Aleppo, Syria (AP) — Prior to joining the Tawheed Brigade in opposition to the Syrian government, Anwar Addat was a computer technician who never gave much thought to politics or religion. That was before a barrel bomb delivered by a government helicopter ignited a fire that killed his wife and two children. These days he goes nowhere without his AK-47 and body armor, and looks every bit the insurgent warrior he has reluctantly become.
“You wrote this?” the interrogator asks Cody McDaniel.
Cody, his hands bound behind his back as they have been for two days, his ass numb from sitting on the concrete floor, nods. He isn’t surprised to have been kidnapped. A decade covering the Middle East has taught him how likely these things are. What surprises him is that the standard protocol hasn’t been met. They are treating him more like a prisoner of war than the valuable asset he really is. The thought occurs to him that maybe he is a passenger on the first hijacked flight to meet its fate in the side of a building. The terms have changed only he doesn’t know to what.
“What means intrepid?” the interrogator asks. He can’t be more than twenty years old.
“Daring and bold in the face of danger,” Cody answers.
“You think the rebels are intrepid?”
“I wrote it didn’t I?”
“Did you realize when you wrote it that it would lead to your death?” The interrogator offers a toothy grin.
“All good writing is dangerous,” Cody says. “If you aren’t afraid when you’re writing, you’re doing it wrong.”
The interrogator cocks his head like a terrier trying to figure out a flying mouse. “And now? You are afraid. No?”
“No,” Cody lies.
“You will be.”
The young man grabs his weapon and leaves the small room. The lock clicks on the door and footsteps recede into silence. The night in this unknown place lies cold and quiet except for occasional windstorms.
They kidnapped him and his driver a week ago. It was a set up from the beginning, the interview he arranged with a rebel leader never anything more than a ruse. He always thought if it ever came down to it, he would not allow himself to be kidnapped. He imagined a young guy awkwardly wielding a Kalashnikov who he would fight fiercely in the street. But there were fifteen of them, and each of them looked every bit a seasoned jihadist. He does know this: if it comes to it, and they go to behead him, he will fight to the death. For in Cody’s mind, he is already dead.
He has dozed off when he hears the scream, a long tortured howling that shakes him to the core. His driver, he assumes, meeting an undeserved fate. He can’t get back to sleep, and when morning arrives with the mush for breakfast that he refuses, the sun blasts into the small room like a fullback through the line.
With a new day comes a new interrogator. This one speaks English with a southern accent. An American jihadist. “Who are you?” he asks.
“Cody McDaniel,” he answers. “You can look me up on the internet.”
“We’ve done that. Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist. You’ve written for the Atlantic, New York Times, National Geographic, the Economist, and the Guardian.”
“And you’re a spy,” the interrogator says.
Cody can’t help but laugh, which makes the interrogator smile. “Me? A spy?”
The interrogator says nothing. Just waits for him to continue.
“Have you read my articles? I’m not exactly a friend of the American government.”
“Perfect cover for a spy, no? And you speak fluent Arabic.”
“No.” Cody has run across a number of CIA operatives in the last decade, including a station chief who repeatedly tried to influence his content. “Look, man,” he begins, “every American working in the Middle East can’t be a spy. Where are you from, by the way, speaking of Americans in the Middle East?”
“Virginia,” he answers. “You?”
The interrogator just stares at him, as if trying to see the contours of various puzzle pieces.
“Where in New Mexico are you from?” The Virginian asks.
“Your parents still there?”
Cody hesitates. So far he hasn’t revealed anything that wasn’t publicly available. “My dad is,” he confesses.
“And your mother?”
“Salt Lake City. They divorced a few years ago.”
“What does your dad do?”
“Drinks,” Cody says.
The interrogator nods as if he knows how that goes. “Alamogordo,” he says. “What’s there?”
“Isn’t that where White Sands is?”
“Did your father have anything to do with the base?”
Now the shit is about to hit the fan. “My father and I haven’t talked in four years,” Cody says. “We’re not particularly close.”
“I’m going to ask again, and if you don’t answer honestly I’m going to cut off your right thumb.”
“What did your father do at White Sands?”
“Rocket science,” he says. “After Vietnam, my father got a PhD in Physics. He tested missiles.”
“Well, then, now we’re getting somewhere,” the interrogator says. “Who does your father know? Is he important in government?” The Virginian arches an eyebrow.
Cody chuckles. “My Dad? Important? Everyone who has ever known him hates him. Look man, a transcript of all of our conversations over the past decade would fit on one page. I’m not particularly close to my old man.”
“Would he know how to find you now?”
“My old man,” Cody says. “is the meanest bastard I’ve known in my entire life, and keep in mind the list of people I’ve known includes yourself and your men. He’s as big and strong as a grizzly, but not nearly as even-tempered as one.”
