George Harris yawned as he tried to read the profile in front of him. The duties we assume in life get both easier and yet more burdensome as they become more familiar. Standard, and predictable. Suspected terrorist. Algerian. GSPC, or the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (the acronym matched the Frenchified version of the name, as befit a rebel group in a formerly French Colony), now part of Al Qaeda. A particularly brutal and fundamentalist Algerian group known for killing any one not Muslim, or not Muslim enough. Once the Herald Tribune began ignoring their routine massacres in Algeria the group had hitched itself onto on to the larger organization. A bomb in Africa was only sexy if it had an international brand attached.
Late-thirties. Male. Hostile, full of hatred, uncooperative and stupid. Yes…stupid, easily influenced, a moron. Student of the Koran. Living as if it were still the middle ages, when Islam ruled supreme. Spent some time in an American University? That meant he could rant in English as well as Arabic.
The kids at Stanford channeled their youthful energy into start-ups. In the Muslim world, the boys turned to jihad and death instead. In both cases the indoctrination was the same – extreme – and otherwise known as brainwashing.
The dim lighting from his lamps was intimate and lent shadows to the room’s corners. George couldn’t bear the harsh intensity of overhead lights so had installed dimmers throughout the house. He perched on the edge of his ergonometric chair, papers littering his carved mahogany desk.
The file. George rubbed his tired eyes as he continued to read, searching for something that would set this man apart. Philosophy major. That was something unusual and arresting. Terrorists typically preferred rules based disciplines – such as engineering or math. Accordingly, they looked for answers to their life in rules-based Islamic fundamentalism. The teachings and thought process both adopted structure absolutely.
His glasses slipped, and he pushed them back up his nose.
The man’s progression was predictable for his age group but starting to disappear. Terrorism wasn’t conducive to a long life. Fighting in Afghanistan, Bosnia and even Iraq. Stays in the Sudan and Chechnya. Algiers, London, Paris. Then disappearing from the map until he appears again in London, after likely spending time in a training camp in a miserable and failing third world country. The sudden change signaled that something bad was about to happen – shaving off a beard, returning from a foreign land, increasing cell phone calls.
Which led to another clue – a number programmed into Khalil’s cell phone, for a now cancelled cell phone in Los Angeles. Untraceable. Why Los Angeles? It seemed too obvious – since Khalil had attended college years ago in Southern California. Was it just a red herring; fake and distracting? Or, had it been a handoff – meant to pass the number from one person to the next?
George felt exhaustion in every bone of his not so young body. But he didn’t have time for weakness because his work was too important – so he kept up the intensity. Since we herd our people into shopping malls and office buildings, or some version of both at the same time, we need brilliant but idealistic types willing to question suspected terrorists. Until some judge let the detainee out of jail on some ‘rights’ violation. The government should have kept this one overseas with the rest of them, where our laws couldn’t protect him.
George sipped his water. It was lukewarm, the ice having melted hours ago. He could refresh it, but why bother? More pressing, the file before him was flimsy, and a bit too pat. It wasn’t blacked out, or conspicuously short; tricks his superiors played. Information could be sparse in national security because each agency controlled its own information. All appeared proper, but it was hollow, containing only the echoes of the man he was to interrogate.
The days had become long, the nights longer. George looked around his study; it was both an office and a library. He was, after all, a professor, another idealistic profession and one he was eager to rejoin. But he’d written that paper on the psychology of the terrorist, and won an award for it. That had lead to a visit, interview and security check courtesy of the CIA. They thought he was some genius, so they gave him a job in secret interrogations (on leave from the Stanford – three years now). Best of all, he got the tough cases – the guys who hadn’t cracked even, sometimes, after torture. George also got the honor of serving his country.
It was late. The clock, nearly lost among a stack of books, showed a time of 2:13 A.M. Thank goodness Karen was sleeping. He could picture her lying in the bedroom nearby. Her wispy blonde hair spread on white sheets – she would only sleep on white sheets. She was smart, and had chosen to be a literature professor – Western literature.
George took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, then put them back on. He was nothing if not a good soldier. Discipline, once learned, never leaves you.
But his mind continued to battle his will. These terrorists, no, suspected terrorists (let’s not forget their rights), weren’t interesting anymore, if they ever had been. He was hardened now, and worn down. Why shouldn’t he be? He worked his ass off, did his research, wrote his reports, and nobody cared. Nobody.
George fingered a paperweight. It was more of a rock really, but it had been on his desk for many years, since his son – then very young – had painted it and presented it to him for Father’s Day. A paperweight forever more.
At the end of the year he would tender his resignation – again. His long journey was ending and he would rejoin the real world. Doing good had once seemed achievable, desirable and noble. But the process of getting there ate you up. It was a slow rot that left you hardened and indifferent. All of the passion had left his body, oozing out of him each time he questioned someone who had no right to live, someone full of hatred and murderous intentions. Profiling these fundamentalist terrorists was ultimately a waste of his intellect – better left to men with more energy and stronger fists. The truth was that society only wanted the scum to disappear, perhaps onto an electric chair or, for the more liberally minded, into a cozy and humane jail cell somewhere.
He turned back to the file, and began to read. The sharp black letters seemed harsh against the white paper. He willed himself to concentrate, to force the rush of his old enthusiasm to fill his body with restlessness and desire. He had to create the feeling of a hunt. For what else is intelligence work but a hunt for information that seeks to allude?
George jumped, his head whipping around as he heard a noise. Instantly he relaxed, it was Karen. She looked annoyed, as she was most of the time these days. Well, annoyed or indifferent. Or, was George just over reacting? That, he knew, would be her never ending comment.
“George, please come to bed. It’s so late. You aren’t studying for a final.” Her voice was just above a whisper. She never was good at being wakened – sleep deprivation didn’t agree with her.
“In a few minutes, Honey.” The words sounded awkward as he spoke them. Their emotional connection these days was as empty as his file. The words were there but the meaning was missing.
The light went off as Karen flipped the switch. “Now, George. Someone has to keep you healthy, even if you won’t help.”
People were dying and she wanted him to sleep. Suddenly he knew why he did it; thankless, frustrating and hard as the work was. His enemies’ God brought death and destruction. George’s God brought trials and tribulations – but also redemption. He couldn’t fix the world, but he could save a person here and there.
George bit back his words. A fight this time of night would do no good. The file would have to sit unread. Even if people died as a result. He stood up, wincing as pain shot through his back. Then, George followed her to bed.
Omar watched the girl in front of him. Omar watched her because he wasn’t really listening as she prattled on, content in her simple-minded monologue. She was typical of the campus girls. Lean, in an athletic way. Burnished brown hair and light hazel eyes – the irises speckled gently with mahogany. Her short skirt, composed of a few ruffles, showed off her legs and exposed her for the slut she was. Ah, Americana. Her t-shirt hugged her breasts, highlighting her erect nipples.
“Well, we spent yesterday at the beach and blew off our classes,” came out of lips glistening with glitter.
For a second he imagined her naked in front of him – as he knew she would be shortly. Her legs sprawled open, the ever so ripe breasts exposed. Then his mind went back to where it started. If he attached a wire to a digital clock, would that be more precise than an old-fashioned dial clock? How did each timepiece click to the second that formed a new minute? Should he trust that a bomber would detonate the bomb on time or should he not disclose that a suicide mission was actually taking place? Now that Khalil had disappeared, Omar should assume leadership. He was smart enough. True, the plan was complex – hence Khalil’s involvement – so much faith in the seasoned fighter. But at twenty-four Omar was ready to assume a leadership role. The basic details were already set anyway. Only the execution remained. That he could do.
