|A HARVEST OF THORNS
Corban Addison (corbanaddison.com)
Quercus Books (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)
Millennium Fashions Factory, Dhaka, Bangladesh
November 4 2013, 8:53 p.m.
The sparks danced like fireflies in the semidarkness of the storeroom. They emerged from the wall outlet in a shower of white-gold radiance, casting a flickering glow across the concrete slab beneath them. The sounds they made, the snapping and crackling of suddenly electrified air, were drowned out by the rattling of three generators across the room, whose whirling magnetic coils were straining to satisfy the demand of hundreds of lightbulbs and ceiling fans and sewing machines on the floors above.
The cause was elementary, as the investigators from Dhaka would later discover – an aging circuit, copper wire exposed through melted sheathing, a worn-out breaker box, a peak load the factory’s designers had never anticipated, and the gentle, inexorable persuasion of time. A short, the investigators would say. A common fault in a building so poorly maintained.
But what happened next was far from commonplace. The fire that started to burn in sacks of cotton jute – the leftover cuttings of T-shirts, sweatpants, and children’s apparel destined for Chittagong piers and American closets – would sweep farther and faster than any fire before it.
This fire would ignite the world.
Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington, DC,
February 11 2015, 9:12 p.m.
Even at nine o’clock on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant was bustling. Waiters scurrying. Glasses clinking. Bartenders pouring. Gaiety erupting. And conversations – the central currency of this supremely political town – drawing heads down and faces together, translating ideas into speech, aspirations into asks, in an endless quest for an angle, a vote, a promotion, or that most liquid of Washington assets – a favor. Josh loved it, the multidimensional poker game of personality and power. For fifteen years, he had been a regular at the table, here at Old Ebbitt, a century-old, mahogany-and-brass eatery steps away from the White House, and at places like it in Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and London. He had mastered its nuances, cultivated quid pro quos, and built an enviable reputation as an international journalist, netting him two Pulitzer Prizes and a book that hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list. But all of that was gone now. A single error in judgment had laid waste a lifetime of achievement. His colleagues at the Washington Post were colleagues no longer.
‘Joshua Griswold,’ said Tony Sharif, slipping into the green velvet booth across from Josh and draping his arm across the top. ‘It’s been too long.’
Josh shook his head. ‘I know it. Half the people in here are strangers.’
Tony’s face – a mélange of his Indian father and Anglo-American mother – remained impassive, but his eyes were alive with humor. ‘You’re getting old. I see gray in your beard.’
Josh gave a sarcastic laugh. ‘That’s purgatory for you. I feel like the Old Man of the Mountain. One day you’re a fixture. Everybody wants a picture. Then the earth moves, you disappear, and no one remembers what you looked like.’
Tony grinned ironically. ‘Could be worse. Nobody ever wanted a picture with me.’
‘You should ditch the news and try Bollywood,’ Josh jested. ‘With a mug like that, you could be the next Shah Rukh Khan.’
Tony put out his hand, and Josh clasped it. ‘It’s good to see you again, my friend.’
‘That makes two of you,’ Josh said.
Tony raised an eyebrow. ‘Who’s the competition?’
‘Reggie, the homeless guy at my old apartment building.’
Tony shook his head, and his eyes grew thoughtful. ‘It’s a shame what they did to you. The stories you wrote are some of the best in American journalism. The thing with Maria, it could have been any of us. She deceived a lot of people. It doesn’t change your reporting.’
She didn’t mean to deceive anyone, Josh thought. She did what she had to do. But he couldn’t say that. Not even to Tony Sharif, the man who had been at his side when shrapnel from an exploding IED sliced through their Humvee in Sadr City and buried itself in Josh’s thigh. Tony was the closest thing he had to a brother. But Tony would never understand Maria. She was a riddle in the flesh. Even Josh didn’t understand her, and he had spent years trying.
‘Don’t sweat it,’ Josh said. ‘Shit happens. It’s what makes our world go round.’
‘I’ll drink to that,’ Tony replied, raising his bottle of Sam Adams. ‘To shit. May it survive long enough for me to earn a pension and for you to get back on your feet.’
‘Cheers,’ Josh said, taking a sip of Heineken, his beer of choice not so much for its flavor as for its ubiquity across the globe.
