The Old Bridge: A Joe Johnson Thriller, Book 2
The dark side of espionage . . . Joe Johnson’s investigation into a horrific wartime killing on an iconic bridge is thrown off track by his former CIA boss, who once hired him, then later fired him. Now, decades later, he’s trying to kill him.
Former spy Johnson’s war crimes inquiry begins in some of Europe’s most beautiful locations, but takes on a new dimension when it uncovers high level corruption within the Agency—his old employer. It culminates in an electrifying hunt for a killer in New York City and London.
Johnson and his ex-MI6 colleague Jayne Robinson literally walk a minefield while searching for an army officer who vanished after the Yugoslav civil war with a secret dossier linked to the White House. The search takes them to Mostar and Dubrovnik.
They end up fending off powerful intelligence agency leaders with vested interests.
The Old Bridge is the second taut thriller in the Joe Johnson series.
See how Johnson draws on all his resources to uncover the truth about what happened several decades earlier, while battling against dark forces that are working against him.
Release date: January 17, 2018
Publisher: The Write Direction Publishing
Print pages: 464
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The Old Bridge: A Joe Johnson Thriller, Book 2
Tuesday, November 9, 1993
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Adrian Turner pressed the red record button on his camera and ducked down behind a pile of rubble. Seconds later, another shell whined overhead and crashed into the parapet right in the center of the ancient stone bridge. It exploded with a deafening bang.
A large cloud of gray smoke and dust rose against the azure sky. A clatter of automatic gunfire sounded in the background.
Turner stood and assessed the situation. “You’ve got about ninety seconds before the next one,” he muttered to his partner, the British TV news reporter Martin Baron, who crouched next to him.
Baron’s face was as ashen as the layer of dust that now covered his hair and the shoulders of his blue flak jacket. He scrambled to his feet and walked a few yards to stand in front of the camera, which sat on a tripod among piles of smashed old stone, brick, and wood. It was all that remained of an old cottage on the riverbank.
“Behind me you can see the wreckage of one of the most famous stone bridges in the world, the Stari Most, or ‘Old Bridge,’ in Mostar,” he said into the lens. “It was built in 1566 on the orders of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent. But today, this once beautiful old bridge is coming under heavy fire. A tank situated on Stotina Hill, further down the Neretva River and manned by gunners from the mainly Catholic Croatian army, the HVO, has been attacking all morning in an attempt to destroy it. The Croats want to smother morale among the 25,000 remaining Bosnian Muslims who live just across the other side of the river in eastern Mostar.”
As he spoke, Baron half turned and indicated with his hand toward the crumbling structure, which was covered with a makeshift tangle of scaffolding, corrugated iron sheets, planks, and old rubber car tires in a vain attempt to protect it from the shelling.
To his left and his right, all the buildings along the riverbank, which together had formed the medieval heart of one of Eastern Europe’s most beautiful old cities, lay in ruins.
“The Bosnian Muslims rely on this bridge for access to drinking water here on the western side of the river and also use it to get supplies to the front line in this increasingly bloody civil war. They have to run across the bridge to try and avoid the Croatian snipers who are up in the hills surrounding this city,” Baron continued.
Next to the wreckage of an archway that led onto the bridge stood four people: an older man, a woman in her late teens, and two men in their twenties, holding a stretcher on which a wounded man lay, a bloodstained bandage wrapped around his head.
Baron glanced over his shoulder and pointed at them. “You can see just over there four people who are waiting to try and carry a wounded man back from the front line across the bridge to the only hospital functioning on the eastern side. So far, this bridge has remained just about usable, but if this shelling continues for much longer, it may not be.”
Baron was interrupted by the telltale whine of another incoming shell. Turner and Baron simultaneously threw themselves facedown to the floor, their fingers in their ears, eyes shut.
This time, the shell exploded much nearer, right next to the former archway, causing the ground beneath the two newsmen to shake as pieces of stone and other debris landed on them.