The Virginian Jihadist pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his pants, fishes one free and lights it. He is weighing something, and Cody considers the possibility that what he is weighing is whether to kill him now or wait until later.
“He helped build satellites. He’s got top secret clearance. And, he was a Scout Sniper in Vietnam.”
“A Marine?” the interrogator asks.
The interrogator sighs, emitting a long stream of smoke from his nostrils like a dragon.
“You going to tell me your name?” Cody asks. “So I’ll have the pleasure of knowing who my killer will be?”
“Oh, I’m not going to kill you,” he says. “We have an executioner for that. Tell me about your father.”
“He’s a man who would walk across the Sonora to bring you water, but he would judge you the entire time for getting thirsty in the first place. He’ll hate you for not being as smart as he is. Thing is, he’s smart, rocket science, Einstein smart. But, I’ve never met anyone who could tolerate his condescension. Not my Mom, not my grandparents, not anyone he ever worked with.”
“Well…” The Virginian stands. He is a stout man, built like a fireplug. Standing he is only slightly taller than Cody is sitting. Dark haired with a five o’clock shadow, he looks almost swarthy enough to seem local in the right light. When he turns away, Cody catches the top of tattoo on the back of neck. It looks like a tank. The heavy metal door slams behind him, and Cody hears chains being pulled taut.
That night there are more stirrings. A single gunshot rips through the cloak of darkness. Shouting and stumbling follow. The next morning, the Virginian returns. He wears circles of worry under his eyes.
“Who do you work for?” he asks.
“Reuters right now.”
“No. That is your cover. You work for the CIA, don’t you?”
“I wouldn’t have been able to pass the background to get into the CIA. My old man burned some pretty important bridges in D.C.”
“Stop talking about your father. I don’t care about him anymore.”
Cody shrugs. “You asked,” he says then falls silent.
The Virginian is nervous.
Cody starts again. “I remember one time he came back from an elk hunt. The sky was dark, the desert draped in blackness. He pulled up to the house in his truck and rustled me out of bed to get my help with the elk.
“So, I go out there and in the back of the truck is this magnificent creature, a bull elk, its nose frosted from the cold, its eyes gazing at the wide darkness. I had no idea how he managed to get that beast into the truck by himself. Its eyes were wide open, and my old man handed me a knife. It was probably about the same size and sharpness as the one your executioner uses. He made me cut that elk’s neck, bleed it out, then drink the blood.”
The Virginian glares. “Like a Native American thing, Huh?”
Cody nods. “I suppose. I remember he said, ‘Darkness makes for the best hunting.’ I had the feeling that was something he had learned in Vietnam.”
The interrogator’s upper lip quivers. Something really has him rattled, and Cody feeds that, grabbing his paranoia like an exposed limb and twisting it. There is more than one way to fight for survival. “He didn’t talk a lot about Vietnam,” Cody volunteers. “But one thing he would say whenever it stormed or when the snows came is that bad weather made for great hunting.”
The Virginian sneers. “I know what you’re trying to do.”
Cody shrugs. “You asked about my old man, so I’m telling you.”
“Then I told you I didn’t want to hear any more, because all you tell me are lies.”
Cody snorts out a laugh. “I’m already dead, man. There isn’t anything I can tell you that will save me, so why would I lie?”
“You’re a good soldier,” the Virginian says. “You would rather die than tell me about the CIA. That’s why you would lie.”
“You’ve got it all wrong,” Cody says. “I’m not a spy. I’m just a journalist, a damn good journalist with a lot of clout, and you could get a lot of money for me, but you don’t care about that. You want the spectacle of beheading me to strike fear into the hearts of others who might write Truth.”
“Truth?” the interrogator. “Tell me about Truth.”
“The truth is that your beheadings don’t work. Americans don’t get afraid when they see that happen. Americans get angry. It makes them want to send in Seal Team Six. It makes them want to blow you and everyone like you off the face of the earth.”
“It’s not about spectacle,” the Virginian says. “It’s about the will of Allah.”
“Allah? Or the Mullah?”
“Allah.” The Virginian stiffens his back. “Do not attempt to educate me on Islam, infidel.”
“Why would you call me an infidel?” Cody asks.
“You are American, are you not?”
“As are you.”
“I am Muslim.”
“As am I,” Cody says.
The Virginian cocks an eyebrow. “You’re saying this to save your own life.”
“No,” Cody says. “I’m not Sunni, so I don’t think you’ll spare me just because I’m Muslim. You guys kill Muslims all the time.”
“Yes,” the Virginian says. “We do.”
“Where are we?” Cody dares to ask.
“Somewhere in the Middle East.”
“Thanks,” Cody says. “I never would have guessed that.”
