Barry Lando and cove of “The Watchman’s File”
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By kind permission of the author Jewish Business News is pleased to present to you the prologue and first chapter of Barry Lando’s exciting new novel The Watchman’s File, about Israel’s most closely guarded secret (it’s not the bomb). The book is available for purchase on Amazon either as paperback or e-book.
Barry M. Lando, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, spent 25 years as an Emmy award winning investigative producer with the US prime time television news show 60 Minutes. The author of numerous articles about Iraq, he produced a documentary about Saddam Hussein that has been shown around the world. That film became a book about Iraq, “Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush.”
The Watchman’s File : Prologue
Stockholm February 1943
Kowalski couldn’t believe his luck. An intelligence coup for the history books!
The next morning in Stockholm, he passed the unprocessed microfilm and the wire recording, along with a coded report, to the courier. Then he walked back toward the Karl XII Hotel.
He was so elated that he never noticed the heavyset man in a leather jacket walking toward him until the man blocked his path, smiled a great friendly smile, and asked in Swedish for a match. He reeked of garlic.
Kowalski said he didn’t smoke and attempted to step around him.
“Halt! stehen bleiben, ” barked Garlic Mouth in German. He pulled his left hand from his pocket to reveal a snub-nosed Beretta. A black Mercedes sedan swished to a halt at the curb. The back door swung open.
“Herein, ” ordered Garlic Mouth. He jammed the Beretta into Kowalski’s spine and propelled him into the rear seat. A burly confederate already sitting there yanked Kowalski’s arms behind him and snapped handcuffs on his wrists. Then he stuffed a filthy rag into his mouth, and slipped a coarse woolen hood reeking of fuel oil over his head. Kowalski gagged. He felt the bile rise in his throat; he would suffocate in his own vomit. He tried to remember his months of training. Don’t panic. Keep alert. Stay in control. Easy enough for his instructor to say.
After what seemed about half an hour, the car stopped. A revolver was thrust in his ribs. He was propelled out the door, grabbed by the arms, frog-marched forward ten steps; then down a flight of stairs.
It stank of soot and coal dust and sewage. Fifteen more steps, then left, another door, more steps; he was backed onto a wooden chair.
The hood was yanked from his head; the rag pulled from his mouth. He closed his eyes momentarily to the glare. He was in a small, dank basement room. There were no windows, just a single bright overhead light.
Garlic Mouth and his friend stood on either side of the chair. Facing Kowalski across a pine desk was a slim, elegant man with the palest of blue eyes and a thin blond moustache. He would have been handsome, almost beautiful—a movie star or male model—were it not for the left side of his face, mottled red and cratered as if roasted in a blaze. His neck was hidden by a brown foulard. He had an unlit cigarette in his mouth. His voice was high, almost a woman’s, and calm, so calm, as he began in German.
“You are from where?”
“From Warsaw.” He struggled for outrage. “I am a Polish businessman and—”
“You lie, ” said the man quietly. He nodded toward Garlic Mouth, who grabbed Kowalski’s wrists, still cuffed together, and wrenched them violently upward. An excruciating pain ripped through Kowalski’s shoulders and shot across his back.
“Schweinhund!” screamed Kowalski.
“Your name is Avi Ben Simon, ” said the inquisitor, reading from a paper in front of him.
The prisoner’s gut tightened again. “No. Stanislaw Kowalski, ” he insisted. He could feel the sweat trickling down his back.
Another cheerless nod. A second vicious jolt from Garlic Mouth left the prisoner gasping with pain.
“You are Avi Ben Simon. You are from Warsaw–but not a businessman. You are a Jew. A spy.” The inquisitor stood—he was tall, well built—and came around the table to stand before the prisoner. He wore a soft, fragrant cologne. He showed the prisoner the paper he’d been reading from. The prisoner said nothing; there was no point. His shoulders felt as if they’d been ripped from his body. The pain throbbed through him.
“And so, you see, we know all about you. Now why don’t you fill in a few details? Then we can all go our separate ways.”
So this how is it ends, thought Avi Ben Simon. What irony: to flee the Nazis in Warsaw; to be trapped by them in Stockholm. No hero’s return to my new homeland.
But he could still win, if he could only control his fear. There’d been instruction on this from a psychiatrist during training: If caught you can expect to be tortured. Brutally. These Nazi thugs knew nothing about the conversation he’d recorded yesterday, nor that he’d been able to dispatch it with the courier. Avi would give them nothing.
