“A new weapon.”
The slim man in a conservative suit eased forward and lowered his voice. “Something terrible. And our sources are certain it will be used this coming Saturday morning. They’re certain of that.”
“Four days,” said retired Colonel James J. Peterson, his voice grave. It was now 5:00 p.m. on Monday.
The two men sat in Peterson’s nondescript office, in a nondescript building in the suburban town of Reston, Virginia, about twenty-five miles from Washington, D.C. There’s a misconception that national security operations are conducted in high-tech bunkers filled with sweeping steel and structural concrete, video screens ten feet high and attractive boys and babes dressed by Armani.
This place, on the other hand, looked like an insurance agency.
The skinny man, who worked for the government, added, “We don’t know if we’re talking conventional, nuke or something altogether new. Probably mass destruction, we’ve heard. It can do quote ‘significant’ damage.'”
“Who’s behind this weapon? Al-Qaeda? The Koreans? Iranians?”
“One of our enemies. That’s all we know at this point…So, we need you to find out about it. Money is no object, of course.”
“Yes, a good one—an Algerian who knows who formulated the weapon. He met with them last week in Tunis. He’s a professor and journalist.”
“He doesn’t seem to be. His writings have been moderate in nature. He’s not openly militant. But our local sources are convinced he’s had contact with the people who created the weapon and plan to use it.”
“You have a picture?”
A photograph appeared as if by magic from the slim man’s briefcase and slid across the desk like a lizard.
Colonel Peterson leaned forward.
Chabbi music drifted from a nearby café, lost intermittently in the sounds of trucks and scooters charging frantically along this commercial street of Algiers.
The driver of the white van, a swarthy local, stifled a sour face when the music changed to American rock. Not that he actually preferred the old-fashioned, melodramatic chabbi tunes or thought they were more politically or religiously correct than Western music. He just didn’t like Britney Spears.
Then the big man stiffened and tapped the shoulder of the man next to him, an American. Their attention swung immediately out the front window to a curly-haired man in his thirties, wearing a light-colored suit, walking out of the main entrance of the Al-Jazier School for Cultural Thought.
The man in the passenger seat nodded. The driver called “Ready” in English and then repeated the command in Berber-accented Arabic. The two men in the back responded affirmatively.
The van, a battered Ford that sported Arabic letters boasting of the city’s best plumbing services, eased forward, trailing the man in the light suit. The driver had no trouble moving slowly without being conspicuous. Such was the nature of traffic here in the old portion of this city, near the harbor.
As they approached a chaotic intersection, the passenger spoke into a cell phone. “Now.”
The driver pulled nearly even with the man they followed, just as a second van, dark blue, in the oncoming lane, suddenly leapt the curb and slammed directly into the glass window of an empty storefront, sending a shower of glass onto the sidewalk as bystanders gaped and came running.
By the time the crowds on rue Ahmed Bourzina helped the driver of the blue van extricate his vehicle from the shattered storefront, the white van was nowhere to be seen.
Neither was the man in the light suit.
Colonel James Peterson was tired after the overnight flight from Dulles to Rome but he was operating on pure energy.
As his driver sped from DaVinci airport to his company’s facility south of the city, he read the extensive dossier on the man whose abduction he had just engineered. Jacques Bennabi, the journalist and part-time professor, had indeed been in direct communication with the Tunisian group that had developed the weapon, though Washington still wasn’t sure who the group was exactly.
Peterson looked impatiently at his watch. He regretted the day-long trip required to transport Bennabi from Algiers to Gaeta, south of Rome, where he’d been transferred to an ambulance for the drive here. But planes were too closely regulated nowadays. Peterson had told his people they had to keep a low profile. His operation here, south of Rome, was apparently a facility that specialized in rehabilitation services for people injured in industrial accidents. The Italian government had no clue that it was a sham, owned ultimately by Peterson’s main company in Virginia: Intelligence Analysis Systems.
IAS was like hundreds of small businesses throughout the Washington area that provided everything from copier toner to consulting to computer software to the massive U.S. government.
IAS, though, didn’t sell office supplies.
