I found Tony’s but not without effort. It was one of those annoying shitholes only found seeing out their commorancies in the cellars of Mayfair, the kind of pretentious dive that thinks because it’s hard to find it must be a brilliant provider of the dining experience. Tony’s is the type of establishment that doesn’t put prices on its menus because if you have to enquire about the cost involved then you almost certainly won’t be able to afford it, despite the cuisine they offer being the prevalent sort of French-Turkish-Mexican fusion thing no one in their right minds would ever gravitate towards willingly. I imagine the owners had probably been trying since opening night to secure a Michelin star with little to no progress. Thank Christ for small mercies.
I found Parsons easily enough. He was clearly the twat in the caftan who was at a table munching cacik and what appeared to be a miniature plate of salsa covered escargot by his lonesome, supping on what I took to be specifically ordered tap water. He’d picked this dive to impress me, poor sod, and was trying assuredly in vain to minimise the damage on his paltry wallet. Yeah mate, just wait until I set my sights on the wine list, which will be pretty fucking sharpish. Say goodnight to your proposed budget then.
He sprung up like a schoolboy answering the call of his headmaster, grabbing my outstretched hand in suddenly sweaty desperation.
“Sorry, Mr. Cohen, I should have recognised you from your by-line. Have a seat.”
He looked even less substantial in person than he sounded over the phone, something I didn’t think was possible. To go with the caftan, he wore a Turkish fez on his head and women’s scandals on his feet that looked like they had been purchased from some Bombay black market stall in 1976. On his face there lived a ridiculous, almost vaudevillian moustache that I’m sure Parsons thought gave his face “character”. He was clearly one of these gormless prats who thinks because he’s been backpacking through Cambodia on a package tour that now makes him some sort of expert on international affairs. I was certain I was going to get the “light in their eyes” spiel any time now in his nasal, East Coast American accented voice.
“So I’ve spoken to Jerome and he’s incredibly excited about you considering our story,” Parsons said.
“Before we begin…” I said, snapping my fingers as the sommelier passed by.
“A bottle of whatever is your most expensive red.”
I could literally hear Parsons wince as I said this; his eyes squinted at the precise moment his face moved upwards, providing a satisfying “click” noise.
“I should warn you, sir, that our most expensive wine is La Romanee Conti, which is three hundred and fifty pounds a bottle.”
“Yeah, and I don’t remember asking for a fucking price check, Leroy. Just the wine will do and make it goddamn snappy, chop chop.”
The wine prick put duly in his place, I turned to Parsons again, who was now trying to work out how he was going to get this absurdly priced meal through on his expenses. Khalid had mentioned the organisation he worked for and I’d never heard of it before, so I imagined them having to axe the tea budget for the next millennium so that Parsons could pay for this little pitch.
“Right, so tell me more about this Jerome Silver bloke,” I said, a ringing I’d had in my head since first thing that morning getting worse. It had been some night and I couldn’t remember getting home. I’d had a few scotch and cokes first thing to clear my head but now I was feeling the seconds pass as I waited for that deliciously overpriced wine to turn up.
“Jerome and I have been friends for years,” Cody answered, smiling broadly, his embarrassment of a moustache seeming to instantly double in size. “As you can imagine there aren’t that many other Americans who have been to Afghanistan recreationally and who can speak fluent Dari and Pashto. So I keep him close.”
“I’m still a little unclear on some of the details…”
Where the hell was that wine?
“…Jerome’s son is MIA and the US military are saying he’s dead?”
Parsons cleared his throat with almost deafening to my hung-over ears volume before launching into this little speech:
“Eighteen months ago, Irwin finished a tour of duty and was scheduled to begin another one two weeks later. The marines thought obviously he would use his leave to go back to the States to see his family. Instead, Irwin headed into the wilds of the northern provinces of Afghanistan on what he told friends was a personal mission, one which consisted of intentionally seeking out a prominent member of the Pashtun community for what he said would be ‘unilateral talks’.”
My headache took a sudden turn for the worse. All I could think about was the way that first sip of Conti would feel on my tongue while I tried to stay focused.
“The north of the country? Why the hell would anyone go looking to speak to Pashtuns in the north of the country?”
I was going to need to request a fucking funnel in a second while grabbing a bottle off another table. I was having trouble remembering when last I had been so desperate for ethanol.
“Irwin wanted to speak to a specific warlord, one who had never surrendered his territory to either the Taliban or the American military,” Parsons said. The wine arrived at that very moment, thank Christ. I had a sudden urge to rip it from the waiter’s hand and let the guzzling commence.
“Would you like to be the one to taste it, sir?” the waiter said to me with what I took in my slightly paranoid state to be a smarmy air. He could probably see the beads of sweat on my forehead and work it all out.
“Just pour me a glass, sunshine. I’ll take my chances.”
The waiter did as he was told, pouring me an overgenerous portion. When he left, I offered the bottle to Parsons.
“No thanks, I don’t drink.”
I took a mouthful of the Conti and instantly felt like a new man as the news sunk in that I had a whole bottle of the stuff all to myself. Jesus, the stuff really is worth three hundred and fifty quid a bottle. I calculated by volume that what was in my mouth was worth at least a tenner.
“So Irwin headed up to Badakhshan province. Again, this was a year and a half ago…” Parsons continued. My brain, having now had some wine to soothe it, was back to full speed. I gasped in horror at the realisation that jammed itself towards me.
“Hang about: Badakhshan? Pashtun warlord……holy crap, please don’t tell me Irwin skipped off to see Mullah bloody Devosh?”
Parsons smiled in recognition.
“I see you’ve heard of the man.”
“He’s complete fucking psycho, Parsons.”