In the cellar, the interrogator continued solemnly with his questions. Avi refused to answer. They finished wrenching his left shoulder from its socket. He shrieked with pain. What was it the psychiatrist had said? If tortured, the only escape is to go into yourself, as deep and dark and as far as you can. They paused for a question. Then they wrenched the right shoulder. Another question. No answer.
As deep and dark and far as you can.
So, as the Germans meticulously shattered his body, Avi fled to the past. He summoned memories, frame by frame: A sesame cake still warm from the oven—an incredible luxury. It was the last meal with his family before he crawled through the sewers and escaped to the forests North of Warsaw.
They began breaking the bones of his fingers. They bent them until Avi could hear them crack, one at a time, like the wishbone of a Friday-night chicken. He wouldn’t talk. He-would-not-talk. He was holding hands with Hannah Lebel from across the street in Warsaw. She laughed as he told his clever jokes.
When he lost consciousness, they revived him with smelling salts and a bucket of freezing water. And still he fled. He sat proudly in the State Loge of the Warsaw Conservatory as his mother played Chopin. And now it was coming, he dimly thought. He was a child by the pond in Wenceslaus Park, watching the marvelous toy sailboat his father gave him, as it caught a gust and glided off across the waters. It could glide forever.
The inquisitor realized he’d lost his prisoner and wearied of the game. He gave a final sad nod. Garlic Mouth wrapped his left arm around the captive’s head, seized his chin with his right hand, and twisted sharply, farther than Avi Ben Simon had ever turned his head before.
The Watchman’s File : Chapter One
Recently in Israel
Dov Ben-David cursed as he strode down the hill at Ein Gedi. He’d been looking forward to an afternoon at home on the kibbutz when the call came. It was Hannah Ginsberg at the kibbutz’s spa, a quarter mile away by the turgid, gunmetal waters of the Dead Sea. The computer had crashed–again.
“So? Reboot, ” said Dov.
“I did. Still doesn’t work.”
“What about Schmuel?”
Son of a bitch. The entire spa paralyzed because of a Paleolithic computer and a klutzy manager. So here he was: Dov Ben-David, the former deputy director of Israel’s feared Mossad, the man responsible for liquidating anyone who posed a mortal threat to the Jewish State—from Palestinian terrorists to Iranian nuclear scientists—here he was, turning his day upside down to deal with a problem a ten-year-old child could fix. But not Hannah Ginsberg. She’d drown in a saucer of tea.
Dov was a tall, lanky man, with great bushy eyebrows and dark, penetrating eyes; seventy-two years old, sinewy, and fit. He wore khaki shorts, sandals, and a tattered straw hat to shield his balding head. It was hot, bloody hot: perspiration was already coursing down his ruddy face. He should be at home, napping, before undertaking his daily afternoon of writing and research on one or another arcane topic of ancient Israeli archaeology.
What better counterpoint to a life dedicated to duplicity and death? Since his first years at Ein Gedi, Dov had become obsessed with deciphering the past. Now, in retirement, he could spend all the time he wanted exploring the ancient ruins, caves, and crevices on the Israeli side of the rift valley that had been home to man for the past four thousand years. In a moment of weakness, he had also agreed to use his once-feared organizational skills to help run Ein Gedi’s Dead Sea Spa. That, he now knew, was a major mistake. He’d resign at the end of the year.
He walked into the coffee shop, glared at Hannah Ginsberg, and headed for the computer at the cashier’s desk. Hannah shrugged, brought him a cup of tea, and then went back to wiping off the countertop. Avram Levy, the graying, pudgy kibbutz security guard, was at the food counter concentrating on his daily crossword puzzle. Three tables were filled with French tourists having an early afternoon snack.
Dov took a seat at the cashier’s desk and glowered at the computer: an ancient, hulking IBM, an embarrassing relic. The kibbutz could never seem to find the money to buy a new one. Dov waited while it rebooted. It was like watching the tide come in.
Hopefully, he might still have an hour or so back at home before the American reporter arrived, a chance to shower, collect his thoughts. He was surprised at how rattled he’d been by the news. Was it age? Not at all. His mind was still fit. He’d had to deal with all kinds of alarming information during his long clandestine career. But he knew when to push the panic button, and he knew it was now.
The potential for disaster was far too fearsome to be ignored—and still he had hesitated. This was perilous ground. Let someone else act this time. He had spent too much of his life risking his skin for his country. Why put himself on the line again?
Essentially, because he had no choice: he alone understood the danger. The consequences could be catastrophic—for Israel and the United States.
He’d considered his options. He could alert old Israeli contacts; he had an impressive network. But no, that wouldn’t do. He had to reach out further for allies. He had to totally destroy the threat.