Omar, of course, was fully conscious of the concerns within his organization. The plot was too important to trust a rookie. Surveillance was more sophisticated than it used to be. Everything was just that much harder. And on. But, all excuses aside, whom else did they really have? Eventually they may try to replace Khalil – but not until Omar had used the opportunity to step boldly into Khalil’s shoes. After all, stripped down to its basic elements the plot was only a few bombs. Bombs laced with sarin. His own background was crucial. How many brilliant scientists could a terrorist organization sneak into the United States? And yet, sarin was only a few ingredients mixed so elegantly together. Deadly to the chemist if done incorrectly.
“So, then, I thought we could go to the party together on Saturday night.”
Omar flashed his perfect smile. The celebrity dentist in Century City. He knew that his white teeth were dramatic, set off as they were by the deep richness of his dark skin. He looked down at himself, pleased at what he saw. The daily laps in his family’s pool in Riyadh had formed a muscular physique. His ripped jeans and tailored t-shirt had been his uniform since college in Hamburg. No point in hiding any of his assets.
Completing his PhD. in chemical engineering would take years. Except he had no intention of finishing. Omar glanced around the broad expanse of UCLA’s lawn, with its steep steps heading up the hill. The campus was a far cry from the Saudi desert of his youth.
Omar put his arm around the girl standing before him, glad that she had finally shut up. He caressed her stomach, feeling the downy hair that grew across it. She reminded him of horseflesh, warm and firm.
“Allah has sent you here to be my angel.”
Life was so simple if you just followed the rules. Everything clicked into place. Mix methylphosphonyl difluoride with a blend of isopropyl alcohol and inosproplyl amine and you get sarin. Add gunpowder and ‘boom’. Everything nearby was obliterated. And life was certainly no more complicated when dealing with a woman.
“You are so beautiful, my dear.” Omar heard his voice lilting, wafting through the warm Southern California air. The scent of perfume mingled with healthy sweat as he drew her just a little bit closer, enjoying the heat of skin through his thin shirt.
Ah, the sins of the flesh. He loved the freedom he had here to indulge himself. His sins would all be washed away when he died a martyr’s death.
Would they make him eat dirt?
The footsteps hitting the cold concrete of the hallway were unmistakable in their direction and would clearly bring no good. The air burned around him, without the promise of escape. The shadowy cell didn’t even have a window cut into one of its four flimsy plastered walls. He was alone, until they came to torture him again. Or, perhaps even worse, to talk.
Khalil felt sweat beading on his forehead. It dripped into the open cut still bleeding on his cheek. The resulting salty sting felt bitter. He shifted his body on the rags that served as a bed, feeling the dull ache. Rubbing his wrists he marveled at the thick scabs that optimistically sprouted after each successive set of ropes was cut free. At least the body could sometimes heal.
The footsteps continued their even pace. His feet were crusted with mud. The door was speckled with dried blood. Dirt clumped up in the room’s corners, forming a breeding ground for beetles and worms. The filth of the cell was emblematic of their souls.
He concentrated, trying once again to focus his fragmented mind. He needed strength. Khalil pictured his brother and his cousin as they walked away from him for the last time. Only a few hours later their bodies would be twisted, mangled, dead. Their blood had pooled together, resting on top of a hot earth which refused to drink it in. His dead cousin’s mouth had been covered with dirt, as he lay prone in the hot sands of their aching homeland. The image still sent shudders through him whenever he tried to sleep. Now, when they let him sleep.
He would avenge the deaths of Hassan and Josef. No matter what these infidels did to him. Pain was his friend. Besides, it wasn’t the pain that got to him. That shooting sensation of loosing your mind. No, he was trained to resist this sort of ordeal. Rather, it was the desperate attempts to remember his prayers, so beloved and his only source of strength in this world. How could he forget something that was such a part of his soul? Sometimes, tired, beaten, he did. No, he almost did. They hadn’t won such a victory yet. Nor would they. Allah was testing him, quite simply because he was chosen. And, he would continue doing Allah’s work.
Still, the steps, getting ever closer. The hallway wasn’t long enough.
Allahu Akbar, he repeated until he could almost taste the afterlife. Dates and honey. Meat, roasted and fragrant as it dissolved in his mouth. The soft flesh of women as they rubbed up against him. Allah had shown him little mercy in this world. That would have to come later.
The heavy door opened. Two Americans entered the room, moving quickly toward him. With these people it was always haste. They had no time for Allah. Theirs was an evil world, full of temptation and sin.
“We’re back to chat, Khalil.” The tall one had red hair, light skin, freckles and brown eyes. His voice had a harsh twang. He wore a military uniform – a generic interrogator and a standard southern hick. He sat down at the excuse for a table.
The shorter, heavier one gestured to Khalil. “Come on and sit.” His tone was fierce, as always. Khalil tried to collect himself. The man’s clunky black boot hit his right shin, sending him crashing to the floor. Khalil’s elbow broke the fall but sliced open. He stared down at the blood. A fly landed in one of the crimson drops.
“You can’t do that. You know you can’t do that, you cocksucker,” Big Red sounded indignant. He must have seen much worse than a simple kick to the shin. Did the Americans really believe that the good cop/bad strategy would work?
“Shut up, you pussy.” The other one said. Khalil was still staring down as a beetle joined the fly. He felt the air move just before a hand yanked him up by shirt and hair, shoving him into a splintering chair.
Dimly, Khalil was aware of his tormentors as they questioned him. The room echoed as they spoke. Not a word registered. He tried to focus on a spider, as it crawled down a bleak wall. He was frightened. His interrogators no longer seemed real and present. They had worn him away, as they expected to do.
And he hated them, despised them. His feelings were so intense they almost dissipated the pain. But not quite. He cursed himself for his weakness. Allah is great, Allah is good, he chanted.
“Tell us why you were in London, Khalil.” The short one’s blue eyes were small, while his thin lips twisted up. The veins splintered in a web of blue.
He smelled their oppressive sweat and felt the heat coming off their bodies. They carried a pungent, revolting stench, in spite of their detergents, deodorants and frequent showers. No matter what they did, the odor of the damned couldn’t be rinsed off.
He had long ago abandoned his body to the stifling heat that made his scabs itch. Or perhaps the itch came from the bugs, feeding from his wounds as he tried to sleep.
“I told you, just visiting friends. I lived there eight years ago.” Khalil’s voice was soft, non-threatening. The words were rote, the story created long ago and much repeated.
He took a small comfort in knowing that his eyes wouldn’t focus. He used to find a point upon which to center his gaze during the torture; an attempt to concentrate elsewhere. He no longer needed to. Lack of sleep, the omnipresent bright lights and constant barrages had worked their charms. He was disoriented, completely, irrevocably.
But their mistake was that he was no longer a part of this world. Nor did he desire to be. That wish had died with his brother. Didn’t he deserve to suffer? Why hadn’t he gone with Hassan and Josef that day? Perhaps had he done so they wouldn’t have died. And he wouldn’t have felt this need to redeem himself.
One of the holographic men said something to him, infringing into Khalil’s memories. “Not good enough, Khalil. We told you before – you’re on a watch list. We know you have a lot to hide. Help us. For your own good.” Too many questions. He stared at Big Red, trying to concentrate on his face.
But Khalil could only see the spider. He stood, and limped away. He reached the wall, everything was so close together: his rags, the toilet hole, the table with the interrogators and three chairs.