“I realise that Mullah Devosh has his detractors…”
“The man has a collection of human heads on poles in his backgarden that are organised by ethnicity.”
“A lot of that stuff is unsubstantiated.”
I grabbed the bridge of my nose before chucking down the rest of that first glass of Conti. The American halfwit was really beginning to test my patience.
“Why the hell do you want to chuck me this story, Parsons?”
“I saw you a few weeks ago speaking at a dinner engagement. You were excellent, a tremendous knowledge of the country. I then read some of your old articles on Afghanistan, which I found well informed.”
I took the opportunity to jog my memory on Parsons’ credentials.
“You were there on behalf of your employer I imagine, who is called what again?”
“Break down that acronym for me, please.”
“The Afghan American Cooperation Workforce Facility.”
“Catchy handle. So why not approach Johnny Wills? Or better yet Ali Bakar at the Indy? They’re better connected to what’s going in Afghanistan than I am these days.”
Parsons looked sheepishly away from me.
“Actually, I already did approach them.”
I poured myself a second glass of the Conti and took a big slug. I then sat back and sneered. I was going to make the American fruitcake sat across from me pay for that remark.
“So I’m third fucking choice am I?”
“Well, sixth, actually.”
I actually did a mini-spit take upon hearing this, thankfully into the glass so that not a drop of the precious three hundred and fifty pound a bottle vino was wasted.
“This story better get interesting quick. Because as soon as the Conti’s done, I’m off.”
Parsons squirmed a little then hurriedly continued with his little tale.
“Irwin didn’t turn up for his first day of service for his second tour, making him officially AWOL. Three days after Irwin was declared AWOL a video supposedly turned up at his commanding officer’s door. On it was a beaten and bloody man identified by his supposedly Al Qaeda captors in the video as Irwin Silver, tied to a chair. The captors on the video announced that he was a ‘Jewish American infidel to be killed as an example’. The tape supposedly ends with the prisoner being beheaded.”
“I never heard about any tape of an American soldier being beheaded.”
“The Pentagon in league with the CIA managed to keep it all quiet.”
“So how the hell do you know about it then?”
“The marines told Jerome, as Irwin’s next of kin, what had happened. Jerome demanded to see the tape himself and they acquiesced.”
“What, this bloke flew from America to Afghanistan to see it?”
“Jerome was in Kabul at the time.”
“So why the hell would they show the father the tape? That makes no fucking sense whatsoever.”
“I agree. Particularly when Jerome swears that the man beheaded on the tape is not his son.”
“So hang about, the beheading was real but it wasn’t Irwin Silver. That’s what you’re saying?”
“That appears to be the case.”
“So why is Irwin Silver mentioned by name on the video then?”
“That’s where it gets interesting: Irwin made contact with Mullah Devosh. We know this via email correspondence and letters from Irwin prior to the tape being made. Here’s a picture.”
Parsons reached into the inside pocket of a jacket he was wearing underneath his caftan and pulled out a photograph, one that he slid across the table towards me. It was a picture of two men, one in a US marines private’s uniform; the other man was definitely a Pashtun, dressed in a shalwar kameez with a vermillion turban on his head. They stood in front of what looked a lot like a slice of Afghanistan.
“So you haven’t heard from Irwin since Jerome witnessed the tape?” I asked.
“No. But we have heard from independent sources that Irwin has been seen in Badakhshan.”
I sneered anew, gulping down a fresh glass of Conti.
“Independent sources? This sounds like complete horseshit, Parsons.”
I looked at the picture again. Irwin looked like a clean cut, all American kid who had gotten himself into a world of shit through his own quixotic nature. I kind of liked the kid’s face somehow, which in retrospect was my downfall.
“It’s all true, every word,” Parsons said.
“So why then do you think WIlls and Bakar weren’t interested then?”
“I think they thought it was all too good to be true.”
A CIA cover-up of the murder of an American soldier: it sounded like the very definition of seems too good to be true.
“I’ll tell you what: I’ll run it by my editor,” I said. I then arose from the table and thought fuck it, grabbed the bottle of Conti and necked the rest of it straight down to the appalled looks of the other excessively bourgeois patrons of Tony’s. Mostly Mayfair wives with nothing to do but sit on their plump arses and spend their merchant banker husband’s hard stolen cash all day long. The staff meanwhile stifled laughs and tried not to look overly amused.
“And here’s a friendly word of advice,” I said to Parsons upon finishing the wine. “Next time you go for lunch with a journalist, don’t bother taking him to an up your arse Mayfair cellar joint. You could have had me for a sandwich at Bernie’s in Soho. Make a mean BLT there. Costs three pound ninety five. All this posh crap marks you out as an amateur.”
As I turned around to leave, the waiter approached me.
“Are sure you don’t want any lunch, sir?”
I thought for a moment, turning the “sixth in line” comment around in my head once more.
“Steak and lobster, please. I shant be around to consume it however, but if you or one of your staff could please eat it yourself whenever suits your schedule with my regards?”
“Most kind, sir.”
I walked away without bothering to check the state of Parsons’ temples. Emerging from Tony’s into the breezy sunshine of a colder than usual September afternoon with that newly downed bottle of very exorbitantly priced wine in my guts made me feel a touch euphoric. Sure, Parsons was a tool and his story almost certainly had several chimerical elements to it. Nevertheless I felt it was worth looking into. I realised then that I’d managed to knick the Mullah Devosh and Irwin picture without intending to. I examined it again in the daylight; it had a strange Mona Lisa like quality, in that it seemed to transform a little every time you looked at it. Now Irwin Silver looked slightly sinister to me and Mullah Devosh looked like a used car salesman Irwin was about to murder and stuff into the back of his old Skoda.