When the noise died down a little, Turner lifted his head. His camera was still intact on the tripod. But beyond it, next to the ruined arch, he saw that the four people carrying the stretcher, and the man on it, were no more. Only a mess of blood, body parts, and the misshapen stretcher remained.
To Turner’s left, another man yelled loudly into a walkie-talkie. On the far side of the bridge he could see a woman in a bright blue dress screaming nonstop. Other people were wailing.
Turner glanced at his camera. They’d caught everything.
“We got it all on film. Do another minute, can you?” Turner asked Baron.
Baron stared at him, then brushed pieces of stone and dust from his hair. “You’re mad. Five people have just died. We should get out of here now.”
But he got to his feet, picked up his handheld microphone, and staggered around in front of the camera one more time. He coughed and then began to speak.
“We’ve just seen firsthand the devastating effect of this war on all who live here. An injured man on a stretcher and four others who were trying to save his life have just been blown apart by a tank shell. That one landed unexpectedly near to us. The others have been hitting the center of the bridge. Yet another senseless loss of life in a senseless war. As the tank seems to have suddenly begun to target the area here on the western side of the bridge, rather than the center, we’re going to move to a safer location.”
Turner stepped over and turned off his camera, then picked up the tripod. He and Baron strode to a new position about a hundred yards from the bridge, where Turner set up his equipment again. He focused on the smoking bridge structure, zoomed in a little, and then pressed the record button.
As he did so, the woman who had been screaming on the other side of the bridge suddenly sprinted across it, her blue dress blowing in the wind, hair trailing in her wake, ignoring the shouts of those behind her who yelled at her to stop.
She knelt in the dust and the blood next to the mangled bodies of the stretcher bearers. There she prostrated herself beside the torso of the older man, placing her head on his red-stained chest. Then she did likewise with the woman lying next to him.
Baron watched her for a moment, then shook his head, stood in front of the camera, and resumed his report.
“It is clear there’s now a concerted effort by the Croatians to destroy this old bridge,” he said. “It was once described in the 1930s by British author Rebecca West as one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. She wrote about its architecture, the slender arch that stretched between its two round towers, about how its parapet was bent in a shallow angle in the center. Well, all of that might soon become no more than a memory for those who still live here, some of them clinging to life, many others dying by the day, in a city that is slowly being destroyed. This is Martin Baron reporting from Mostar.”
As he stopped speaking, there was another whine behind him, and an incoming shell smashed into the center of the bridge, exploded loudly, and sent another cloud of debris up into the blue sky.
Several large chunks of masonry fell off the bridge and down into the river eighty feet below. Then a few more dropped.
Suddenly, as if in slow motion, and with an almighty crash, the entire thirty-yard-long bridge collapsed into the river.
Hundreds of tons of carefully handcrafted medieval stonework plunged, causing an immense geyser of displaced water to shoot skyward, reaching almost up to the point where the bridge had been until a few moments earlier.
Turner stepped over to his camera and peered through the viewfinder to check what he was recording. He’d gotten it all.
In the center of the frame the Croatian army soldiers, still firing their weapons, came into view as they drew near to the bodies of the five people who had died a few minutes before.
The woman kneeling next to the bodies now had her head in the gutter, her hands on the torso of the older man, and she wept uncontrollably.
Turner ended the recording. “We’d better get this film off to London, quick as we can,” he said to Baron.
“Yes, we should.”
Away to his right, Turner saw a small group of Croatian army soldiers dancing and triumphantly firing their automatic rifles into the air.
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Joe Johnson emerged from the hotel’s windowless conference room and blinked in the sun that reflected off the Adriatic Sea, just a short distance away.
One of his fellow conference attendees, a tall blond German academic who was an authority on the Holocaust, had already changed into her bikini and was laying a towel on a sun lounger next to the pool.
Johnson gazed for a few seconds at the woman’s Amazonian figure through the floor-to-ceiling plate glass that separated the bar from the pool. Then he walked to the bar and threw his speaker’s notes and slide deck printout onto the shiny black granite surface. “Thank God that’s over,” he muttered to himself.