He watched the spider for a minute and considered crushing it. He also thought about using the grime of the cell to wash himself before praying. But Khalil had no need for a grand gesture. No reason to anger his interrogators and make the mission personal.
Behind him the short, fat one was speaking again. “Look you fucker, get back over here, we’re talking to you.”
Khalil ignored him and walked to the sink. After washing himself, he faced Qiblah and began to pray. This time the familiar verses came. Khalil felt the surge of strength that comes when you’ve thrown an opponent off guard and gained control. If the Americans came during prayer time, they would have to wait.
He heard a movement behind him. The piss hit Khalil’s hair as he touched his forehead to the ground. The warm liquid soaked into his jumpsuit, and he heard the interrogator zip up his pants. So much for Khalil’s benediction.
George pulled up to the prison. It was a squat two-story building; predictably it had bars on its windows. All possible sources of grace had been ignored during its design and construction. The murky color of its walls seemed unnatural when contrasted with a few grand old trees that sheltered the building. The trees had likely been saved by the crazy environmentalists in government. Their branches swayed gently, as if warning George not to enter the building.
Inside this new jail were housed an indeterminate number of enemy combatants, as they were officially known, as well as a random terrorist or two. He was here for interrogation number one with the prisoner otherwise identified as detainee 182.
George parked his car in one of the few empty spots. The parking area wasn’t small, but the prisoners inside had triggered a mass wave of interested visits – many people wanting to make a career out of tormenting the captives. As a result, George noted many cars lined up politely – most with either government plates or some sort of rental car identifier.
George eased himself out of his car – a recent model BMW sedan. A Brahman among the untouchables. He looked warily at the building plopped before him – tired from not sleeping the night before. What could motivate a respected psychologist and tenured professor to become an expert on the terrorist mind? Insanity. He headed up the few clunky stairs leading to the prison. Ah, to spend each day in a room with a murderer. He could feel the apprehension, the tension in his body as he made his way up the stairs. Yet if he didn’t own the responsibility of doing these interrogations–for which he had a real talent – who would?
The heavy wooden door creaked as he opened it. The sound splintered down his spine. He entered a waiting room. He saw a corridor behind a barred door slightly to his right. A few empty chairs and a desk were the only furniture. The lighting was murky.
Whose brilliant idea had it been to bring these men to the United States? How long before some lawyer caught wind of their presence – held like animals in a zoo? The newspapers couldn’t seem to get enough of the related issues.
George felt dust settling on his hunter green polo shirt as he walked in the room. The place looked dirty. A musty old smell had already settled in, a concoction of sweat, stagnant air and mold. He imagined his shirt turning a swampy color by the time he left, as if a toxic atmosphere could leach all life and vitality out. Well, okay, he comforted himself, so the government wasn’t wasting money on cleaning crews. George would do his job and leave. But he would do it well.
He walked up to the desk, behind which a soldier sat stiffly. He looked so young.
“Hello, sir.” The boy sounded like a stereotypical soldier from a movie, with that overly enunciated formality. He had a standard issue buzz cut and a neatly pressed uniform. He was compact and swarthy, but still managed to look painfully clean cut. His only feature which seemed out of place was one crossed eye. Paranoid, George imagined that it gave the recruit a sinister air. George admitted that if he drove himself crazy he would have only himself to blame.
“George Harris, here to interrogate detainee 182.”
The soldier busily started working; the formalities required for interrogating prisoners were a serious responsibility. George stared out the window, afraid to let his eyes wander too much around the sparsely furnished and gloomy interior. Attitude, attitude makes all the difference, he reminded himself.
“You the shrink?” A harsh voice echoed unexpectedly behind George, causing him to jump. He hadn’t heard the guard coming from the hallway behind the barred door. Turning slightly, George studied the burly and spookily smiling prison guard. Man, he moved quietly for someone with such bulk. George felt like cringing, the whole reality of the man felt unpleasant but was probably just projection. Still, to be ambushed. Next, to be called a “shrink”. He tried to smile. This man may have important information about his prisoner. George nodded.
“Come with me. I’m Sean.” The man’s booming voice was unnecessary for the size of the room. George didn’t like men such as Sean: loud, brash and big. But it wasn’t so much the outer appearance that made him uneasy. Having been a slight child who read too much George could instinctively recognize a bully. Years of psychological education and practical training had made him able to explain such men and to articulate their inner neurosis. He still didn’t like them and that was his weakness.
So George meekly followed his new guide. In his experience, it was easier to let a prison guard dominate. Especially one like this. Their job created a need to control. Perhaps they chose the job from an obsessive yearning to do so. He eyed Sean’s large, square hands, following them as they turned into brawny arms and solid shoulders.
“So why does this terrorist need a shrink?” Sean interrupted George’s thoughts. “Lock’em up and throw away the key is what I say.”
“Why does he need a lawyer?” George couldn’t resist, years in academia had formed a strong habit of asking questions, even impertinent ones. He wasn’t so different from the prison guard. We do become our work, he thought, only half pleased with his own over-intellectualism.
“Yeah, well, I never really understood that one myself” Sean said.
Of course not. The man had probably never even read a book in his life. Why read a book when you can read a Nascar magazine? Idiot.
The man persisted. “What you gonna do, make him feel bad for killing. I’ve known a lot of murderers. They don’t care. I can promise you that.”
“Where did they get you?” George asked. Was this the army or Leavenworth?
‘I was a prison guard before I enlisted. I thought they were going to send me to Iraq to kill those Arabs. But I was a prison guard before they sent me here, so they sent me here.”
“Indeed. Tough break.” George kept his voice controlled and businesslike. Time to move on. “Tell me about detainee 182.” George tried to shift his voice and convey camaraderie. It was a tough leap.
“You know, if they’re violent, they’re violent.” Sean said. “What does he need a shrink for? My old man used to beat the crap out of me. He never stopped. Can’t stop those like that. But, you know, I myself came out fine. It’s inborn.”
“Yes, look how well you turned out.” George replied. Poor you, not allowed to kill Arabs. George felt remorse. Had he gone too far? You could never tell how a moron would handle abuse.
The man kept walking. George reassured himself. Physical abuse rarely happens without verbal abuse. And Sean had just admitted that his father used to beat him. This man was probably used to sarcasm, or worse. He decided to respond to the original question.
“I’m not here to provide therapy,” George replied. “I’m mainly a psychologist. But I’m also an interrogator. I came up with some theories about how terrorists are made. Not all people from similar dysfunctional backgrounds become terrorists, gang members or criminals.” George studied the man’s face for a glimmer of interest. Sean’s expression was somewhat vacant. George continued his explanation anyway. He slowed down his pace, convinced they would be at his prisoner’s cell at any moment. The prison wasn’t that big. If he could get this man on his side it might pay off with information in the long run.
George almost tripped as they turned a corner. Was the floor uneven?
“I wondered why some men from Islamic countries become terrorists while so many don’t.” George continued speaking. “I noticed some of the factors common to their societies. Fathers are often absent due to how patriarchical and traditional the societies are – children are the mothers’ work. Indeed there is a lack of a strong father figure in the life of Islamists extending from Mohammed all the way to Osama Bin Laden.”
The guard’s face remained a blank slate. Perhaps he just didn’t recognize the names. George almost tripped again. He decided to continue his explanation.
“There are a few societal influences such as little focus on education, lack of jobs and demographics which lead to a large number of frustrated young men. There is no fairness, even the authorities are corrupt.” Now George could feel the excitement building in his body, the pressure from discussing a topic about which he felt so passionately. Yes, he reluctantly admitted, I do love some of this crazy stuff I do. The guard still didn’t look interested. George continued anyway, perhaps more for himself than for any other reason. Besides, he was a professor and used to lecturing.