Its only product was information and it managed to provide some of the best in the world. IAS obtained this information not through high-tech surveillance but, Peterson liked to say, the old-fashioned way:
One suspect, one interrogator, one locked room.
It did this very efficiently.
And completely illegally.
IAS ran black sites.
Black site operations are very simple. An individual with knowledge the government wishes to learn is kidnapped and taken to a secret and secure facility outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. The kidnapping is known as extraordinary rendition. Once at a black site the subject is interrogated until the desired information is learned. And then he’s returned home—in most cases, that is.
IAS was a private company, with no official government affiliation, though the government was, of course, its biggest client. They operated three sites—one in Bogotá, Colombia, one in Thailand and the one that Peterson’s car was now approaching: the largest of the IAS sites, a nondescript beige facility whose front door stated Funzione Medica di Riabilitazione.
The gate closed behind him and he hurried inside, to minimize the chance a passerby might see him. Peterson rarely came to the black sites himself. Because he met regularly with government officials it would be disastrous if anyone connected him to an illegal operation like this. Still, the impending threat of the weapon dictated that he personally supervise the interrogation of Jacques Bennabi.
Despite his fatigue, he got right to work and met with the man waiting in the facility’s windowless main office upstairs. He was one of several interrogators that IAS used regularly, one of the best in the world, in fact. A slightly built man, with a confident smile on his face.
“Andrew.” Peterson nodded in greeting, using the pseudonym the man was known by—no real names were ever used in black sites. Andrew was a U.S. soldier on temporary leave from Afghanistan.
Peterson explained that Bennabi had been carefully searched and scanned. They’d found no GPS chips, listening devices or explosives in his body. The colonel added that sources in North Africa were still trying to find whom Bennabi had met with in Tunis but were having no luck.
“Doesn’t matter,” Andrew said with a sour smile. “I’ll get you everything you need to know soon enough.”
Jacques Bennabi looked up at Andrew.
The soldier returned the gaze with no emotion, assessing the subject, noting his level of fear. A fair amount, it seemed. This pleased him. Not because Andrew was a sadist—he wasn’t—but because fear is a gauge to a subject’s resistance.
He assessed that Bennabi would tell him all he wanted to know about the weapon within four hours.
The room in which they sat was a dim, concrete cube, twenty feet on each side. Bennabi sat in a metal chair with his hands behind him, bound with restraints. His feet were bare, increasing his sense of vulnerability, and his jacket and personal effects were gone—they gave subjects a sense of comfort and orientation. Andrew now pulled a chair close to the subject and sat.
Andrew was not a physically imposing man, but he didn’t need to be. The smallest person in the world need not even raise his voice if he has power. And Andrew had all the power in the world over his subject at the moment.
“Now,” he said in English, which he knew Bennabi spoke fluently, “as you know, Jacques, you’re many miles from your home. None of your family or colleagues know you’re here. The authorities in Algeria have learned of your disappearance by now—we’re monitoring that—but do you know how much they care?”
No answer. The dark eyes gazed back, emotionless.
“They don’t. They don’t care at all. We’ve been following the reports. Another university professor gone missing. So what? You were robbed and shot. Or the Jihad Brother-ship finally got around to settling the score for something you said in class last year. Or maybe one of your articles upset some Danish journalists…and they kidnapped and killed you.” Andrew smiled at his own cleverness. Bennabi gave no reaction. “So. No one is coming to help you. You understand? No midnight raids. No cowboys riding to the rescue.”
Andrew continued, unfazed, “Now, I want to know about this weapon you were discussing with your Tunisian friends.” He was looking carefully at the eyes of the man. Did they flicker with recognition? The interrogator believed they did. It was like a shout of acknowledgment. Good.
“We need to know who developed it, what it is and who it’s going to be used against. If you tell me, you’ll be back home in twenty-four hours.” He let this sink in. “If you don’t…things won’t go well.”
The subject continued to sit passively. And silent.
That was fine with Andrew; he hardly expected an immediate confession. He wouldn’t want one, in fact. You couldn’t trust subjects who caved in too quickly.
