The Lightning File
My discovery of terrorist cells operating in Canada coincided with Stephanie’s request that I move out. How ironic that the very thing that could propel my career as a journalist into the stratosphere turned up just when my marriage was heading for the dumper. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My investigation originated in a strong hunch, stronger than I’d had in a long time. I remember sitting in my cubicle at the Toronto Times with paper scattered everywhere. It was the Saturday of Easter weekend. I’d postponed sending off my feature article on drugs east of Toronto to search for a clue I just knew lay somewhere in the police files before me. I felt sure that given enough time, I’d discover evidence linking the poppy fields of Afghanistan and terrorist cells forming in Toronto.
I was leaning back in my chair trying to think of a new avenue of research when a sharp rap on my head brought me down to earth.
“Radley, where’s that feature?”
Red Farman, my editor, stood with his hands on his hips and glowered at me. One of the unwritten rules in the Toronto Times’ newsroom dictated that you didn’t cross Red. His wrestler’s physique combined with the perpetual scowl on his face warned of violence barely under control. He sported polka-dot bowties that clashed so wildly with his wrestler’s persona that you wanted to smile. You didn’t dare. I’d heard his growl reduce neophyte reporters to tears. If you wanted to keep your job, you wouldn’t contradict his opinion. Half a dozen reporters had challenged him during my tenure, and scotched their careers.Fortunately, Red had taken a liking to me; become something of a mentor.
I grimaced. “Don’t worry, Red. I’ll get it to you in half an hour, an hour at most.”
He shook his head from side to side. “Radley, you’re straining my famous patience. We need the story now. I’ll give you ten minutes, no more—or it’s history.” He pointed at the files scattered around my cubicle. “I hope these have to do with your feature and not your current obsession. I told you to dump that wild idea about connecting drugs to some mythical terrorist cell in Toronto.”
I began gathering the files together. “Don’t worry, Red.”
After Red left, I forced myself to focus on polishing my feature. I stared at the scratched picture of Stephanie on my coffee mug. No inspiration there. I turned up the volume on the classical music station and gritted my teeth in a deliberate attempt to shut out the newsroom clamor. The click of keys at scores of terminals. The hum of the nearby photocopier. Occasional shouts. Phones ringing. Pagers going off. Curses. Laughter.
I scrolled down the article for the tenth time. I inserted a comma, tapped out a couple of paragraphs to fill out the word count and changed a word here and there. It was still mediocre and I had missed the deadline again.
I reluctantly sent it off. I’d become a newsroom hack. The dreams of international coverage with a blockbuster exposé were fading. I’d never escape the publisher’s tantrums with crap like that. And I had about used up Red’s forbearance.
With a sigh, I shut down my terminal and began to tidy up my cubicle. Beneath all my police files on drug arrests, I discovered a list of my assignments for the next couple of weeks. No wonder Connacher, the publisher, was pushing me. I hadn’t even started to investigate preparedness at the Darlington Nuclear Plant nor started the feature on corruption in Niagara Falls. Why did I get these dumb assignments? Enough already. I dumped the list under my desk blotter.
That’s when my instinct kicked in. Strange how you can work on a story for weeks: do all the interviews, research reams of material, write it up and then stumble on the one lead that sends you off in a new direction.
I pulled out the police reports and again spread them on my desk. Three police services and no co-ordination. Several files summarized the busts by the OPP, (Ontario Provincial Police) east of Toronto. A couple more listing their busts west and north. The eastern batch of OPP files was thickest. The reports on arrests by Toronto Police in Metro itself filled half a dozen folders. A fourth group of reports, obtained only after great arm-twisting, listed RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) raids all over Ontario.
No surprise here. Much more activity east of Toronto. No wonder with such access to the US border along the St. Lawrence. Opening one of the Toronto files and rebooting my PC, I decided to list all the arrests over the last five years and note any mention of West Asian drug dealers.
I reviewed the facts in my mind. The instinct that had led me east, out of the city. The previous summer’s spectacular series of marijuana seizures around Ganaraska. The raids on grow houses. More worrying, the hard drugs and potent synthetics flooding into the area. The vague hints about West or South Asians muscling in on the drug scene. Not Chinese but Afghans or Pakistanis, or possibly Uzbeks. The piece in the New York Constitution told me I was on the right track. I reviewed the clipping again.
BY LOUIS MARCH, WASHINGTON “Terrorists connected to Al Quaeda are in Toronto to strike at the US,” says a reliable State Department source. “Three suspected terrorists have disappeared from London and Paris and infiltrated Canada,” the source adds. What will be the terrorist cell’s US target? Our informant would not speculate. . . .