The Virginian stands, wipes his hands on his pants, and leaves.
That night, another gunshot wakes him. His eyes are wide open, like the elk’s, but the dark is too dark to see anything. There is running outside then shouting. Are they coming for him? He stays low and waits. But, soon the shouting and running stop, and quiet once again settles in.
At times, the terrain here reminds him of home. There are places in southwestern Asia that look just like the mountains of New Mexico. This place, wherever it is, isn’t one of them. The interrogator comes at mid-morning.
“We should kill you now,” he says.
“I can assure you that I’m more valuable to you alive than dead,” Cody says in flawless Arabic, keeping calm despite the sweat pooling in his palms.
“Just speak English.”
The two men sit in silence, the interrogator with a tight grip on his pistol, his attention constantly distracted by noises from outside the door.
“You’re not being honest with me,” the interrogator says.
“Ask me any question, and I’ll answer with complete honesty.”
“Have you been kidnapped before?” The Virginian wipes his forehead with the back of the hand holding the pistol.
“No. I’ve been lucky until now.”
The Virginian just starts shaking his head. “You said you’d be honest. Why do you lie?”
Cody scrunches his face. “One of the things that happens as a result of growing up with an alcoholic as a father is that you learn to tell people what they want to hear.”
“Now we’re back to your father again.”
“It always goes back to that. Think about your own father.”
The interrogator smiles. It’s not a friendly smile. “I wish I could. I never knew my father.”
“There you go,” Cody says. “If you had a father, you wouldn’t have chosen your Mullah as a replacement.”
The strike is delivered with brutal force. Sparks fly, and Cody falls back onto the dirt floor. The interrogator, on his feet now, looms over him. “You are never to speak ill of the Mullah.” The muzzle of the gun dances in time with his command.
“Right,” Cody says. Since his hands are tied behind him, he is unable to wipe the blood from his face.
The interrogator jerks him up by his collar, restoring him to an upright position, then stomps away into the bright afternoon.
He stays awake that night. The moonlight creeps through the slits in the door, and Cody listens hard for footsteps. On this night, there are no sounds. No screams. No gunshots. The interrogator is clearly concerned, and Cody just hopes he can draw this out longer. He’s running out of stories about his father.
The next day, the winds pick up. Sand splatters against the walls of the small shed. The Virginian comes, his face covered with a scarf. He pulls it back, and the accumulated sand pours onto his shoulder. His face wears a concerning look. Cody braces for the moment. He isn’t going to play his part in their Jihad theater. He will make them kill him before they cut his head off.
But, the Virginian doesn’t lay a finger on him. He slumps into the chair across from Cody.
“You don’t have to do this,” Cody says. “Do you still want the Truth?”
The interrogator nods.
“I’m not the dead one here,” Cody says.
The Virginian scowls.
“You made a mistake by kidnapping me. You are right. I’m not just a journalist.”
“I know,” he says. “We’ve known about your connection with the CIA the whole time. I know that your father died last year, so your made up stories didn’t scare me.”
Cody shudders. He hasn’t talked to his father in years. “My father died?”
The Virginian nods.
Despite the fissure in their relationship, he can’t help but shed a tear. He had hoped that what he was doing now would somehow reunite them. That they now share a common battlefield history might give them a starting point. Or at least give his father less traction against him. He had always lorded his military past over his son, as something Cody could never and would never understand. Not true now. One could say that Black Ops runs in his family.
“We already knew everything about you before we kidnapped you.”
The winds pick up. Outside, the fierce sandstorm pummels the building. Accompanied by lightning and thunder the storm engulfs the entire base, and repeatedly rattles the door in its frame. He hadn’t lied about his father. He did say that bad weather made for great hunting.
“Not everything,” Cody says.
The Virginian chuckles. “Oh? What don’t we know?”
“I have a GPS chip implanted in my leg,” Cody says.
Cody finds himself face to face with the pistol. The darkness of the barrel looks inviting, metallic death somehow not the worst outcome.
The door suddenly bursts inward, and Cody flings himself onto the ground, knowing what will follow. The flash bang explodes with the light of the sun before casting darkness throughout as figures rush in. He studies the afterimage in his mind’s eye and sees the unmistakable shape of a bear. His rescuer looks like a bear wearing a desert. He hears the grunts and thuds of a struggle, then hands grip him, his bindings loosen and he is lifted from the chair.
“Let’s go, Cody” a voice says.
“Dad?” Cody asks, hopefully.
“Thunderball. Thunderball,” the voice says into its radio. “Bond is secure.”
They sprint across the courtyard. Once they get safely beyond the walls, the entire base lights up with explosions and tracer rounds. Following the Delta operator, Cody runs into the storm, as always, chasing shadows across the desert.