So he’d made the call.
The reporter would be here in a couple of hours.
Together they would expose the entire story to the world.
He vaguely saw the silver van come to a stop in the no parking zone next to the entrance to the spa. A young Arab-looking kid in jeans and a T-shirt got out and walked quickly away. A bit too quickly. “Avram, ” said Dov, ”Why don’t you check out the van.”
He turned his attention back to the computer, but when there was no acknowledgement from the security guard, he looked up again to see the men’s room door swinging shut. He glanced towards the window again.
Suddenly there was a blinding flash.
He swore aloud, but his words were lost in a deafening blast that shattered the plate glass window before him.
He saw the silver van disintegrating as it hurtled toward him, and then there was nothing more to see.
A giant claw ripped at his throat and lifted his body into the air, slowly, as if in a dream.
Ben Gurion Airport
El Al flight 746 from Paris bounced once on the runway and then swerved slightly to the left as it raced past the control tower, flaps down and reverse thrusters roaring. Ed Diamond could feel his pulse beating wildly by the time the Boeing 737 lurched to a halt with a squeal of tires. This is what happens when fighter pilots become airline pilots, he thought as he retrieved his laptop and suitcase from the overhead bin. Ed himself was a lousy flier, always had been—the original sweaty palms. Not much of an asset for a reporter who made his living traveling around the globe. The stewardess whom he’d been chatting up during the flight rolled her eyes and smiled apologetically as he headed for the exit.
The plane was half empty; few tourists were coming these days. Three burly young men, M-4s bulging under their canvas jackets, stood at the gate. They surveyed the deplaning passengers as if, at any moment, one of the arrivals might lob a hand grenade or loose a murderous blast from a Kalashnikov.
They were the only discordant note to the modern, brilliantly lit hallways, the pageant of glitzy billboards and sprawling duty-free stores celebrating the country’s glittering hi-tech façade. The only country with more cell phones per capita is Finland, the home of Nokia, he thought.
At the immigration counter, a beady-eyed woman with the rank of captain licked her thumb as she turned the pages of Ed’s passport. If it had been Kennedy in New York, the immigration officer would have greeted him with a wide, ego-soothing smile of recognition and complimented him on the latest broadcast. Not the scowling Israeli captain. She examined the stamps from Damascus, Kabul, Tripoli, and Teheran with growing concern and then flipped back to page one to scrutinize Ed’s picture and data—born Seattle, Washington; 6’1”, hazel-blue eyes, brown hair. She lifted her eyes and glared at Ed as if he were the new head of Al Qaeda.
“You’ve been to all these places?”
“I’m a reporter.”
“For what company?”
“NBS. American television. A program called Focus.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You have a reporter’s ID?”
He showed the press card he’d been issued on his last trip to Israel.
“You’ve come to tell the truth about Israel?”
Ed understood it wasn’t a joke. “I always do.”
“Sure. You all do, ” she muttered. “OK. Go ahead.”
“No ‘Shalom. Welcome to Israel’?”
She ignored the gibe and gestured impatiently for the next person to step forward.
The newspapers carried unconfirmed reports that Syria had put its troops on alert. Despite the Wall, there’d been another upsurge of terrorism in Israel: a suicide bombing in Nathanya, a drive-by shooting last night near Jenin.
But the real shocker was news of an American missile strike on an underground biological weapons site that was being constructed in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. According to latest reports, the site was a joint project between Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and—most surprising of all—a small, radical Palestinian group, the Sons of the Prophet, its followers dedicated to annihilating the state of Israel.
Outside the terminal, the warm afternoon breeze carried a faint scent of eucalyptus. Ed had removed his suede windbreaker and was wearing a white linen shirt and light brown slacks. He walked past the drivers lounging by the taxi station to the Avis lot, where he picked up the Ford Mustang his office had reserved.
He drove east along the highway to Jerusalem, past the urban sprawl of Greater Tel Aviv: high-rise apartments and high-tech factories that spread across the coastal plain eating into the green strips of farmland, where sprinklers sprayed glistening arcs. Then up into the Judean hills with their shady forests of pine, cypress, and eucalyptus. He had been coming here for the past fifteen years, often to see the same man he’d been summoned to meet today, Dov Ben-David.
Ed had first met Ben-David when he was researching a story about Hamas and arms smuggling from Egypt. It was a tale the Mossad wanted to get out, and Ben-David was their acknowledged expert. He provided enough nuggets about the radical Palestinians to win Ed another Emmy. After that, Ed continued consulting Ben-David on everything from the Russian Mafia to the financial networks of Osama bin Laden to Iran’s nuclear program. Ben-David had impeccable sources everywhere. “The tools we use may be brutal, ” he once told Ed. “But remember, we are fighting for our country’s survival.”