“Death in Yugoslavia” ran the title in large letters on the front of his pack of PowerPoint slides. The subheading beneath it read, “1991–1995: Atrocities of War That Shocked the World.” Then came a further heading, which referenced the heart of his speech: “An international approach to tracing war criminals.”
Johnson’s presentation to the 330 delegates at the Balkans War Crimes Conference had gone as planned. The deck of about fifty slides was graphic, including a few photographs of emaciated Muslim and Croatian prisoners in Serbian-run concentration camps at Omarska and Keraterm, but it made all the points he wanted to get across to his audience.
The conference venue was one of Dubrovnik’s largest hotels, the Valamar Lacroma, on the Lapad peninsula, ten minutes’ drive from the historic Old Town. It made for an idyllic setting.
Johnson had just reached into his jacket pocket and taken out his sunglasses when someone nudged his elbow. “Relieved that’s over, Joe? Can I get you a beer?”
Johnson turned to see Professor Philip De Vere, a stooping Oxford historian whom he vaguely knew and who had also delivered a paper to the conference.
“Thanks, I need one,” Johnson said.
And he did. The nervous buildup to a conference speech was always the same: a restless night, the 2 a.m. whiskey, then the black coffee that overstimulated his nervous system. Then, when it was over, the wave of relief was often accompanied by a craving for alcohol.
De Vere ordered two local Ožujsko beers before turning back to Johnson. “An interesting talk you gave there,” De Vere said. “But you were rather generous toward Bill Clinton and his policies on Bosnia in the early ’90s. I suppose you are American, after all.” He chuckled.
Johnson put on his sunglasses and placed his documents into his leather briefcase. “I think Clinton got most things right. Dayton was a good agreement, despite Clinton only doing it because he wanted it finished before the ’96 election. Can’t stand the guy personally, but someone needed to stand up for the Bosnian Muslims, and he did it.”
“Depends whether you take a long-term view or not, and how closely you look at how he went about it,” De Vere said. He paused and peered sideways at Johnson. “Do you do a lot of research work? You’re not a full-time academic, are you?”
Johnson eyed him. Always the snob. He explained that he worked as a visiting lecturer at American University in Washington, DC, within its College of Law, speaking periodically if its War Crimes Research Office required he do so. Otherwise, he ran his own business doing private investigations but was increasingly trying to focus on jobs with a war crimes element. That was his passion.
“Interesting work,” De Vere replied with a smirk.
Johnson had had enough of being talked down to. He picked up his beer and said, “You’re going to have to excuse me, I need a smoke.” He walked out the door of the interior bar to the far side of the patio, where a path wound its way past a couple of palm trees.
He continued for a few yards along the path, out of sight of De Vere, then pulled a pack of Marlboros and a lighter out of his pocket. He ripped off the cellophane wrapper and lit one.
Staring out to sea, where the dark azure of the Adriatic met the paler sky as the sun began its descent behind the Elaphiti Islands beyond, Johnson found it hard to imagine this as the backdrop to a raging battle that had erupted only two decades earlier. Croatian forces had somehow defended Dubrovnik, whose Old Town was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, against an ultimately fruitless bombardment of shells, mortars, antitank missiles, and bombs from the Yugoslav People’s Army, the JNA, as well as the Yugoslav air force.
He had developed a strong interest in the region during the course of two separate stints in 1999 in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, and in the Bosnia and Herzegovina capital, Sarajevo, when he had gathered evidence on war criminals hiding in the US. That was during his time at the Office of Special Investigations, based in Washington, DC. A prolific linguist, he had picked up a decent knowledge of Serbo-Croat there, to add to his Russian, German, Spanish, and Pashto.
Johnson finished his cigarette, drained his beer, and set off back to the outdoor bar, where a busy crowd of conference attendees now gathered. There were a couple hundred there now, he calculated, and the number grew as those who had gone back to their hotel rooms to change into more comfortable clothing returned to the bar.
