A Moroccan journalist stumbles upon a story that can make or break her career…and her life. Zakia Karim receives a request to meet a former boyfriend, Elias, who works for an oil and gas company in Morocco.
She doesn't respond because her long-distance marriage to an American is already hanging by a thread. Less than a week later, Elias is incinerated in a fracking incident, which may not be an accident. She discovers the oil and gas company is cutting shady deals with someone in the government.
The closer Zakia gets to the truth, the more danger she encounters. For security reasons, her family moves to the United States. But when she is accused of murdering a Scottish climate scientist in Iceland, Zakia must uncover the truth about the conspiracy, the Dirty Network, to save herself.
|Publisher:||The Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.84(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The day's deadlines were looming. Zakia Karim walked quickly to her favorite French sidewalk café, five blocks away from her newspaper's office. She wound her way on the crowded sidewalk between tourists taking photos of the elaborate mosque next door with its turquoise blue dome, and locals going about their business. The torrential rains of the past few days had stopped and Rabat was lush and green. Zakia smiled; she appreciated the early spring rains.
Crossing the noisy street, she paused to avoid a fast-moving moped which had squeezed between the cars and trucks, carrying a family of four sandwiched on a single seat. Reaching the curb, she just missed stepping on a stray cat soaking up the sun. She rushed into the popular Joyeux Café, her green eyes adjusting to the darkness, and saw an empty table back in the corner, near the hookah smokers. Being a lone woman in a café could bring unwanted attention, especially since Zakia had short-cropped hair not covered by a hijab. In Morocco, mostly men frequented the sidewalk cafés. All Zakia wanted to do was eat a quick lunch, not be harassed by a bunch of gawking men in robes with nothing better to do.
She slid into a wooden chair and sighed. These days she hated to spare even a moment for lunch. She was eager to land a career-changing story, one that would propel her to a senior reporter status. Lately, her spouse, Benjamin Atkins, who worked at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., had been hinting that he wanted to make a permanent move to the United States. She feared her career would stall there; she felt pressured to prove herself in Morocco in order to move to a senior positon in the United States.
When it was her turn to order, she smiled at the proprietor and said "Bonjour," hoping that her good nature would hurry the process. It worked and she had just started to eat her habitual croque monsieur, prepared here with mutton instead of ham, when her phone rang. The proprietor frowned, but she shook her head apologetically and answered it anyway. It could be a source.
Instead it was Mohammad Yasin, one of her colleagues in Marrakesh. Mohammad worked as a reporter on the news desk at a sister newspaper that covered the Al Tarife region in the south and surrounding areas. She remembered vividly that when they'd last spoken, he'd said, "Zakia, your passion is going to kill you one day." They had both laughed.
Mohammad sounded tense. "Zakia, I have an interesting story for you."
She perked up. He had dispensed with the usual Arab tradition of catching up on family matters before getting to the point.
"What's going on?"
"Something big." His sharp tone made her uneasy.
He didn't speak for a moment, and then cleared his throat. "Several people died in a blowout at a gas well near Al Tarife. The story's just breaking now."
Zakia's stomach churned. She had an uneasy feeling she knew where this was going. "Isn't that where Oddleifur Oil is located?"
"Yes," he said. "Weird thing is the well is still on fire, but the authorities are chasing reporters away. I know the fire chief, but he wouldn't let me through and, instead, threatened to confiscate my camera."
"How can I help?" she said. Her adrenaline surged with the thought of a potential new assignment.
"Well," he paused. "I thought you mentioned once that you had a friend working there."
"Elias Mansur," she said. "You have a good memory."
He sounded sarcastic. "That's how I get so many press awards," he said. "I remember things. Make connections."
Zakia didn't answer. In fact, her old boyfriend, Elias, did work for Oddleifur Oil. Zakia had been in love with Elias in a way that could not happen in Morocco until you were actually married. But his ongoing friendship after she'd married Benjamin was awkward for her. He had kept in touch over the years — just casual contact, yet disconcerting. After they had a chance encounter at the tenth reunion of their classes at their Alma Mater, Columbia University in New York, three years ago, he had begun sending her holiday cards. Even though Benjamin was an even-keeled American, she could tell by his forced smile when the cards appeared in the mail that he was not thrilled about it. Holiday cards seemed innocent enough, but married women just didn't write to old flames in Moroccan culture.
Especially not if your firstborn was Elias's boy and you weren't married to Elias.
Fighting against temptation, she'd never told Elias or Benjamin. She hadn't found out she was pregnant until after she'd broken up with Elias and was involved with Benjamin. Elias was too controlling. Not daring to take the test, she had been unsure who the father was for several months. After talking to her sister, Tahra, Zakia had done a lot of soul searching and decided it would be best if she went ahead and married her latest lover, Benjamin. Tahra was her only living family member and they were close, even if she lived in Chicago. She had said that her chance of a journalism career if she married a nomadic Berber was highly unlikely. Zakia had not told Benjamin there was a possibility that she might be pregnant by another man.