“Violence is prevalent within the family such as in honor killing. It’s also very much a part of society due to the repressive tactics of most of the current governments in Islamic states. A man may beat his wife and children; a government kills a dissenter. Life doesn’t have the sanctity it does here. Throw some of these men into our more open society and they can’t cope.” George paused, still hoping to note some interest.
Light glared in a flash, hitting George’s eyes and blinding him. For the first time George noticed small windows periodically piercing the hallway walls.
“Stupid Ah-rabs.” The man drawled. George noticed the sweat stains developing under the guard’s arms, the slow shuffle of his bulky walk. He felt disgust. You call them stupid, he felt like asking the moron, what about you? The dingy hallway felt claustrophobic and he could hear his own footsteps echoing on the cheap milk-colored linoleum floor.
Suddenly George felt ashamed. Who knew what kind of life this man had lived. Beaten by his father, probably grew up not so bright, not a lot of advantages. Now he chose a violent job dealing with the scum of our modern society. Thinking he was escaping that to go kill – but also to become a hero, to improve himself in his own feeble mind, only to end up right where he started. Poor jerk probably drank a six-pack a night after he got off from work. Had he escaped his violent childhood at all, was George wrong? Had he even tried? George couldn’t resist.
“So, have you had to hit the prisoners often?” George asked and watched pain flash across Sean’s face.
A new prison, a new cell. Khalil looked around him. The dirt was different, yet really still the same after all. He sighed deeply, and focused on a spot in the upper corner, near the ceiling. Best to find strength in a dot – helped his concentration. Hopefully, Allah would once again give him an opportunity to prove his worth. Didn’t these people know that their humiliations, and even blows, were welcome? Each time they tormented him he was able to impress Allah, and his brother, with the strength of his faith. He fingered his Koran – well memorized but still a comforting presence.
Khalil suddenly felt angry. This ordeal had lasted long enough. He was on their turf now, which meant that he had rights. The horrid jailor, Sean, had told him where he was. California, just south of San Francisco. The United States of America. They couldn’t hold him forever. He had the right to a lawyer, to be charged and tried. Perhaps even released. These morons had created the system – a weak system. Khalil hated it, and had never felt bound by any western governments’ laws as evidenced by his willingness to break them. Still, he knew the system, had indeed been well educated in it. He had taken advantage of its weaknesses before. He was going to do that again. They had no right to keep him here, the infidel dogs.
How could this government preach human rights, dignity and freedom? Hypocrites. He had been subjected to being held hostage – to their war on terror. Tortured, neglected and left to rot. So typical of the kufrs,infidels. Then these people wondered at the hatred they engendered the world over. Khalil spat on the ground – his floor. He stared at the flecks of dirt which settled on top of his saliva. At least it proved he was still alive. One more day to feel. Another day to hate. Allahu Akbar, he whispered under his breath, fingering his Koran one more time. He had work to do.
The door opened and a man entered the cell. Physically unimpressive, tall, but very slim. Brownish hair. Charcoal blue circles under striking grey eyes. Dignified, but in an almost affected and conscious way. Solemn, and with no enthusiasm. Probably early fifties. Expensive clothes, Khalil guessed, based on the cut and fabric quality. Khalil felt the way he always felt about westerners – he hated him.
The dog began to twitch. In a mere few seconds its breathing went from smooth to labored and strained. Omar studied intently, watching each move the dog made. Saliva flowed from between its sharp, yellow teeth, rapidly followed by vomit. The twitching intensified. Its eyes bulged from the sockets as the dog began choking. Air had been cut off as the dog’s muscles ceased helping it breath. After a few bucking convulsions, the dog was finally still.
Omar heard a laugh. Scott, his contact at the farm, had come up behind him. Omar had been so intent on watching the dog everything else had faded.
“How long? Did you get the amount right?” Scott shuffled his feet as he asked the question.
“Four and a half minutes, from start to finish. Stupid dog.” He swatted at a fly.
Omar opened the sky roof by pressing a button on the panel in front of him. The building itself was spare. The control panel was more suited to an airplane’s cockpit than the plain shed. Only Omar and a handful of others knew that the knobs and dials controlled the machinery of death – a spectrum of choices.
“The sarin worked perfectly. Next, I need to deliver it with a bomb, not these few jury-rigged showerheads. I haven’t done it since I left the training camp eight months ago. The weather is different here. I need to observe the results.” Omar squinted as he spoke.
Scott shook his head. A smile ran quickly across his features. Probably dreaming of getting to a training camp himself. The siren song of jihad, the west choking on its own mythology. Omar smoothed his now sticky shirt. The weather was blistering.
“It was beautiful, man. Just beautiful. I hated that piece of shit dog. Always barking. Do you need me to go to the shelter to get more?” Scott spoke expectantly.
“No, brother.” Omar replied. “Not now. I have to focus on the bombs now that the sarin is perfect. You don’t have to hang around here. I am going to wait a bit and then check the dog.” He stared at Scott. Fucking imbecile. Scott had no insight into how finally nuanced Omar’s work was. It seemed like everyone wanted to join the jihad these days.
Omar turned his back on Scott, looking instead at the dog, as it lay slumped beyond the glass. It had fallen on its side and was covered with vomit. Disgusting.
Omar waited until Scott was walking across the open field toward the farm itself.
He then left the building and stepped out into the barren land. Hot air hit him. The drive from Los Angeles had been only about an hour but this world was entirely foreign to crowded Westwood, where UCLA and his apartment were located. Most noticeable immediately was the blistering air, dry like that at his home. Southern California was a desert, but of a different sort from Saudi Arabia. Here, the gold- tinted dirt supported small mangy shrubs and a few knotted old trees. His homeland was much more minimalist – all sand with a few rocks thrown in for variety.
He would go inside and study the dog after the sarin had time to dissipate. Luckily, it was a poison that floated away quickly, especially in warm weather. But he wasn’t taking any chances. The death he had just witnessed was not a noble death, more suited to dogs and women.
The owner of this property also grew lettuce, but those green, irrigated fields were only marginally within his sight. This part of the ranch housed only the structure he had been using for the jihad. It was situated far from the more traveled parts of the expansive property and received little care or attention. Omar could care less how filthy it was. It was his weekend laboratory and valued only for functionality. Life wasn’t all organic chemistry and frat-parties. His time was too important not to use wisely.
Omar reached inside the front pocket of his jeans. They were the low cut version. All the better to highlight his chiseled abs. He was taking an abdominal class at his gym. A better place to meet girls couldn’t be imagined. And the clothes they wore! Girls in Saudi Arabia only dressed so obscenely at home, alone or with other women. Here it was all on display.
Pulling out his iPod and white headphones, he turned the device on. The earpieces slipped familiarly into his ears. Losing himself in the music he sat on the ground and waited. Eminem’s voice boomed.
“I’ve been to the motherfucking mountaintop
Heard motherfuckers talk, seen ‘em drop
If I ain’t got a weapon I’m goin’ pick up a rock.”
He would go check the dog soon. Time was running out. His bombs had to be perfect.
The first thing George noticed was how much like the others Khalil looked. Neither tall nor short. Slim. And, of course, the olive skin, dark hair and brown eyes. He wore no long beard, as many Islamists do. But, as that group was fond of saying, they wouldn’t wear their flowing beards or traditional dress to execute an attack – too obvious. And his head had been shaved. All prisoners’ heads were shaved. Where did that custom originate? The guillotine, right – so much easier to get a clean cut when no hair obstructed it? Much of modern history seemed to flow directly out of the French Revolution.
