Operation Meltwater: FreeFlow, a group of internet activists committed to the freedom of information, have video evidence of a military atrocity in the Middle East, and have chosen Iceland as their HQ while they prepare to unleash their greatest coup on the world's media. On the glacial rim of erupting volcano Eyjafjallajökull, they christen their endeavor Operation Meltwater. Minutes later, in the steam and mist, one of them is murdered. The list of people Freeflow has antagonized is long—the Chinese government, Israeli military, a German Bank, Italian politicians, even American college fraternities. Magnus Jonson has a long list of suspects, but he's getting precious little help from FreeFlow—for an organization dedicated to the transparency of information, they're a secretive bunch. But they are not the only ones with secrets. Asta, a newly qualified priest, has contacted FreeFlow with information about a scandal in the church. Her involvement with FreeFlow will cost her dear. And with the return of Magnus's brother Ollie to Iceland, the feud that has haunted their family for three generations is about to reignite.
About the Author
Michael Ridpath spent eight years as a bond trader in the city before giving up his job to write full-time. He is the author of Final Venture, The Market Maker, and Where the Shadows Lie.
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By Michael Ridpath
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 2012 Michael Ridpath
All rights reserved.
Saturday 10 April 2010
Death came frame by frame, in grainy black and white.
Erika stared at the screen of her laptop. It showed the tatty rectangular roofs of a poor Middle Eastern city. In the centre of the screen a white box hovered over a truck upon which the letters 'UN' could clearly be seen as it manoeuvred down a narrow side street. A burst of rapid speech in a language Erika didn't understand zipped through her earphones. The truck came to a halt and about half a dozen people dropped out of the back. Another burst of chatter, more urgent this time. And then one word.
There was silence for a second and then little spurts of dust erupted around the feet of the group and the figures crumpled.
More spurts. The bodies were motionless on the ground now as bullets slammed into them.
Chatter. A laugh. Erika wanted to close her eyes, look away, look anywhere but at the screen, but she couldn't. She had to watch. Someone had taken enormous risks so that she could see this.
The perspective changed as the helicopter circled for a better look. The shaky rectangle grew wider as the camera zoomed.
One of the bodies began to move. Miraculously a figure climbed to his feet and, stooping, shuffled towards the shelter of a building, a leg dragging in the dust. Climbed to her feet. The figure had long fair hair, light grey in the image.
A curse. Chatter.
The spurts of dust danced around the flailing body for several seconds, a period as long as the first two bursts combined. Then the body was still. The white frame lingered over it as radio reports were passed back and forth in the impenetrable language. The helicopter must be hovering, waiting, explaining. After a minute Erika could bear it no longer.
She clicked 'Pause' and turned away from the screen. Outside, the last of the daffodils nodded through the railings of the London square in front of the hotel, dingy yellow in the light of the streetlamps. It was five a.m. and still dark. She turned to check the bed where the renowned Greek-American professor of strategic studies she had met the night before was lying. Asleep. Definitely asleep.
The previous evening she had taken part in a public debate on the subject 'Information Has a Right to Freedom' at the Royal Geographic Society. There were three speakers on each side: she, of course, had been in favour of the motion. It had been one of her best performances. The Greek-American strategic studies professor had put up a good fight, but the audience had overwhelmingly agreed with her. So had he in the end. After dinner and a few drinks back at his hotel.
She had still been feeling the glow of victory four hours later when she crept out of bed to open up her laptop and check her e-mails.
The glow was gone. It was replaced with horror and disgust.
These were supposed to be her people.
She turned back to her laptop and pulled up Jabber, the encrypted instant-messaging service. They were all online, waiting for her response.
Erika: hi guys.
Nico: hi erika.
If she had to guess Dieter was up late and Nico up early. As for Apex, who knew? He never seemed to sleep. A bit like Erika herself.
Erika: have you seen it?
'yes' came the response, from all three.
Erika: is that woman who i think it is?
Dieter: it's tamara wilton. for sure.
Apex: it's her. the date on the video tallies with the day she was killed. jan 14 2009.
Erika: i know it's war but i can't believe people do that kind of thing. it makes me sick to my stomach.
Nico: wait till you hear what they are saying. do you understand hebrew?
Erika: i'm not that kind of jew. As she wrote those words, Erika wondered exactly what kind of Jew she was. That was something she would have to figure out pretty soon. did you get a translation?
Nico: i sent it to an israeli volunteer. she is sending me back a full transcript. i'll pass it on as soon as i get it.
Dieter: please tell me you didn't send it to israel!
Nico: yeah, but through tor.
Apex: nico, you have to leave that kind of thing to us! anything going into israel is vulnerable.
Erika: cut it out guys. nico, did the volunteer give you any idea what the israelis are saying?'
Nico: yeah. the controller tells the helicopter that some hamas fighters have just fired an anti-tank missile and jumped into a un truck. the helicopter finds the truck and asks for permission to engage. it's given. then you see the shooting.