Drugs in Toronto and terrorists targeting the US—Siamese twins. But how to prove it?
A voice broke into my concentration. “So how is the latest recipient of the infamous Red rap doing?”
Startled, I turned to see that Gina Tonelli—my colleague in the next cubicle—had stopped to rib me on her way out. She sure didn’t look like the tag end of a frazzling day. Black hair framed her face in a pixie cut. A touch of eye shadow. Curled lashes. Full ripe lips coloured in some vivid shade of red. She looked good enough to devour. Steph’s hands-off treatment had done nothing to still my hormones. Whoa, Nelly.
“Red’s a slave-driver,” I said. “How can you do creative work with these unrealistic deadlines?”
“I wouldn’t worry about Red. He’s a teddy bear. Connacher is the hatchet man. Word is, the publisher is just looking for an excuse to fire you.”
“Yeah, yeah . . . so what’s new?”
She pointed at her watch. “Joshua, have you called your wife yet? You better get out of here.”
“Don’t worry. I’m just about to leave. But while you’re here, a quick question. Do you remember any arrests of West or South Asians for dealing? Not Chinese or Russian. You know, Afghans or Pakistanis or even Uzbeks? ”
She paused. “No. None come to mind. Why?”
“I keep running into hints about Asians muscling in on the drug trade. Do you have any contacts in the OPP you could ask?”
“Sure. Inspector Kilcooley.”
“Great, Kilcooley knows me. Can you get him to let me interview one of his informants?”
“I’ll try. He appreciated the article you wrote on race relations in the police force. He might do it for you.”
Gina turned toward the elevators, then looked back and pointed at her watch again. “Your old lady’s going to fry your butt for Easter if you don’t get out of here.”
I made a face and waved her off. Gina covered the Toronto crime beat and did a bang-up job. She wrote tight, entertaining prose that took no prisoners. The chief of police hated her guts but the readers loved her. So did more detectives than I could count on my hands and toes. The business suit she wore accentuated her Latin sizzle. We couldn’t have been more different: me in my country slouch and her in her Roman chic. For some crazy reason she seemed to like me: a fact in which I took secret satisfaction given how it burned Ethan, my nemesis on the team of feature writers. I guess she thought of me as safe and happily married. If she only knew.
I returned to my files and began to list all the arrests made during the last few years. Hours went by. I leaned back in my chair to stretch and glanced at my watch. Past eleven. Yikes. I’d promised Steph that I’d be home by nine. Shutting down my PC and locking away the files again, I headed for the elevator and my Chevy pickup.
I slid behind the wheel of my baby. Man, I love that truck. Forest green. Leather seats. The thunder of a herd of stallions under the hood. Somehow I felt calmer behind the wheel, distant from the newsroom rivalries, the pressure of deadlines, and the tensions at home. I switched on the radio to 96.3 and let a Mahler concerto sink into my pores. I turned onto the Gardner Expressway through unusually light traffic. Maybe I should work late every night. Metro traffic has become a daytime nightmare.
As I accelerated west, I reviewed the story I had just filed: the story that was really no story at all. A series of raids on scattered farms growing and processing weed. Two grow-ops. Why, when marijuana was the least profitable of all the drugs? Why had the majority of those raided been retired farmers renting out unused fields and buildings? Where were the shadowy Asians they kept talking about?
By the time I hit the Queen Elizabeth Way, my mind was a jangle of questions that the music failed to soothe. Where was the acid coming from: the U.S.? Or was there some hidden factory out in the boonies? If I could only break through this dead-end, I was sure I could discover a drug super highway—and a connection to terrorism. My gut told me I should stay on the story and instinct had never let me down. But Red was hounding me to investigate mob connections to Niagara businesses. Niagara! Tourist trapdom. I hated the whole idea.
Ten minutes into Mississauga, I turned north onto Apple Blossom Lane. I drove past a score of those identical suburban boxes that developers loved to throw up, all with identical front yards. The two-car garages stuck on the front made them look like pregnant women lined up in the OB ward. I was having a harder and harder time calling the box numbered 3367, home. Besides differing shades of shingles and paint, the only distinguishing feature of 3367 was its overgrown front yard.
No lights. Inserting my key, I quietly opened the front door, kicked off my shoes, threw my coat over the banister, and tiptoed to the guestroom. No welcome upstairs. I’d better crash in the guestroom. But, hey, that was nothing new.
As I eased open the door—strange that it was shut—I noticed the suitcase open on the floor. Blast! Mom and Pop. I’d forgotten they were coming for Easter. With great care, I shut the door and crept into the den, where I collapsed on the sofa. Excitement about the possibility of talking to an informant moderated my dread about the scene I’d face in the morning.