What also caught George’s interest, for the first time in a long while, was the energy emanating from the man’s body. Men in captivity generally became unhinged – out of fear. Some were traumatized by what had already happened to them. The most deadly terror was the anticipation of what was still to come – hence the interrogation technique of implying death or torture. Illegal, yes, but only in some places.
This man was like a coiled snake, ready to strike. George had rarely seen such burning energy in detainees. This prisoner had been through torture, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, constant light and who knew what else. Still, he didn’t appear beaten. Arguably, he even looked strong. George sensed hatred. Some emotion was smoldering, but he couldn’t yet classify it. Why wasn’t this man too tired or whipped for such intensity?
Well, people were always ultimately simple. To withstand so much, he had to be stronger than most. Or more of a fanatic. Something to watch and analyze during the interrogation process. The answer would come – it always did.
Really though, this guy had already piqued George’s interest before their meeting. Khalil was just a poor Algerian yet he had been sponsored – by a terrorist organization – at an American university years ago. That was strange, and things that didn’t fit always meant something. According to how life normally worked, the poor guys were usually just shipped to a terrorist camp and taught to die. As was generally true, it was the affluent that ruled the roost – in this case the terrorist organizations.
Based on the progression of his years as a mujahadeen Khalil should be long dead. Practically speaking, he was either exceptionally lucky or had been identified as a leader. George was betting on the latter. Luck always ran out. Khalil had even made a terrorist watch list – so his arrest was probably not a mistake – some poor Arab guy unjustly targeted. Khalil had information in his bowed head, George was sure of that.
George’s eyes scanned the room. He felt no rush to begin the interrogation. Controlling his mind was the most important constant. The pressure to move quickly, especially with a prisoner who brimmed with potential information, had to be avoided. With haste came harm, potentially ruining the prisoner. If someone wasn’t broken in the first twenty-four hours, and most were, you had to step back and begin anew, this time at a snail’s pace. Unfortunately, George had all the time in the world.
Except for that Los Angeles phone number, programmed into that damned cell phone Khalil had at capture. Years of experience weren’t necessary to know that such clues were never a good sign.
“Hey, you, asshole, move to the table.” George winced as Sean’s voiced boomed through the room.
He watched Khalil walk over to the table and sit in one of the rickety chairs. The man’s step was light, a sign of training in the jihadist camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The gait developed from running up rocky hill nightly in bare feet – all part of the training regime.
The cell was small, somewhat colorless; but weren’t they always? Just like hospital rooms. Perhaps color didn’t fit any institutions – as a psychiatrist he should probably consider that sometime. A plant would die here in a day – what must it do to a person? Khalil’s vivid orange jumpsuit was the only spot of color – a distinctly pop-culture effect.
Well, this skinny and very nasty prisoner deserved no better, George reminded himself. At least the place was only moderately dirty, not like those prisons overseas with the bugs, rats and pools of urine. George’s time abroad had hardened his sympathies to the creature comforts of the detained. They were the ones who controlled their release – all they had to do was talk.
The man glared at him with burning eyes. Predictable. The prisoners were typically either petrified or defiant. The latter were often arrogant too. At the beginning they seemed to believe that they could withstand whatever George intended to do to them. Yet they never did, ultimately, did they? The bluff was empty. George looked warily at the man sitting in the chair, huddled next to the table. You, my man, have no idea what is in store for you.
Sean interrupted his thoughts. “Do you want to take him to the interrogation room? I had orders to keep him in here until you arrived.”
“No – keep him here.”
“You sure? Would you like me to stay with you? This guy is strong.” Sean scowled as his eyes hit Khalil – who didn’t respond.
“No, that’s okay. I’ll be fine.” What with the not so hidden cameras trained on this man’s every action. It was like interviewing a reality show star on television. Millions might be watching. Well, he had no intention of smiling for the cameras.
George held out his hand to Khalil. He heard the door close behind Sean. A bolt clicked into place.
Khalil refused the outstretched hand. Having been educated in the United States he of course knew the gesture. Like a naughty little boy he was going to show George that he wouldn’t cooperate.
George sat down in the other chair at the table. He gazed down at it. A small crack ran across the table, ending at Khalil’s wrist where a scar continued the crack’s line.
Khalil sat at the table in his prison cell, his hands clasped before him. He was completely motionless, as he had learned to be long ago while fighting, waiting for an opportune time to strike. Those who didn’t learn were dead. It isn’t hard to see a slight movement in the crystal clear light of the Afghan mountains. At that altitude everything stood out more distinctly. Even the colors seemed more vibrant, harsh in the ethereal light. This interrogation was just one more battle. And Khalil felt calm, as was his custom.
“So, tell me about your capture,” the man said. It took him less than two seconds to move from the door to the table, his stride confident, very American. Khalil could feel the man’s watery gray eyes as they bored into him, unafraid as any jailor’s would be.
Khalil stared at the man. Get me talking, get me on a roll. I know how interrogation works. I read the American manuals. Moreover, I taught interrogation to men better than you. Well, it won’t be so easy, you American dog.
The man looked calm. The room took on an almost meditative quality as the two sat in silence. Khalil knew that he himself didn’t look defiant. He never looked anything much. Another thing that fighting does to a man. Anything short of death and it just doesn’t matter. And even death wasn’t so bad. Die for Allah, go to heaven.
“So, tell me about your capture.” The man retained his calm tone and pleasant face as he asked the question again. At least he wasn’t perky and loud like many Americans. The man leaned back, relaxed in his metal-framed chair.
Khalil continued to stare, so they sat silently for a minute. Then he shifted his glance around the dingy cell, so familiar even though he had arrived only a few days ago. Not much to get acquainted with. Walls, a bed, two tables, chairs, a toilet, a door and one window.
Once more the man tried. “Shall I rephrase the question? How did you get caught? A girlfriend betray you? Landlady thought you looked shifty? Caught with a bomb strapped around your waist?” His voice hadn’t changed, even though his words had become antagonistic.
Khalil moved slowly, shifting in his chair. He did it out of boredom. How long would he have to sit here?
Suddenly, the man jerked up and banged his palm on the table. His eyes lost their placid look. Khalil was fascinated by their gray and how it could change. He had read about eyes like that.
“Look, you Paki bastard,” the man shouted. “I don’t get a pension here. I don’t have the patience for your moronic games!”
Khalil stared at the man. Then he started to laugh. Humor had been a stranger for quite a while.
“Paki bastard? You know better than that,” Khalil said. “Aren’t you some specialist? Even an idiot would read my file and know I am Algerian. And, is that the best you can fake anger? Why bother doing it at all, you dog?”
The man smiled. “My name is George, not dog. And what else do you know about teaching interrogation technique?”
“Nothing at all.” Khalil replied. It was a bad bluff and they both knew it. Still, Khalil wasn’t going to admit anything. The man’s eyes had returned to placid gray. They had registered little joy in catching Khalil’s ill-conceived words. His emotions really weren’t in the interrogation – he had that much self-control. And, the man had also obviously read the file. Khalil knew he had been pegged as an instructor of elite troops. His specialty – other than bombing missions and poisons – had been interrogations. That information was all available on the Internet.
Khalil recalculated. “Interrogators feign emotions. They never betray them.”
“You decided to be honest?”
“I have nothing to hide.”
