El-Shafei is out of ketamine. I know because I’m conscious for the next location change, and bouncing along the rough or maybe absent road in the back of a sport utility vehicle, a real sport utility vehicle, not one of those suburbanized luxury vans people drive in the States, still groggy from the last dregs of the drug he had left. The zip ties chafe and are rubbing the skin off my wrists, wet from the sweat. He’s thrown a blanket over me for the ride and it’s too hot and I think I’m going to vomit. I force myself to swallow again and again to keep it down, but my throat is dry and swallowing hurts. I think it’s been three days in Hezbollah’s hands.
“Can I have water when we get there?” I can’t remember the last time he gave me any. Maybe the first day, a sip. He’s misjudged. He’s killing me. He doesn’t believe me that he’s killing me.
I can’t see him past the seats, but he has a water bottle in the cup holder. I can hear the water slosh as he takes a drink.
“Sure,” says El-Shafei, “We can have water and borek while we discuss who is responsible for your agency’s arms dealing in Syria.”
Names. The most valuable commodity in all intelligence is names. My stomach aches at the mention of Turkish pastry, but I’m too thirsty to want food. I have to think about what he said a few times to understand, and determine what he really wants based on what he’s said the last few days. My Arabic is rusty, displaced by as much Turkish as I could cram since I got assigned, and I’m having more trouble following in my second language as the deprivation drags on. It’s only been two or three days. William Buckley lasted fifteen months. I don’t want to die like Buckley.
“Ask Saudi Arabia.”
“You’re not going to tell me you’re overthrowing a government as a favor for a weak ally.”
“You’d be surprised at what people would do for oil.” And water. It’s supposed to be a joke, but I can’t seem to manage the change in tone very well. He wants to know details of the US and Turkey conveying arms and money to the Syrian rebels, which is far more about strengthening our Sunni axis allies, and at least the appearance of government investment in human rights, than it is about Saudi or Qatari oil. He wants names, the only thing you can’t give away, not even for oil and water.
El-Shafei takes another swig, loudly, taunting me.
“We have people who belong to you, right?” I say. “At Gitmo. I’m high value.” I’m a chief of station. But I don’t feel high value. I’m shaking, I think from the heatstroke. I’m not sure if I’m still sweating or I’ve stopped being able to long ago and I’m just soaking in it under the blanket.
I am a high value target, but there’s been just him for days. Where’s his relief?
“You don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
“Turkey would broker.” CIA and State made a many-way trade for Buckley and the hostages kidnapped with him in Beirut. We didn’t know he was already dead, and I wonder if Father Jenco and the other civilians would have lived if the State Department had known. Kolda, North, McFarlane, Reagan, Ghorbanifar the Iranian fabricator, and the Iranian President back when he was no one, like us, all negotiating for their lives. Even Israel got its hands dirty for us, shipping weapons to Iran. Iran-Contra. Contragate.
The US doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, except when it does. Last month Qatari intermediaries brokered a prisoner release from Guantánamo Bay in exchange for a captured US military officer. What I said could be true, we could trade, except my agent network will be dead by then, like Buckley’s were. El-Shafei will make me give them up. I have no doubt.
“Turkey doesn’t have anything I want,” says El-Shafei, “You’re of much higher value to us than you are to your own country. Flattering, right?”
“If I die in your hands they’re going to have to be seen to retaliate. In Syria at least.” This is patently untrue, but he thinks like that. Hezbollah takes both eyes for an eye. It’s a plausible thing to say to him.
“You’re not going to die. Not for a long long time.”
“Delirious, of infection and neglect?” My first chief of station, William Buckley, the last CIA officer to be held hostage by Hezbollah, died delirious and drooling, chained to a radiator, ordering breakfast. Jenco told us, when we had to debrief the traumatized civilian survivors. I figure accusing El-Shafei of incompetence will get a reaction I can use. Sorry Bill. But El-Shafei can’t hit me while he’s driving.
“That wasn’t us,” says El-Shafei, in English, holding up the bottle of water so I can see it over the seats. There isn’t much left in it, but the last precious drops sloshing around the bottom make my throat and chest ache.