Erika: what about tamara wilton? can't they see she's a woman?
Nico: just as they are firing, the controller tells the helicopter they've found the truck with the anti-tank unit. it's a different truck. the pilot sees the woman moving and tells the gunner to shoot her. they can tell she is a woman. the gunner questions this, but the pilot says they don't want witnesses, and besides, the united nations are a bunch of interfering bastards. then in the chatter afterwards the helicopter tells the controller that the people getting out of the truck were armed and one of them escaped with an anti-tank missile launcher.
Erika: but no one escaped!
Erika: i remember this. it was supposed to have been investigated by the israeli authorities. i'm pretty sure they cleared the soldiers of any blame.
Dieter: how can they have done that! these guys are murderers. it's that simple.
Erika: and that's what we will tell the world. we'll ream them with this.
The screen was still as the four of them digested what Nico had said. Behind Erika the professor of strategic studies grunted and rolled over in the hotel bed. Disturbed by her furious tapping on the keyboard, perhaps.
Nico: what do we do?
Erika: we publish, of course! but we do it carefully. this is one of those situations where the cover-up is as important as the crime itself. the israelis will want to quash this, and if they can't quash it they will discredit it. we'll need full transcription, analysis, verification. release the video online and the transcript through selected newspapers. the washington post. the guardian, maybe der spiegel. are we sure it's genuine?
Apex: not yet.
Erika: okay we'll have to check that out. we need to be one hundred per cent.
Dieter: it's going to be difficult to do this remotely.
Erika: yes. we should meet somewhere. just for a few days. get a team together. just like we did last year in stockholm for the zimbabwe arms leak.
Nico: this is bigger.
Dieter: so where do we go?
Apex: i'm not coming.
Erika: okay apex. Apex never came anywhere. He stayed in his room somewhere in a time zone a long way away. None of them had seen him apart from Dieter, and that was almost twenty years before, and no one even knew his real name. Erika had spoken to him on a voice link over the Internet frequently; he had a rapid Australian accent. So, no, Apex wouldn't be coming.
They were waiting for her to suggest somewhere. Technically she was nothing more than the Spokesperson for Freeflow. The organization had no hierarchy, at least in theory. Most decisions were taken by the four of them: Apex and Dieter were the technical guys; Nico did finance and general organization.
In practice Erika was the leader. They all followed Erika. Anywhere.
Erika: what about iceland?
Dieter: but that's the middle of nowhere.
Erika: when I went with nico in november they were really friendly. they treated us like stars. and they seem dead serious about protecting the press.
Nico: iceland might work. we have some good guys there we can trust.
Dieter: yeah duddi is good. i rate him.
Nico: i'll organize it. hey you know there's a volcano erupting at the moment?
Dieter: cool. i've never seen a live volcano.
Nico: i did my masters in geology. i'll give you a guided tour.
Erika: guys we won't have time for any sightseeing.
Nico: you're no fun erika. so when do we go?
Erika thought a moment. It was Saturday morning. She could work on the transcript and do some background research in London over the weekend. There were people she could stay with whom she trusted in London, the man in the bed behind her not being one of them. There were people she could stay with in lots of cities.
Erika didn't really live anywhere. Her few possessions were strewn all over the globe: in her parents' place just outside New York; with Dieter in Cologne; some with Nico in Milan; some of her most personal stuff with her grandmother in Queens. But most of what she needed she kept in her small backpack. And in her computer backed up and encrypted remotely in several servers dotted around the world.
She would need to borrow a warmer coat for Reykjavík.
She resumed typing: when can you get things ready nico?
Erika: great. see you all in reykjavik on monday. and we need a name for this project. see what you can come up with.
Monday 12 April 2010
Erika emerged through the double doors of the arrivals hall and scanned the dozen or so people waiting. She knew Nico would have arranged for someone to pick her up, but she had no idea who it would be.
There were a couple of signs in the hall, and one of them had her name scrawled on it, with a smiley face. She approached the young woman holding the scrap of cardboard. 'Hi, I'm Erika.'
The woman smiled and held out her hand. She was thin with short dark hair, pale skin and big blue eyes. She was wearing jeans and a thick tan coat. And a clerical collar around her throat.
'Ásta,' she said. 'Welcome to Iceland.'
The woman led Erika out of the terminal to a beaten-up old Peugeot, which needed a wash. Erika wasn't entirely surprised by her host – Freeflow's volunteers came in all shapes and sizes – but this was the first priest she had come across. Certainly the first female one. Erika checked to see whether anyone was following them; she didn't think so, but it was hard to tell.
'I'll take you to the house,' Ásta said in flawless English. 'It's right downtown. A great location.'
'I doubt we'll be going outside much,' said Erika. 'Who does it belong to?'
'The owners live abroad. We've rented it for a couple of weeks.'