Johnson couldn’t be bothered to change, although he felt too warm in his crumpled dark blue linen jacket and chinos. He removed the jacket and threw it over one shoulder. Sweat stains were starting to spread from his armpits across his pale blue cotton shirt. It was still at least eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit, he guessed.
A waiter offered him a glass of prosecco, which he accepted, and he joined the edge of a group, including De Vere, that was debating the value of pursuing war criminals in their eighties and nineties who were no longer a danger to those around them.
Johnson listened for a moment, then shook his head and snorted to himself.
What kind of justice would it be to let them off just because they were old?
He turned away from the group, then jumped slightly upon finding himself face-to-face with a thin, dark-haired man.
“Mr. Johnson?” the man asked in heavily accented English.
“Yes, hello.” Johnson felt slightly nonplussed at the stranger’s silent approach and proximity.
“Have you got a minute to speak to me?”
Johnson ran the back of his hand across his chin. “Sure.”
“I was listening to your talk today, which was interesting—especially the part about how you go about tracking down war criminals who just disappeared without a trace. I live in Bosnia, in Mostar, and I think the authorities should have made more of an effort to make sure they covered all the allegations.”
Johnson squinted a little as he weighed the man’s point. “I thought they did a good job here, personally.”
“You think so?”
“Yes, in my view,” Johnson said. He folded his arms. “Well, the international tribunal’s nearly finished processing the 161 people they indicted. And I think the local court in Bosnia’s been effective since it took over war crimes prosecutions after 2005.”
The man shifted from one foot to the other. “Yes, that’s what you said in your talk. But the truth is, there were people who did things that never came to the authorities’ notice, crimes that they didn’t pursue, so they were never indicted in the first place.”
Johnson glanced to his right. A couple of people from De Vere’s group were staring at them, as were those from another small group from Sarajevo University, whom he’d briefly spoken to earlier. He turned back to the man.
“What are you trying to say? And sorry, who are you?”
“I’m Petar Simic.” He held out his hand and Johnson shook it. “This is your expertise, isn’t it? Hunting war criminals. I had a quick check, so I’ve seen your record. Nazis, right?” he said. “There are things I’d like to discuss that you might be interested in, as an investigator. I’m sure you’re busy here right now, but maybe we could meet somewhere else at another time?”
Johnson paused and sighed inwardly. It was typical of the kind of approach he had often received over the years at the OSI, the US government’s Nazi-hunting organization, before he had become self-employed.
The man was obviously going to tip him off about someone who’d supposedly done something evil and gotten away with it. Virtually always, such leads came to nothing.
“When and where were you thinking of?” Johnson asked.
“Tomorrow morning, down in the Stari Grad, the Old Town.” He smiled. “You should see the Old Town if you haven’t done so already. It’s a beautiful historic place.”
Johnson thought about it. He had been planning to visit the Old Town the next day anyway, given that he had nothing scheduled. And it might be interesting to chat with a local rather than the usual cluster of international academics.
“Right, we can have a quick chat for half an hour,” Johnson said. “Say ten o’clock? Where do you want to meet?”
“Café right on the harbor, near the boats—Poklisar is its name. Good coffee, okay? Tomorrow at ten, then?”
Johnson took a step back. “Okay. I hope you’re not wasting my time.” He gave the man a questioning look.
Petar shook his head. “No, I won’t be wasting it. But you might need plenty of it.” Then he turned and walked away.
* * *
An hour and a half after Petar had left, Johnson drained his fourth Ožujsko of the evening and reached into his jacket pocket for his cigarettes.
He lit one, leaned on the bar, and took a deep drag just as the sun finally disappeared over the horizon.
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world . . .”
Johnson jumped upon hearing the low-pitched, gravelly voice, but he knew immediately whom he’d find standing there when he turned around. It was a voice he had known well for more than two-and-a-half decades, ever since his days with the CIA in the sweat and dust of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
He pivoted to face a familiar tall, bespectacled figure.
“Vic! What the hell are you doing here?”
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