“Then let’s prove that so we can let you out of here. You do want to get out of here, don’t you?”
Khalil smiled at the man again. He had been caught once more. The man had managed to keep the dialogue going. Only the insane wouldn’t discuss getting out of this depressing excuse for a prison.
“Why were you in London?”
“Visiting friends,” Khalil said.
Lying takes more time and effort than telling the truth. And, the expression often won’t match the words. Interrogation was mastering inconsistencies.
“Who?” George asked. The lighting was bright enough for him to watch the nuances in Khalil’s face. Each shifting muscle was clear.
George ignored the list. The names were fake. No, he was asking the predictable questions. But he wasn’t interested in the answers. Rather, he wanted to watch the man sitting across the table from him: watch him lie, watch him tell the truth, gauge his reactions. The real questions would come later, after he had learned about him.
“So you are GSPC.” It was a statement. “Was your visit to the UK related to your fight against the Algerian government?” A joke of a question. Who gave a shit about Algeria, and why fight their government in London? But that wasn’t the point.
George watched Khali, who looked comfortable with the question. It was an expected one. “GSPC. But the visit wasn’t related. London is very far from Algeria.” Khalil said, then continued on, his voice turning boastful. “But if I were, what of it? You fought for your independence, I’m fighting for Algeria’s. Don’t we all have a right to democracy? Why did your government….”
“Yeah, sure.” George cut him off. He didn’t need another lecture from an Algerian terrorist about their stolen election. That was the problem with democracy in a Muslim nation – the fundamentalists could win. Luckily for Algeria, the army had stepped in and prevented that outcome.
Of course, the Algerian people ended up paying anyway by being regularly slaughtered for being in the wrong place – Algeria- at the wrong time – the 20th century. Pretty much business as usual there. Or at least that was how George understood it. And GSPC was Al Qaeda now.
“Besides, you don’t believe in democracy,” George said. It was a throwaway comment – he needed to establish the upper hand now, otherwise the interrogation would get nowhere. Besides, what he said was true, the GSPC really didn’t believe in democracy – they believed in Sharia and a fascist application of it.
“In Islam there is no separation between mosque and state. The people don’t rule, your Imams do,” George said. Well, God, or Allah. But the Imams enjoyed standing in for God – who showed his face so rarely.
Khalil’s eyes darkened. George could see him about to jump at the bait. Instead he hesitated. Then he shrugged. Good impulse control for a terrorist, who were typically action oriented and aggressive. Just the sort of person to go crazy when confined. They were also frequently narcissistic. So, George would keep baiting Khalil.
He let the silence continue. Khalil remained quiet. Smart. Whatever you said always came back to bite you.
Finally Khalil spoke. “I’m not a political man. My jihad is for Allah – so the believers can live in a righteous world.” Khalil waived his orange-sheathed arm like a prayer flag blowing in the wind.
George ignored his proselytizing. Some traditional terrorists sought a political end. Others wanted to create an Islamic world – religion posturing as politics. A bomb was a bomb. The ideology behind it wasn’t interesting. “So, you fought in Afghanistan? Five years – that is a lot. Did you really fight or did you just hang out in the camps?” ‘Fighting’ was often just a punch card item for an Islamist – jihad, the hajj to Mecca, kill some poor westerner, steal a few identities.
“I fought.” George detected a flash in Khalil’s eyes from the insult.
“How did you stay alive?”
“With good weapons. I was trained by the CIA. You can’t keep me in jail for fighting a war for which you paid three billion.” Khalil blinked, unable to hold George’s gaze.
A misstep. Who would know how much money the CIA had poured into the Afghan fight against the Soviet Union? Only a smart, well informed terrorist. Khalil’s statement was also propaganda – the CIA never directly trained any Arab militants. Indirectly? Who could say? Everyone had their own theories.
“Why Afghanistan? Algeria wasn’t enough for you? Not enough guns there these days?” Of course, Khalil would be killed if he entered the country. Not that anyone would want to go to Algeria. Sweltering country of too many war-weary and hostile people. Why risk getting your throat slashed?
Besides, in his experience, once an Islamist started to fight the west they never went back to fight in their own country. It was easier in more liberal societies – fewer death squads and less torture.
“I hate Algeria,” Khalil said.
“I empathize – not my favorite place either. Why can’t you enter Algeria?” George asked. Khalil was acting as if he was in a business meeting – not in a jail cell. Keep pushing, even when he knew the answer.
“The government will kill me.” Khalil’s eyes were steely – an easy reaction to teach.
“So they know you’re a leader in the GSPC.”
“It is not a crime to try and free my country from the unwanted yoke of a military government. It is what your revolutionaries did. The Algerian government lost a legitimate election but refused .…” George cut him off. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“It was a stupid question.” Khalil glared across the table.
“You know that by not answering you actually have.” George smiled as he spoke, watching Khalil’s gaze shift. He looked bored now; not at all troubled that he may have given away information. Confident.
“Why should Algerians want Islamic rule? Why go back to the dark ages, as the Taliban did to Afghanistan, or Khomeni did to Iran?” George asked, more interested in Khalil’s body language than in the answer.
“Because it is Allah’s will.” Again, the waving arm. “Because it is a return to Allah and away from sin. What has the modern world brought people – AIDS, drugs, drunkenness, illegitimacy? There is a better way.” George studied the crack in the table. How did that happen? One hard blow or a gradual weakening of a fault in the wood?
George rose. Another chosen one. All these guys were the same. He had enough information for today. George noted Khalil’s surprise as he packed up his navy blue notebook. It was Khalil’s first real emotion of the day. George was leaving well short of a true interrogation. Tomorrow the real fun would begin.
“Do you need anything?” he asked. Uncertainty clouded Khalil’s features. Broken protocol was always disturbing. It made a smart man wonder.
“Cigarettes. A newspaper. Toothpaste.” A man able to think quickly.
George smiled politely and walked out.
A new spider had moved into the cell. It moved with precision, weaving the fine gossamer thread into an intricate and confusing pattern. The long legs moved deliberately and with confidence. Its mission was well defined, and nothing hindered its mindless determination.
It dropped, extending the taut borders of its artistry. As it plunged down fearlessly a fine thread held it firmly. The burst of showiness elegantly metamorphosed into a moderated and patterned diligence. The web was slowly taking shape.
Khalil watched. The spider’s daring reminded him of his own missions. How carefully he had planned them, using his expertise to lay perfect and infallible traps. Allah be praised, he was blessed with the same single-minded determination for perfection, patience and restraint. Unexpected variables always arose, so timing had to be flawless. And there was always luck. Who could board four commercial flights that all took off on time?
Khalil pictured the new interrogator. George had been watching Khalil as closely as he was now watching the spider.
George was perceptive, of that Khalil was already sure. But he was not a physical man. While his gestures portrayed neither nervousness nor a lack of confidence they also missed the bodily control that Khalil had mastered. Physical control was important for a fighter – any mistake, no matter how small, could lead to death. Fear in your eyes gave an opponent faith in his ability to kill you. The mujahadeen had an advantage when fighting infidels. Staring in the eyes of a man unafraid of dying could be unnerving – especially for the young and raw recruits, soft around the middle, that the superpowers like to send to war.
Khalil had seen the twitches in George’s face as he sat across from him at the table. The tiny movement at the corners of the eyes. The slight tightening at the edges of his mouth. The smiles had been certain of power; after all, George was the jailer. But they had lacked conviction. George wasn’t here out of passion or idealism. Could it be duty, or just expertise?