'We won't need it that long. A week at most.' Ásta eased the Peugeot out of the car park and on to the road to Reykjavík. Forty-six kilometres, according to the yellow road sign.
'You speak very good English,' Erika said.
'Thank you. You'll find most Icelanders speak English, especially the younger ones.'
'Yeah, I remember that from last time I was here,' said Erika. 'Do you always wear that thing?'
'The dog-collar thing.'
'Oh, no. But I want to while I'm helping you out. I think what you are doing is good. There should be more openness in Iceland, and more in the Icelandic Church. I guess I'm making a point. Christians believe in telling the truth.'
'So do Muslims and Jews,' said Erika. 'And atheists. Or the majority of them do anyway: their governments are a different matter.'
Erika was wary. All kinds of people tried to win Freeflow over to their cause. But independence was everything. Independence from any one country, any political ideology and any religion.
Ásta smiled. 'Oh, don't worry, I won't try to influence what you are doing. I saw you on Silfur Egils when you were here last year, by the way. I was impressed. A lot of people here were.'
Silfur Egils was the biggest TV chat show in Iceland. Erika had used her appearance to encourage the Icelanders to set up a haven for free information. The idea seemed to have gone down well. 'I'm glad you remember it,' Erika said.
'I might have something for you,' Ásta said.
'About the banks?' Freeflow received information from all over the world, some of it big, some of it small. It had published the details of one of the Icelandic bank's loans several months before, but had also received several pieces of unsubstantiated gossip that it had left unpublished.
'No. About the Church here in Iceland. Certain things that happened here in the past.'
'OK,' Erika said. 'But, Ásta, if you do decide to leak something to us, you should do it anonymously. Upload it to our website or mail it to us on a CD. We go to great lengths to protect our sources, and the best protection is if we don't know their identity ourselves.'
'But if you don't know who they are, how can you tell if they are reliable?'
It was a common criticism of Freeflow, but one Erika had answered many times. 'We are very careful to check and double-check the information we are given. That works much better than a subjective judgement on whether a source is reliable or not.'
'I see,' said Ásta.
They were out on the highway now, a long straight strip of black through the barren lava field that separated the airport at Keflavík from the capital. Checking behind her, the only vehicles Erika could see were two large trucks: not the vehicles of choice for surveillance teams. No trees anywhere, nor grass. Grey sea on one side; black mountains beyond the lava on the other. A small mountain rose up ahead in a perfect cone. Bleak. A sign to the right pointed to the Blue Lagoon and Erika saw steam leaking out from behind a fold in the lavascape a few miles in that direction. Erika had seen the posters at the airport: she could use a long soak in the geothermally heated pool.
The middle of nowhere, as Dieter had said. A long way from Israel.
'Nico showed us the video,' Ásta said. 'It's going to make quite a splash when it gets out. There was a lot of coverage here when Tamara Wilton was shot. It was a big deal.'
'Yes, it will make a splash.' Tamara Wilton was an ordinary British student who had decided to spend six months after graduating from university with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Gaza doing her bit for the Palestinians. Except she wasn't ordinary – she was a pink-cheeked, fair-haired English-rose type in the mould of Princess Diana. The world knew that because she had an identical twin sister Samantha, who looked just like her and who turned out to be not just cute, but articulate and angry as well. Samantha Wilton had been all over the papers and TV, not just in Britain, but also in the rest of Europe and even the States. The story of her sister had touched all kinds of people, even Erika, who saw something of herself in the idealistic young woman willing to go to dangerous places for what she believed in. It had been a public-relations nightmare for the Israelis, which they had fought hard to contain.
But until now no one outside the Israeli Defence Force had actually seen it happen. More importantly, no one had heard it happen.
Erika had spent Saturday and Sunday holed up in an activist's flat in East London going through everything she could find on the death of Tamara Wilton. The Israeli Defence Force investigation had been a whitewash. The recent Goldstone Report, instigated by the United Nations to examine human rights abuses by both sides in the Gaza war of the winter of 2008–9, had found no evidence to question the IDF's version of events: that the helicopter crew's assumption that the UN truck contained a Palestinian anti-tank unit was reasonable, as was their action to destroy it.
There were doubts, accusations, but no proof.
As she looked out over the broad expanse of brown and grey rubble that had been spewed out of a volcano several thousand years before, Erika felt the excitement build inside her. The Icelandic priest was right, this was big. This was very big.
In the three years of its existence Freeflow had published many important leaks: it had started by exposing international inaction in Darfur, then corrupt arms deals in Africa, cover-ups in Belgium, political shenanigans in Italy and dodgy loans in Iceland. This video would cause the biggest stir. Which is why they had to make it objective, hard-hitting and above all unimpeachable.
This time their target was Israel.
Excerpted from Meltwater by Michael Ridpath. Copyright © 2012 Michael Ridpath. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Nice blend of politics , psychology, geology , history, myths and cultural. Series is kind of addictive.
Took half the book to get interested.