“Tell you what,” he says, “I’ll give you an easy one and you can have the rest of it. What’s your real name, Alex Hart?”
“When we get there, I am going to verify. And if I cannot, I will send your left pinky finger to your agency as proof of life. Do you want to change your answer?”
What if he can’t verify? If he googles me he’ll get basically nothing, maybe a public record home address in Falls Church that won’t prove it’s me. If he calls the station, they’ll neither confirm nor deny. What if— The bottle of water sails through the air and bounces off the hatchback of the SUV, smacking me in the side.
I can’t open it. I’m zip-tied, hog-tied, to a tire iron. I can’t even bend my spine or wiggle out from under the blanket. He gave it to me and I can’t even open the bottle and when we get wherever we’re going he’s going to take it away.
The shaking gets worse. New objective. One at a time. Keep him from cutting off your little finger. Trade. Run an approach. You’re supposed to be a case officer. The car swerves, violently, hurling me against the hatchback and smacking my oozing cracked feet. I think maybe I can’t scream anymore. All that comes out is a little noise. Something soft hits the front right tire and El-Shafei jerks the wheel hard to the left and guns it. The object flutters around in the wheel well for a second before falling off the tire. El-Shafei lets off the accelerator.
“What was that?” I shout at him, like I have any rights in the back of an SUV taking me to a new location to be tortured.
“Something on the road.” I can hear him breathe, fast, hard.
Be calm and don’t push too hard, and ignore the pain. He’s young and he’s frightened and I see the approach. “Not an explosive?” I ask in Arabic.
“Shut up and drink your water.”
“A friend of mine visited Ankara Station a couple years ago, on his way back from FOB Marez in Iraq. One of those places where the spooks did their jobs in flak jackets and got mortared like soldiers. And got driven around in APCs by Blackwater because of the IEDs?”
He says nothing.
“Did you serve in Syria yourself? Where? Bekaa Valley? Homs? Qusayr?”
“Give me the name of a colleague I can confirm with, and I’ll open the bottle for you when we get there.” He decides to take revenge. Thankfully Kolda’s so compromised we won’t feel this one.
“Jasper. Served in Beirut Station.”
He laughs. “Your friend is Jasper? I’ve heard of him. He trades. Maybe you’ll get to go home after all.”
We finally crawl to a stop on a paved driveway, too short to be a road. Out the hatchback window all I can see is stars against the lightening sky. Five and a half hours of driving I think, but I’m turned around. I was drugged the first two times we moved, and I don’t know how far we are from Ankara or in what direction. El-Shafei opens the back door and reaches over the rear seat, pulling the blindfold up from around my neck back over my eyes before closing the door and opening the hatchback. He cuts my feet free and leads me by the bound hands. He has to support me. I’m weak and lightheaded and the dry air feels amazing against my soaked skin, and the stripped skin on the soles of my feet weeps in pain at the hot hard concrete. Sixteen steps, not more, but it takes an eternity. If he’s holding me, does that mean he’s forgotten the bottle of water?
We cross a threshold and he passes me to someone else, with smaller hands and thinner fingers. A woman’s hands, maybe. I hear him go back outside.
“The day shift?” I ask her. El-Shafei didn’t let me sleep all night; he stayed up with me, asking questions, like when they do monstering at the Farm.
She doesn’t answer, but she sits me in a rolling desk chair and pushes gently until I pick up my feet so I don’t have to walk any farther. She rolls the chair a good distance into another room and leaves me there, walking lightly, but not silently, away.
The door we came in through opens and shuts once, twice, not too far away. El-Shafei walks into the room, shaking the water so it sloshes and splashes so I can hear. He sets it loudly upright on the table and pulls down the blindfold. We’re in a spacious residential kitchen, him seated in a kitchen chair across a big wooden table. I can see out the window, though all I can see is a packed-dirt road and the edge of a wooden fence. We’re in the middle of nowhere. The blindfold wasn’t for the location, I realize, it’s for the woman.
“Who’s the girl?”
Not the faintest flicker of an emotional reaction. “Watcher. Escort agent.”