Outwardly, everything about George was conventional American. At least thus far. Yet while his physical movements could be loose, he also carried an inherent ease. Almost as if he belonged in a jail cell and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. He radiated none of the urgency or impatience which Khalil associated with Americans and their noisy world. Like the spider, George kept up a steady pace, had internalized it, and proceeded to do his job.
Khalil could break George’s thin body with almost no effort. The man looked like he needed glasses with his long forehead and stern expression. With his furrowed brow and bottomless gray eyes, he had the air of a thinker. Time had worked its effect. George had the washed out look of age. The wrinkles deepened in his forehead, spreading almost to the edge of his face. He had a furrow around each eye. Too much time spent pondering impossibles was Khalil’s best guess. As a result, his face sagged, weighed down by the passing of time.
Still, it managed to be a vibrant face. The energy of the mind was reflected in the glittering eyes and the firmness of the lips. George hadn’t yet even begun to consider letting go of life. He might be tired, but he was still engaged. In that, Khalil knew he was an equal match with George – each was still fighting.
A smell had entered the cell. It permeated the thin walls, causing them to swell and take on a rosy hue. Then the light reflecting from the sky got darker, and the smell more intense. The heartiness of meat – Khalil guessed beef from the lack of refinement in its heaviness. He could also make out the rich sweetness of a vegetable. Probably beef stew again. The guards claimed the food was all halil, prepared according to Muslim custom. He doubted it. He had been given non-official status. To the public surrounding him he didn’t exist.
Did anyone know what was going on with him? Had he disappeared to everyone but a few government officials, a hand full of guards and one interrogator? Certainly people must drive by and wonder what this heavily fortified building was.
How could he believe that anyone was actually worried about his dietary restrictions? They had forgotten his inherent human rights.
Khalil watched the spider again as it so methodically continued its graceful dance. A fly had already gotten entangled in the contradictory denseness of the feather-light web. He watched the hapless bug as it fought the sticky captor, enmeshing itself further with each effort.
Did Khalil have a choice? Could he fight the chains that had been placed around him? Or must he instead stay true to his nature and wait, patiently, as he figured out what actions would help him escape this unacceptable destiny – that of a prisoner.
Effortlessly, Khalil hopped up off his bed. The hard, wire framed cot was his favorite resting place in his limited room. He went to the wall. Slowly he tapped it, rubbing his fingers over the flat surface. Realizing that he couldn’t reach the barred window he grabbed behind him, moved a chair and stood under the square of light. Swinging his body up he felt around the window, rattling the bars to see how firmly they held.
He saw another fly pass him by as it went through the bars and out into the cooling breeze. It had escaped the spider’s lair.
George tried to focus on the list of coffees posted on the wall in front of him. He wasn’t a Starbucks regular and felt awkward asking for most of the menu items. He abhorred few things in life as much as milk in coffee. Milk killed its smoky bitterness and harsh edge. The creamy richness softened the beverage and changed its character into a weak approximation of what it had been. The menu in front of him was not only silly, it contained too many things he wouldn’t dream of ordering. Mochas, lattes, chais. They all had milk, and probably sugar too. What had happened to coffee? He had once thrived on variety and had prided himself on his willingness to try new things. Now he just wanted coffee, plain black, old fashioned American coffee.
The girl behind the counter looked like any number of his students. Thankfully, she had no piercings or odd streaks in her hair. Too much was always too much. Why didn’t the young recognize that?
“A small black coffee, please.”
“What’s your name?” Luckily the girl hadn’t asked him to clarify his order by using one of the company’s silly terms. She probably went to Stanford. He didn’t know her, mercifully, since didn’t want to be recognized. Normally he wouldn’t have chosen a Starbucks in downtown Palo Alto—too close to the university. Perhaps today it wouldn’t matter. He hadn’t been teaching much over the last few years so his chances of being recognized by a student were slim. And this coffee shop was conveniently close to his home.
“Your name, sir?”
Her voice caught his attention, which had started to drift, as it tended to do during an interrogation. Pondering Khalil and how he was going to solve the problem of getting the man to talk.
“George.” He said. That was enough, right? She didn’t expect his last name too? He noticed some large cookies. His eyes lingered there as he took his wallet out. He loved cookies. “I will take that chocolate chip cookie as well, please.” Already he could anticipate the sweetness of the chocolate, a perfect counterpoint to his harsh coffee. And, hopefully the coffee would be served hot – not lukewarm to prevent potential liability lawsuits.
George stood awkwardly a few steps away from the counter. He clutched his oversized cookie in one hand and his briefcase in the other. The store was mostly empty – which made his awkwardness more bearable. A few young girls were giggling together as they drank their monstrous, sugary frozen drinks. A even more youthful man sat in the corner, all greasy hair and baggy clothes, typing manically on his computer.
“George.” He heard his name.
Ambling over to get his coffee George decided to sit near the typist – who looked much quieter than the three frivolous girls with their miniskirts and bright lipstick. The boy was distracted not only by his computer but also by an iPod. Privacy, 21st century style.
Carefully, he set down his coffee and cookie and he took his notebook and a pencil case out of his well-worn dapple colored briefcase. He set them on the table and put the case on a chair. Opening the pencil box he removed a coal pencil. He chose a blank page in the notebook and wrote Khalil on the top.
Expertly the coal hit the paper and an image began to take shape. George first focused on the face, long with strong cheekbones. The well-defined, almost sharp outline that formed Khalil’s features was a combination of his leanness, Arab ethnicity and genetics. He had a chin that tapered to a point rapidly in contrast with the breadth of his cheekbones. His eyes were small, very dark. They receded into his face in a way that men would label unattractive but women would call smoldering and probably even sexy. At least if George had figured out women’s tastes by now. The nose was strong and slightly bridged. It flared a little too widely at the bottom for western tastes, but was probably standard issue in Algeria. The bottom lip was cut too full. George often thought of killers as being cruel physically – with some sort of outward manifestation of their actions showing in their face. His favorite indicator had always been thin lips – an identifier used culturally in myths, folklore and fairy tales – especially during the 19th century. Khalil had a sensual lower lip, though it was topped by a thin upper lip that already George had seen twist in cruel or indifferent ways.
With fluttering movements he penciled in the delicate eyelashes. They were of the sort to be called feminine – thick and curled at the ends. Yet, such eyelashes never seemed to appear on girls, being reserved instead for men that had a touch of beauty about them. Khalil was anything but traditionally handsome. Yet he had a daring recklessness and perhaps even an idealistic glint in his cold eyes. Why are so many people drawn to the beauty in danger?
The curly hair sprouted easily on the head George had drawn. Its wiry coarseness and even the density of it were easy to portray. Yet how could he draw its tightness running up Khalil’s hands and onto his arms? Then it almost seemed delicate, like a spider’s web.
George continued to fill in his picture, adding deeper shadows under the cheekbones and fine lines on the forehead and around the eyes. He formed dark crescents under the eyes, handed out to all revolutionaries with their Kalashnikovs. George also added in the birdlike wrinkles around the mouth that identified a smoker. Smoking was still hugely popular in the Muslim word. Not only did it kill hunger pangs, it also had a long history as a social grace.
George looked at his picture staring deeply into its eyes. He studied the recesses of the face and lingered over each feature. The picture was a good approximation of the man – at least physically. George had once considered being an artist before the practical implication of making such a career choice deterred him.
He suddenly felt an urge to shift his body. Cramps from holding a tense position too long. The drawing drew his attention back.