Then four days ago, Elias had sent Zakia an e-mail, asking to meet with her. He mentioned something about nomadic Berbers, water rights, and hydraulic fracturing. She hadn't told Benjamin. And she hadn't responded because part of her wondered if somehow he had figured out that Dani was his son.
Zakia cupped her chin with her right hand and leaned her elbow on the small table. Something isn't right.
"Well," said Mohammad. "Can I have Elias's phone number?"
"I'd have to dig to find it." Zakia slumped as she remembered the e-mail with guilt. "Can I get back to you?"
"Sure." "But make it quick. I want to find out what's going on from an insider. There's an absolute information blackout."
Zakia felt a twinge of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. "All I know is that Elias is one of the engineers working in operations in the data center trailer."
"Good, then he'll know exactly what happened. This whole operation has a secretive feel to it lately. I used to cover it routinely as part of my beat, but information has been drying up ever since they started moving into fracking in a big way."
They agreed that Zakia would call him as soon she found Elias's phone number and hung up. By then, her food was lukewarm and Zakia had no appetite. She pulled up her e-mails on her phone and thought about writing Elias back, then thought better of it. Against her instinct, Zakia would stick to her plan. She had decided she wasn't going to tell him about Dani before her son turned eighteen. She'd let Mohammad talk with Elias.
* * *
Zakia's shoulders tensed up as she hurried into the small, noisy newsroom at Le Journal du Maroc. She wondered how she could wangle her way into covering the explosion herself. Plus, she needed to reread the e-mail from Elias to see if she had somehow missed something about his tone that may have been conveyed in the short message.
She loved her job at Le Journal because the paper was one of the few in Morocco, let alone the Arab world, that had not been shut down for being outspoken about issues the government believed were too sensitive. It had grown in popularity during the Arab Spring because the publishers had played an effective balancing game, choosing their battles carefully. That was another reason she didn't want to move to the States. Landing a job there was very difficult, as newspapers were slashing the newsroom staff or even closing down in many places.
The moment she sat down, her long legs butting up against the desk, her colleague, Fatima Darzi, a petite powerhouse, came over to her little cubicle. "Zakia, I've been looking for you."
"Why? I just returned from a quick lunch."
Fatima smiled. "Good, you need to eat. You've been working too hard. You look tired."
"The story of my life." Zakia smiled. She'd worked with Fatima at the paper for what seemed like forever. Fatima was content to write social stories. The two were miles apart in their career aspirations, but still good friends.
While Fatima told her about her morning tribulations, Zakia began zipping through her e-mails, looking for the one from Elias and wondering if she had accidentally deleted it. Fatima, who lingered, looking at her own phone, gasped. "Wow, look what came across the wires just now. A terrible flood in the area around the Serbian town of Obrenovac, over ten people dead so far."
Zakia's heart raced. "Obrenovac? Are you sure?"
"Yes," said Fatima, her eyebrows drawing together. "What's wrong?"
"That's near where Benjamin is on a job this week," Zakia bit her lip and pulled her phone out of her bag.
"Have you spoken with him recently?"
"I called him earlier today and got no response. The cellphone system must be overloaded. I'll try again now." Zakia fingered her thin gold necklace as she tried calling him.
"Thank the stars. There you are. I was beginning to stress out about you."
"I'm fine. I've tried calling you all morning," said Benjamin. "Record-breaking rainfall in the region caused huge flooding last night."
"Just hold the line Benjamin," Zakia turned to Fatima, "Let's try getting it live."
She straightened up in her chair, searched and found a livestream of the report on her computer and turned up the volume. They watched soberly as helicopters flew low over the town where flood waters had swept through. Soldiers rescued people off rooftops.
Zakia spoke into her cell, "This looks awful; where are you now, Benjamin?"
"On the outskirts of Belgrade east of Obrenovac. What a disaster. I'm stunned. There were scores of people hauling suitcases along the road heading this way, looking like refugees — they're the lucky ones. The authorities are urging everyone to get out of the area. I'm not sure when we'll be getting to the airport, but I'll call you later if the phones work. Or I'll use Skype. Love you!"
"Be safe," said Zakia, finally breathing easy again. "I love you too."
The news reporter on the screen said, "Cyclone Tamara has brought record rainfall to the region and caused the Sava River and its tributaries to overflow their banks. It's the heaviest rainfall in 120 years." In the scenes from the center of Obrenovac, people were wading through nearly waist-high water, carrying their most treasured possessions. Some rescuers were in rowboats with elderly people and families with small children. Debris was floating everywhere and some cars were bobbing around.
A couple of reporters in nearby cubicles had gathered behind Zakia and Fatima to see what the commotion was all about. "That doesn't look good," muttered one of the reporters.
"Be quiet," said Zakia. "I want to hear this."
They all watched in silence while the reporter wrapped up his coverage. "This flood fits the pattern of climate change. The heat is creating more moisture in the atmosphere, causing heavier rainfall, hence more floods."