Over the last few years, however, Dov had increasingly questioned Israel’s tactics; though, of course, only in private. Ed recalled the last time he’d seen him. It was just after the massive attack on Gaza. Dov was still the Mishne, as he was called in Hebrew—but he’d become sullen, scowling, oppressed by the increasingly bloody conflict with the Palestinians. What had begun under his guidance as a very precise campaign—carefully planned, targeted assassinations of the most radical Palestinian leaders, the men who trained and commanded the missile teams and suicide bombers—had spiraled completely out of control.
The TV screen was now filled each day with grisly images of noncombatants—old men, women, and children—also blown apart by Israeli helicopter gunships and drones. In some cases, the Israeli government actually apologized to the bereaved families for their “mistake.”
“At first I thought the idea of targeted assassinations might work, ” Ben-David had told Ed. “I mean if the Palestinian leadership wouldn’t get rid of their killers, we’d do it ourselves. But it hasn’t worked. It’s made things even worse. Now our crazies are as wild as theirs. God knows where we’re heading.”
A couple of months later, Ben-David resigned from the Mossad and returned with his wife to the kibbutz at Ein Gedi.
There had been no further word from him—until yesterday. Ed had been in the edit room of his office in Paris, contemplating the image of a gangling African boy on the Sony monitor. The kid wore an Avatar T-shirt and brandished an AK-47. He couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven; he glared at the camera with wild, dilated eyes.
It was a spectacular image for what was to have been a sensational report: hopped-up child soldiers exploited by ruthless buccaneers ready to rip apart a swath of Africa to make a fortune in diamonds. A brutal, cynical trade that the UN and all the countries involved had sworn to suppress years ago, but there it was, still flourishing. Yet Ed’s report wasn’t working: the issues were too complex, the politics too convoluted. There were too many countries no one cared about. The thing would plunge the viewers into a coma.
Bottom line: it was not the kind of broadcast Focus’s star reporter was supposed to be coming up with, particularly not now as he jockeyed for a decisive promotion. He had been promised a weekly hour-long broadcast of his own, with the notoriety, power, and seven-figure salary that went with it. It was everything he’d been working toward for the past twenty years.
But right now, he still had this African mess to clean up, somehow.
He was interrupted by his assistant, Colleen Fisher. “Ed, call for you—from Israel, Dov Ben-David.”
Ed cocked his head to one side, his forehead creased. “Tell him I’m not in, ” he said. “No, tell him I’ll call back when I get a chance.”
Dov Ben-David was a nice guy, but no longer what you might call a hot source.
“He says he’s got to talk to you—now.”
“Merde, ” Ed muttered as he picked up the phone. “Dov, ” he said heartily. “It’s been a long time.”
“Maybe, Ed. But it’s a battle just getting through to you.”
“No, it’s just that…”
“It’s OK. A lot of people are no longer particularly eager to take my calls.”
“Any time, ” said Ed, trying to sound interested.
“You know what I worry about these days?” said the Israeli. “Not terrorists, but tourists. God help me if I don’t have enough toilet paper and sanitary pads in stock, But don’t worry. I didn’t call to waste your time with the kvetching of an old man.”
“So, what can I do for you?”
“Come and see me in Israel. Now. It’s very important.”
“Love to. But I have work. What’s it about?”
“I can’t say right now, you understand?”
“How about a hint?”
“Ed, look, something has happened.” Dov’s tone was urgent. “It is about your country and mine. It is serious—believe me.”
“Yeah?” Ed still wasn’t convinced.
There was an edge now to Dov’s voice. “When was the last time I picked up the phone to tell you about a report you should do?”
“Never. I always had to pry the information out of you.”
“So—stop making me waste my breath. Come!”
Ed paused. He glanced at the images on the editing console again. Perhaps Ben-David was losing it—but perhaps not. He had never been one to exaggerate. Ed could make it to Israel and back in a couple of days. It would be a welcome break from this African quagmire.
“OK. I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon. And Dov?”
“Tell Esther I never forgot her borscht.”
Another hour and a half to go, thought Ed as he sipped a bottle of water. He bypassed Jerusalem and continued through hardscrabble gulches, home to a few remaining Bedouins, their camels and donkeys hobbled next to their battered pickups. The road turned south, dipped into the Judean Desert. On the right, the bone-dry mountains and gorges of what geologists call the Afro-Syrian Rift; ahead and to the left, the Dead Sea shimmered in the late-afternoon heat.