I still can’t bend my spine. Or move my hands to seize the water in front of me. He twists the cap off and puts it down on the table. He said he would open it for me; he didn’t say he would untie me or put it to my mouth. He is going to drag things the fuck out with this bottle of water, and I can see him doing it, and it’s not even that much water, and I still can’t stop him because I need, I need so much I can’t think straight.
“We were talking about the United States funneling fighters through Hatay,” he prompts. Turkey is nominally neutral in the civil war in Syria, making it a favorite transit point for its Sunni and American allies. Hatay is a Turkish civilian airport that’s poor at keeping secrets, a transit point for rebels from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the West, bound for Syria to fight Assad.
“We were talking about Syria.” I’m still running an approach, right? He’s tired too; we’ve been up all night, we’re doing rapport building and I’m not going to die like Buckley. “And whatever you tried to dodge on the road. We had a Marine guard at the station with the same problem. Good company, but hair-trigger like you.”
He humors me. “What happened to him?”
“Medical leave. They sent him home.”
He gets this faraway look in his eyes and I think I have him. I wonder if he wanted to go home after Syria and they sent him to Turkey to stem the flow of American cash with too few resources and too little support.
Then he takes a sip of the precious remaining water and I want to scream.
“Your friends knew people who died in Iraq?” he asks. “Thank them for their sacrifice if Jasper trades for you.” He puts the water, minus a little more, on the table. “The south belongs to us now.”
It’s true. The de facto currency in South Iraq is the Iranian rial, and city government officials meet with their Iranian handlers openly.
“It’s too bad you couldn’t do the same for Syria, and put down the rebels for us,” says El-Shafei. “The people I grew up with died in Qusayr. Have you ever watched anyone die, yourself, Raoul Felice?”
Hearing my real name in that terrorist’s mouth makes me flinch.
Of course I have. In a hospice, of cancer, but I know what he wants to hear. “No.” I lick my lips to wet them, but my tongue is dry and rough and just irritates the cracks.
“Not even in an interrogation?”
“I’m not an interrogator.”
“Your men—” He pushes the open water bottle around on the table with his index finger and I’m terrified he’s going to spill it. “—the ones who lost friends in Iraq, are paying the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Al-Qaeda, the people they went to Iraq to kill, to kill us and calling it humanitarian aid. Does that sound humanitarian to you?”
“No.” I will give ground until he gives me a sip of the damn water. It’s a stretch, but I know what he’s talking about. US funds through Friends of Syria went to an Islamic State commander Al-Azza when he was part of Al-Nusra, which used to be part of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. But El-Shafei wants someone to fight. I see him struggle to control himself and I know I’ve lost him.
“I want to know who is in charge of your smuggling operations with Turkey.”
“Me.” This is not true. But it will get him to stop asking before I forget myself and give him a name he can use. I’ve already given him Hatay, I think, unless he knew and is lying by attributing it to me. It’s plausible; I’m the station chief, they could be my operations, and it will give him what he wants, something to fight, and it’s going to hurt but I need him to be calm and he won’t be calm until he’s burned out the adrenaline surge he gets out of Syria.
He lunges across the table, knocking the bottle of water over, and drives his fist into my face and I manage to turn so it connects with my cheek and jaw instead of my nose. The clawing, scrabbling pain in my head gets worse, but I can’t feel anything in my jaw except a sort of tingling numbness. I can’t open it much, but I can part my lips enough to lick the water on the table, and it tastes like victory.
He comes around the table and grabs me by the hair, slams my face into the table and hauls me off the chair to the floor. My nose is making a bubbling, clicking noise when I breathe and I think it’s broken. El-Shafei crosses the kitchen and opens a drawer, kicks me in the gut and side until I lie still enough for him to zip-tie my feet back together and my feet behind my back to my hands. He leaves me there, turning the TV on painfully loudly in the other room. I can’t tell if he’s there or not, but I can barely move, and maybe I could sleep if I could tune out the intermittent high-treble voices of some Turkish soap opera on the television, and if I didn’t have to open my mouth to breathe. I can feel the blood trickle down my throat. I lay on my side so I won’t asphyxiate if I manage to fall asleep, or unconscious, more likely. I’m not going to die like Buckley.