The Swimmer by Joakim Zander

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Deceit, desperation and death. Some facts must never see the light of day.

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The Swimmer

August 1980 Northern Virginia, USA

    ‘They were both in the car?’ she says and sits on the edge of the only other chair in my microscopic room.
    I nod, forcing myself to look her in the eyes, to neither hesitate nor move.
    ‘Terrible,’ she says. ‘Terrible. I’m so sorry. This job, this life. We pay a high price.’
    She doesn’t look sad. She’s as neutral as her car, her house, her ill-fitting suit. I swivel my chair and stare out toward the parking lot and the thin, green trees on the other side of it. You can hardly sense the highway. We sit in silence for a while, let the dust swirl in the late summer sunlight streaming through my window. But she’s not here for condolences. Not only.
    ‘Why did you show up in Paris?' she says at last. ‘Why didn’t you go directly to the embassy in Damascus or Cairo?’
    I shrug, turning my gaze back to her, looking straight into her eyes again.
    ‘That was the original plan,’ I say. ‘Boat from Latakia to Larnaca. Flight to Athens. Night train to Paris. I had tickets from De Gaulle to Dulles, but I thought that under the circumstances, it was better to check in in Paris.’
    ‘After what happened…Wouldn’t it have been appropriate to deviate from plan? To check in in Damascus?' she says.
    Her voice is soft and friendly. On the surface, she’s still here to make sure I’m okay, express her sympathy. But we both know that’s just on the surface. There’s always a subtext, always an underlying reason. And another reason beneath that one as well.
    ‘I explained everything in my debriefing,’ I say. ‘The bomb was meant for me. I followed protocol and stayed under the radar until I felt sure I wouldn’t get shot in the embassy’s parking lot.’
    She leans back. Drums her wedding ring gently against the steel frame of the chair.
    Click click click click click
    Only that and the rustling of the air conditioner.
    ‘You overestimate the Syrians and their allies,’ she says. ‘A car bomb in Damascus is all they’re capable of.’
    ‘Maybe,’ I say. ‘But as I said, I wanted to be sure.’
    Susan nods, allows herself to be satisfied. There’s nothing here that doesn’t follow protocol. Not a trace. She locks her eyes with mine.
    ‘We’ll get them,’ she says slowly. ‘You know that. Damascus, Cairo, Beirut … All the Middle Eastern agencies are looking into this now. It’ll take time, but we’ll find the culprit, you know that.’
   I nod. The thought of revenge is still just a seed.
   She leans forward. A different look, a different tone when she speaks.
    ‘And the information you received from your contact?’ she says. ‘The weapons delivered to the Syrians. You’ve only given that information in my report, right? Not in the debriefing. Nowhere else?’
    I nod my head.
‘Only in your report,’ I say.

December 18, 2013 Brussels, Belgium

    … the lobby of the Hotel Bristol seemed to lay claim to a history it didn’t actually possess. With its red carpets, mahogany and leather, and English gentility. It made a halfhearted attempt to mask being part of an international hotel chain.
    ‘By the way, Mr Shammosh, someone left a message for you,’ the porter said and slid a thick, carefully sealed envelope across the counter.

Mahmoud’s room was predictably small and sandy-colored. The décor was flat, like a soap opera. There were no halfhearted attempts at English eccentricity here. Only hotel chain monotony and familiarity. Mahmoud opened the curtains as far as he could. The window overlooked a small, dirty atrium. A few snowflakes swirled alone out there. They seemed confused, as if they had gotten lost on their way to a sledding hill or a skating rink.
    Mahmoud dropped his backpack onto the bed and sat in the well-worn armchair by the window with the padded envelope in his hands. On one side his name was written with black marker in block letters.
    With trembling fingers he tore open the glued flap. He sat with the package open in his hands for a moment while watching a few snowflakes randomly swirl outside the window. He took a deep breath and poured out the contents.
    A clumsy cell phone, a charger, and a carefully folded piece of paper fell onto his lap. Mahmoud picked up the phone. It was a cheap Samsung. The kind of prepaid phone you buy for forty euros at a gas station. He put in the battery, which had been lying separately in the package, and pressed the power button. It turned on with a buzz. The contact list was empty. No messages.
    After taking another deep breath Mahmoud unfolded the piece of paper. Inside it was another paper, which fluttered to the ground and landed on the carpet. The paper Mahmoud held in his hands contained a short, typed message in Swedish:
        I have information, and I don’t know what to do with it. I need your help. I think it might have something to do with what you are researching. We need to meet after your meeting tomorrow. Keep your phone switched on between 13.00 and 13.30 tomorrow and be ready to move out. Otherwise keep it turned off and remove the battery. I will contact you.
    Determination, courage and endurance.

    Mahmoud refolded the message and glanced at the phone. ‘Ready to move out.’ ‘Determination, courage and endurance.’ Words from another time, what seemed like another life. Someone knew things about him that he himself had almost forgotten.
    Slowly, absentmindedly, he leaned forward and picked up the page that had fallen onto the floor. He unfolded it and instinctively shrank back from what he saw.
    It was a fuzzy, printed photograph. Grainy and pixilated. A digital image file printed out on a common, older printer. But the scene was all too clear.
    Mahmoud stared at the picture as if paralyzed until he couldn’t stand to look at it any longer, and he turned it over on his lap. It was a vision of hell. The clinical room in the merciless light of the camera flash. The stretcher with its straps. The blood.
    Mahmoud had seen his share of suffering, misery, imprisonment, and even torture. A total of three months in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past three years had exposed him to more misery than most. But this … This was worse than Abu Ghraib.
    ‘Oh my God,’ Mahmoud whispered to himself, even if his own God was much more complicated than the exclamation might suggest.

Copyright © Joakim Zander, 2013