Fatima turned to Zakia. "There always seems to be flooding somewhere on the planet."
"But they seem to be getting worse." I have a friend, Fiona McPherson, who's a climatologist. She's often called on to advise policy-makers and corporate executives. She's told me that extreme weather events are going to happen more and more often."
Fatima shook her head. "Thank goodness Benjamin's okay."
Zakia breathed out a sigh of relief. "Yes, my stomach was starting to act up." With Benjamin gone so often, she was used to his being away for weeks at a time, but then something like this reminded her how important her marriage was to her and how much she loved Benjamin. She hoped Elias wasn't intending to upset things.
When the coverage switched to the inauguration of a new university research center in Casablanca, the other reporters wandered back to their cubicles, talking amongst themselves. Fatima lingered. "Do you want to take a break? Let's go get some coffee."
"Just a minute." Zakia peered at the screen. Now that she knew Benjamin was safe, she was ready to dive back into her story lead. "I want to see if they are covering the gas blowout near Al Tarife."
They watched for a few moments longer, but nothing was mentioned, and Fatima playfully pulled Zakia out of her chair. "We'll just make Jasem work on editing our stories even later tonight. Aren't bosses meant to be working twenty-four-seven?"
"Indeed. Yet, I don't understand what's going on with the media," Zakia pondered as they walked to the breakroom. "Why wasn't a blowout at a gas well in the Sahara, where several workers were killed a few hours ago, mentioned on the local news?"
Fatima shrugged. "That is peculiar."
As they poured coffee and prepared tea, Zakia considered telling Fatima about Elias, that he worked at Oddleifur Oil and had tried to contact her recently. Instead, she and Fatima compared notes on stories they were working on and then finished up after their editor, Jasem Essa, poked his head in the breakroom and gave them a dirty look.
* * *
Zakia went back to her desk, intending to find out what was going on at the gas well, though it was anyone's guess as to whether or not Jasem would approve of her picking up the story. At the outset, he had seemed to have mixed feelings about her career aspirations, even though he had given Zakia her first job after university. Then, four years later, he was very supportive when she decided to pursue her master's degree in the U.S., and hired her back again after she graduated. She'd had a chance to stay in the U.S. after her studies, but decided to return home to Morocco.
Having grown up in Casablanca with a multi-cultural background — her father an English businessman of Syrian origin and her mother a French-Moroccan singer — Zakia had wanted to be a part of Morocco as it changed with increasing globalization. Yet, being a woman in a male-dominated profession, she had to fight more to get the most sought after stories.
Zakia scrolled online to see if any mention of the blowout had made it into any other newspapers or into the blogosphere. She found nothing, not even video coverage on YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook. Zakia suspected that the story was being suppressed. Otherwise some footage would have appeared on the domestic news by this time. She'd written some pretty good stories, such as the expanded series on the Arab Spring, but this one, somehow, seemed different.
The well blowout, coming so closely on the heels of Elias's trying to contact her, made her uneasy. She broadened her search to encompass all news within the last two years, and the only stories she could find on the oil and gas well in that area was that the company was expanding its hydraulic fracturing operations.
Zakia contacted a friend from high school, Rafid Bera, now a geology professor at the University of Rabat, to ask what exactly hydraulic fracturing was.
"Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, often referred to as fracking, is a method used to recover oil and gas from shale rock," said Rafid. "Drilling is done vertically, thousands of feet below the surface, then horizontally, before directing a high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals mixture at the rock to release the oil and gas inside. The method uses millions of gallons of water per gas well."
"That sounds like an awful lot of water."
"Not an ideal energy source for places with an arid climate and water scarcity. Fracking also has negative environmental impacts, especially the wastewater."
"Thanks for all the info. I'll be in touch."
She turned to research fracking accidents by poring through the internet, including research papers, scientific papers, and accident reports. There had been several explosions on fracking sites in the U.S., for the most part due to sloppy operators. Could that have been the cause of this explosion? And what did that have to do with the story not being covered?
* * *
The afternoon passed quickly and it was nearly five when Zakia finally looked up Elias's phone number on the list provided by the alumni association of Columbia University and called Mohammad. She realized that she'd been putting it off. Guilt was getting the better of her.
"Salam, Mohammad. Have you learned anything new?"
"Salam, Zakia. The person in charge at the gas well is being very tight with information," he said. "I probably need to go back down there myself, but they still aren't letting any reporters in."
"Well, what can you tell me?" Zakia was pleased that her suspicions were well founded. "Anyway, I have Elias's number for you."
Zakia heard no response.
"How bad was it?" she asked.
Zakia held her breath while she pulled her hand through her hair.
"All right," said Mohammad, sighing. "I didn't want to be the one to break the news, but since he's already come up in conversation, I need to tell you. The company released Elias's name as one of the victims."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dirty Network"
Copyright © 2018 A. M. Halvorssen.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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