago when a substantial deposit was made.” By substantial she meant another eight-figure sum.

Sokol flipped over the page and scanned the rows of numbers. She could guess what he was thinking as the balance turned into a numerical string longer than the account number that protected it. “None of this looks like a widow’s pension,” he admitted. “At least not an Israeli widow. I don’t mind telling you if my wife was in line for this kind of payout, I’d be looking over my shoulder while we spooned.”

Orla knew exactly what he meant. There was enough money in Akim Caspi’s account to finance a small war. That was what frightened her. These last few days didn’t feel like random acts of violence anymore; they felt like the opening salvos in a war. And given that, it made even less sense that Sir Charles had chosen to make it their war.

Someone had access to the account and was using it regularly, and if the real Akim Caspi was as dead as the headstone made him look, it was a safe bet this other Akim Caspi from Fisher’s photograph was the man spending all of that money.

A hooded crow settled on the stone cross beside Caspi’s grave. Orla chose not to take it as a sign.

“Can I ask you something, Uzzi?”

“You can ask.”

“Do you really expect me to believe the IDF would send out an Intelligence officer on a grunt mission like this if it didn’t already have an inkling as to what was going on with the dead general’s money?”

“Lieutenant general,” Sokol corrected, instinctively.

“That doesn’t change the question.”

“Contrary to what the song says, it isn’t all about the money,” Sokol said.

“That sounds like an answer I’d love to have explained. You know who this man is, don’t you?”

Instead of answering her, Uzzi Sokol said, “I know a lot of things. First, tell me, have you heard of the Shrieks?” He watched her intently, looking for any sign of recognition.

“3” face=”Helvetica” color=”black”›Orla shook her head. “No.”

“Then you need to know about the Shrieks.” Sokol scratched at the back of his neck as though he’d just been bitten. It seemed to derail his train of thought.

She looked at him, expecting him to go on, but Sokol was clearly no longer in a confessional mood.

“Then tell me about the Shrieks,” Orla said, steering him toward the tidbit he’d dangled so tantalizingly. He looked at her.

Above them the sky filled with a flock of migratory birds on their way from swathes of European fields for the warmth of a North African winter.

“Not here,” he looked over his shoulder as though he expected the dead to be eavesdropping on them. Orla followed the direction of his gaze. An old Jewish mother was laying flowers on her soldier son’s grave. “And take the gun out of your briefcase. It is no good to anyone in there.”

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