Suddenly, a police car flashed by, its siren howling, dust flaring in the sun. It was just after five p.m. He turned on the car radio and found the English-language news broadcast from Kol Yisrael.
“….three other people were injured. The blast occurred at three forty-five this afternoon. According to reports, the explosive charge was placed in a Volkswagen van parked near the café. Two of the injured were tourists. No one has yet claimed responsibility.
“Meanwhile in Damascus, the US secretary of state refused comment after completing talks with the Syrian president. Sources close to the secretary were ‘disappointed’ by the lack of progress.”
Jesus, thought Ed as the announcer rattled on, how the hell can anyone live with the constant tension in this place, the threat of violence always ready to explode? A military jeep and van roared by, headed north.
At the turnoff for the kibbutz, he saw where all the emergency traffic was coming from: a few hundred yards down the highway was a cluster of military jeeps and trucks. Soldiers in olive-green battle dress had cordoned off a group of buildings by the Dead Sea: the Ein Gedi Spa.
Ed parked and walked to the checkpoint. A gaggle of German tourists had stopped, and one of them, a potbellied blonde, was chattering into her cell phone, giving a strident account to friends or family in Germany. The others were taking pictures of one another posed in front of the soldiers.
A stringy, gray-haired reservist manned the checkpoint, a TAR-21 slung from his shoulder. Ed produced his Israeli press pass.
“Only emergency workers allowed through.”
“What happened?” asked Ed.
“A car bomb at the spa.”
“I don’t know, ” the reservist snapped. “Two hours ago. Maybe less. I can’t talk to media.”
The explosion had hit thirty yards away. The van must have been parked by the front door of the spa’s café. Shards of painted silver metal, twisted steel and chrome, were all that remained of the vehicle. The blast had cratered the highway, knocked a hole in the cement wall of the coffee shop, blown out the door and all the windows.
Two investigators in plain clothes were picking through the debris, taking measurements and notes as they went. Three young men wearing bright yellow vests—ultra-Orthodox volunteers from the Zaka organization—were carefully collecting body parts and shards of human flesh, some hanging from the branches of the palm trees, to return to their families for religious burial.
There was still a thin veil of dust and a faint, acrid smell in the air. Ed coughed a couple of times. He could already feel his chest tightening. An army colonel wearing wraparound sunglasses and the double-eagle insignia of AMAN came over. Between coughs, Ed again produced his press pass.
“No comment, ” said the colonel. He was obviously from the States originally.
“Just tell me, off the record, what happened?” Ed paused for a breath. “I’ve a friend who lives here.”
“Can’t do.” The officer nodded toward the nearby hill. “Ask at the kibbutz.”
Ed gasped again, and the officer’s eyes abruptly narrowed as the reporter reached for his pocket and withdrew a dark-blue device.
“Asthma, ” said Ed. “The dust.” The last thing he needed was for this hair-trigger colonel to think he was reaching for a weapon. He inserted the inhaler in his mouth, pressed, and inhaled deeply. After a few minutes, he could feel the bronchial passages opening, but the relief was only temporary. His breathing was still labored. He had to get away from the site and the irritants swirling in the air.
He walked unsteadily to his car, drove back to the highway, and waited there for a few minutes until the attack had receded. Then he took the asphalt road that wound up the hill to Ein Gedi, passed a soccer field, where teenagers in blue shorts and T-shirts scampered about as if car bombs were a daily occurrence, and pulled into the parking lot by the dining hall and a newly built auditorium. Children ran laughing through sprinklers that watered the thick green lawn. Tidy flowerbeds lined the paths leading to the bungalows. This could be a middle-class suburb anywhere in the Southwest, thought Ed, if it weren’t for the Israeli flag flapping in the breeze, the security fence ringing the entire settlement, and those young men back at the blast site and their baskets of human flesh.
There was a cluster of people at the entrance to the dining hall. They stared at Ed as he approached. He stopped before a squat man wearing a Dodgers baseball cap, sandals, and khaki shorts. He was peeling an orange.
“Shalom, ” said Ed, “can you tell me where is the house of Dov Ben-David?”
“Who wants to know?” The man put a wedge of orange into his mouth.
“Ed Diamond. I’m, uh, an old friend of Dov’s.”
“It’s too soon to be making condolence calls, don’t you think?”
The man squinted against the sun and tossed the orange peel into the dust. “Dov—he’s dead, alev hashalom, killed by the bomb.”