Finally he said, “Jacques, I know the names of all your colleagues at the university and the newspaper where you work.”
This was Andrew’s talent—he had studied the art of interrogation for years and knew that people could much more easily resist threats to themselves than to their friends and family. Andrew had spent the past two days learning every fact he could about people close to Bennabi. He’d come up with lists of each person’s weaknesses and fears. It had been a huge amount of work.
Over the next few hours Andrew never once threatened Bennabi himself; but he was ruthless in threatening his colleagues. Ruining careers, exposing possible affairs, questioning an adoption of a child…Even suggesting that some of his friends could be subject to physical harm.
A dozen specific threats, two dozen, offering specific details: names, addresses, offices, cars they drove, restaurants they enjoyed.
But Jacques Bennabi said not a word.
“You know how easy it was to kidnap you,” Andrew muttered. “We plucked you off the street like picking a chicken from a street vendor’s cage. You think your friends are any safer? The men who got you are back in Algiers, you know. They’re ready to do what I say.”
The subject only stared back at him.
Andrew grew angry for a moment. He cleared his raw throat and left the room, had a drink of water, struggled to calm down.
For three more hours he continued the interrogation. Bennabi paid attention to everything Andrew said, it seemed, but he said nothing.
Goddamn, he’s good, Andrew thought, struggling not to reveal his own frustration. He glanced at his watch. It had been nearly nine hours. And he hadn’t uncovered a single fact about the weapon.
Well, it was time to get serious now.
He scooted the chair even closer.
“Jacques, you’re not being helpful. And now, thanks to your lack of cooperation, you’ve put all your friends at risk. How selfish can you be?” he snapped.
Andrew leaned close. “You understand that I’ve been restrained, don’t you? I had hoped you’d be more cooperative. But apparently you’re not taking me seriously. I think I have to prove how grave this matter is.”
He reached into his pocket. He pulled out a printout of a computer photograph that had been taken yesterday.
It showed Bennabi’s wife and children in the front yard of their home outside of Algiers.
Colonel Peterson was in his hotel room in the center of Rome. He was awakened at 4:00 a.m. by his secure cell phone.
“Colonel.” The caller was Andrew. His voice was ragged.
“So, what’d he tell you?”
The colonel muttered, “You just tell me what he said and I’ll figure out if it’s important. That’s my job.” He clicked the light on and fished for a pen.
“No, sir, I mean, didn’t say a single word.”
“Over sixteen hours. Completely silent. The entire time. Not one goddamn word. Never happened in all my years in this business.”
“Was he getting close to breaking, at least?”
“I…No, I don’t think so. I even threatened his family. His children. No reaction. I’d need another week. And I’ll have to make good on some of the threats.”
But Peterson knew they were already on shaky ground by kidnapping somebody who was not a known terrorist. He wouldn’t dare kidnap or endanger the professor’s colleagues, let alone his family.
“No,” the colonel said slowly. “That’s all for now. You can get back to your unit. We’ll go to phase two.”
The woman was dressed conservatively, a long-sleeved blouse and tan slacks. Her dark blond hair was pulled back and she wore no jewelry.
Since Bennabi wasn’t culturally or religiously conservative, worked with women at the university and had actually written in favor of women’s rights, Peterson decided to use Claire for the second interrogator. Bennabi would view her as an enemy, yes, but not as an inferior. And, since it was known that Bennabi had dated and was married, with several children, he was a clearly a man with an appreciation of attractive women.
And Peterson knew that Claire was certainly that.
She was also an army captain, in charge of a prisoner-of-war operation in the Middle East, though at the moment she, too, was on a brief leave of absence to permit her to practice her own skills as an interrogator—skills very different from Andrew’s but just as effective in the right circumstances.
Peterson now finished briefing her. “Good luck,” he added.
And couldn’t help reminding her that it was now Thursday and the weapon would be deployed the day after tomorrow.
In perfect Arabic, Claire said, “I must apologize, Mr. Bennabi, Jacques…May I use your first name?” She was rushing into the cell, a horrified look on her face.