‘So you’re in town again,’ Tony said. ‘That means you’re working. What’s the story?’
‘Corporate malfeasance,’ Josh replied. ‘Apparel supply chains. A body count. The underside of American business.’
Tony’s face lit up. ‘Sexy. Who’s the target?’
Josh lowered his voice. ‘Presto.’
Tony leaned back against the booth, clearly intrigued. ‘The Millennium fire. We reported on that, you know. A lot of people did. That photo was like Napalm Girl in Vietnam. But this time the girl in the picture disappeared. We couldn’t track her down.’
Josh nodded but didn’t reply, allowing Tony to interpret his silence.
‘Wait a minute,’ Tony said. ‘You have a source.’ He let out a grunt, then began to grumble. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. You found someone willing to talk.’
It was the response Josh had expected. For five years, Tony had been the Post’s bureau chief in India. Last year he had taken a senior editorial position in Washington, but his network in South Asia remained as far-reaching as the Ganges. Josh was intruding upon his territory.
‘I’ve got to hand it to you,’ Tony went on, struggling to be generous. ‘My guys would have given anything to keep that story alive.’ For a moment, he looked like he was going to probe, but then he didn’t. ‘So what can I do for you? You obviously got further than we did.’
The corners of Josh’s mouth turned upward. He still found it hard to believe. The e-mail had arrived in his in-box two days ago, its provenance untraceable. I have information about the Millennium fire, it read. It relates to Presto Omnishops Corporation. Hours later, when the rest of DC was asleep, Josh had met a man at the Lincoln Memorial who gave him the names of workers and factories in three countries, including the name of the girl in the photograph. The man had divulged nothing of his motives, but his seniority inside Presto was beyond question, as was his charge: he wanted Josh to make Presto pay.
‘This thing dropped into my lap,’ Josh said. ‘That’s all I can say. But I need your help. I need to find a fixer in Dhaka with high-level contacts in the apparel industry.’
Tony spoke without hesitation. ‘Rana Jalil. Except he’s in Los Angeles these days.’
Josh gave him a confused look, and Tony clarified, ‘Rana’s a mutt like me. His father owns one of the oldest garment companies in Bangladesh. His mother is Bangladeshi, but she was born in California. He has a law degree from UCLA. Dhaka’s his backyard. He helped us cover the Rana Plaza disaster. He’s an ace, and 100 percent trustworthy.’
Josh took another swig of beer. ‘What’s he doing in LA?’
Tony chuckled. ‘Shining a light into the dark hole of American fast fashion.’
Josh made no attempt to disguise his ignorance. ‘Explain.’
‘You know those teenybopper stores in the mall, the ones that dress their mannequins like hookers and make you want to keep Lily under lock and key?’
Josh nodded. Lily was his eight-year-old daughter and the light of his life. He was an absentee father, but not completely derelict.
‘A lot of the clothes they peddle are made in sweatshops in LA. The fashion companies know about it, but they don’t give a rat’s ass. So long as they keep feeding American teens a fad a week, they see it as the cost of doing business. Rana freelances with a public interest group called La Alternativa Legal, or “LA Legal.” They represent the workers in court. California has a labor law that gives them firepower against the brands. I don’t really understand it. But I know he’s nailing them to the wall.’
‘I’ll take him,’ Josh said. ‘Can you make the introduction?’
Tony whipped a smartphone out of his jeans and started typing.
‘He’ll be tickled. The great Joshua Griswold. He might even give you a discount since you’re out of work at the moment.’ After he transmitted the message, he got the waiter’s attention and ordered another round of drinks. Then he stared at his watch intently. ‘I’ll give him one minute, then I call.’
‘What?’ Josh didn’t know anyone that quick on the draw.
‘Wait. Ha! There he is.’ Tony held out his wrist and showed Josh his smartwatch. On the screen was a text from Rana. ‘He’s thrilled, as promised.’
Josh shook his head, marveling at the speed of new media. ‘I owe you one.’
Tony’s eyes sparkled, his lips askew in a beer-tinged smile. ‘You owe me nothing. I want this as much as you do. You break this story, I mean really break it, and I’ll see what I can do about getting your job back.’