What it lacked were the intangibles which make up a man. The barely contained energy, the careful and measured expressions. The vibrancy of the committed. The way Khalil’s mouth formed words, deliberately and with caution as he spoke in a language not his own. George couldn’t add in the cocked eyebrow or the withering brow when Khalil got angry. The laughter of the lips and how it tugged at the corners of his eyes. And these were only the expressions George had recognized at this early stage of the interrogation. There would be so many more.
Yet the picture was a key tool for him. As the pencil formed the man he was forced to identify each subtly in Khalil’s face. Focusing on the details enabled George to start getting intimate with his prisoner. As many people linger over the vision of someone they are learning to love, George lingered over the faces of each man he had interrogated – getting to know them sometimes better than they knew themselves.
George took a sip of his coffee for the first time. It had been keeping company with the cookie as he ignored them both. It was lukewarm. But at least it had no milk.
“Omar was Mohammed’s successor,” Omar said. “When the great prophet and founder of Islam died a huge wave of infighting broke out over who was to succeed him. Omar became the head of what was to become the Sunni Muslims.”
“And you were named after this Omar?” The recruit looked at Omar, in awe. It was late in the evening after a prayer session. Everyone lingered still, savoring the intoxication that the words shouted out earlier from the pulpit had engendered.
“We must defeat the Great Satan. We shall return to our state of glory that is our due….” The words were familiar. They were repeated in both small and large mosques throughout the world. Omar had taken to holding his own prayers sessions in his small apartment. The words would flow from his mouth and speak to the hearts of those he had gathered before him. Tonight he was at a more formal prayer session.
This mosque was a modest one, tucked in behind a mini-mall. The sounds of a coin-operated laundry permeated the building. The clink of coins, the muffle of voices, and the steady hum of machines in their endless spin cycles. A larger mosque in Culver City was too high profile for the more militant sermons he preferred. Muslims were always watched these days.
Lately, too distracted by girls, Omar had been neglecting part of his mission, searching for willing minds. What a victory to convert someone in the United States to his cause. Each able body in the country that was his biggest enemy and the greatest supporter of the Jews was one more hand to hold a gun. Or deliver a bomb. And his leaders were still saying that he couldn’t blow himself up. Too valuable. After all, he had the ability to get an American visa – the benefits of being Saudi. The swines – as if he didn’t know his own worth. He deserved martyrdom.
He looked once again at the young man seated before him. Twenties. A soft look in his eyes. His faces alight from the words ringing around his head. He fit perfectly in the small dimly lit room. He looked too American: not Arab at all. If he were still in Cairo, his birthplace, the hands wouldn’t be so soft, the eyes wouldn’t hesitate. He would know how to survive.
“Well, yes.” Omar continued, trying to sound omniscient. “I was named for him, and I hope to do great things in his honor. Of course, not that any of us can take credit for doing anything – it is Allah himself who must be praised for allowing us to act.” Sort of. Obviously under Islam all was due to the mercy and benevolence of Allah. But the mujahideen were Allah’s worriers. A special section of heaven was set aside for them. For him.
“Allah the benevolent.”
“Allah the kind.” Omar continued to study the potential recruit. Was he ready for the reality of political Islam?
“The sweet smell of your blood would perfume your mother’s hands.” Like talking to a girl – the flowery phrases he had learned training at Khaldan, a camp in Pakistan – flowed from his lips like water. How he loved the art of seduction. He smiled, coldly. No sense in warming this poor soul too quickly.
“You do want to die a martyr, fighting for Allah’s cause, don’t you? Don’t we all?” Omar took a deep breath. “I was almost martyred once. I pray for the brother who took the bullet intended for me. Alas, it was Allah’s will.”
Blood had drained from the boy’s face. The harsh fluorescent lighting cast a dramatic shadow across his left eye.
“Or don’t you Americans do that?” Omar sneered.
“No, brother, I didn’t mean that.” Off to the right, Omar noticed a familiar man staring at him, contempt gracing his features. Coward. This very same conversation had taken place between them a few weeks ago. The man had been too frightened to die for Allah. Now, he sneered. Pig.
Omar looked back at the man now sweating before him – his potential recruit. His skin look strangely uneven, as if it were about to crumble into dust.
“Sorry, brother. I came here only to pray.” With that Omar watched his potential bomber slink away. “Infidel,” he muttered under his breath.
Omar felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and saw a tall man he had never seen before. He hadn’t heard a sound behind him.
“May Allah bless and protect you my friend.” The man spoke softly, almost a whisper.
“Same to you brother, same to you.” Omar mirrored the words, as was courteous. Had this man overheard his abruptly terminated conversation and responded to Allah’s will? Was he a recruit?
“Quiet, brother. They come to us. We have more martyrs than we need. Never breathe a word of this again. You expose yourself too much.” With that the man walked away and rejoined another group, becoming immediately engrossed in their conversation. A burning humiliation flooded Omar. He felt angry, wanting to strike out at someone or something. He was being watched, and judged. His group had seen his failure and had relieved him of his duty to recruit. Once again, he was being told that he wasn’t good enough.
He would show them. And when he did his actions would light up the sky. Allah and the world would both witness his devotion in a way never before seen. Right now, briefly, time was still on his side.
“Good morning,” George said, crossing over the cell’s threshold. He carried his briefcase and a paper bag. Khalil, lying on his lumpy cot, turned a page in his book – The Shining – and kept reading. He would rather read about ghosts haunting a crazy, somewhat recovered alcoholic than talk to George.
He heard George drop his bag onto the table. The resulting bang hit Khalil with the intensity of a dart. A pin prick from hell. There was no peace in this shattered world.
“Get up,” George said. The voice was a bark, firm and crisp.
To ignore him or not? What to do. Khalil swung his body up, feeling the stiffness in his limbs. He had been reading for a while. Nothing else to do.
George, evidently satisfied that Khalil was following orders, was easing himself into a chair. Khalil walked over and sat down across from him. He really wasn’t in the mood.
“Want to see what’s in the bag?” George said, sounding uninterested.
“Sure, why not,” Khalil replied. He then watched as George pulled out toothpaste and cigarettes. No newspaper. What a surprise.
“You don’t expect me to thank you?” Khalil asked.
“No.” Crisp, again. “Tell me about the GSPC in London.”
“Why would I do that? For some cigarettes and toothpaste? Did you bring matches or a lighter?”
“Yes,” George said. “You get them if you answer some of my question.” A dry smile, and then a shrug. George could take his flames and shove them up his ass.
“The GSPC has splintered,” Khalil said, more to kill time than for any other reason. “Part is Al Qaeda now. Or whatever they call it. Bunch of young thugs. Don’t have much to do with the core of the movement.” Disinformation.
“Is that who is blowing up the bombs in Algeria these days?”
“I thought you wanted to know about the GSPC in London, not Algeria?” Khalil said.
“I want real information, not crap. Young thugs, indeed.” George sighed. What information was he trying to convey with the gesture? George continued speaking. “Who do you deal with?”
“A number here, a number there. The voices change.” Khalil said.
“Write the numbers down,” George said, and pushed a notebook in Khalil’s direction.
“They call me,” Khalil said. More disinformation. He leaned back in his chair. This was going to take a while.
The lights stung. Fluorescent. A curse on humanity. As if the light from the outside needed to be supplemented, even with only a small window to let it in. Khalil, likewise a curse, was being difficult. Again.
“They don’t just call you, Khalil,” George said.
“Is that a question?” Khalil’s sneered. Too bad he hadn’t yet realized how little George got affected by such treatment. Welcome to his world. He would drink later tonight to forget. For now, everything Khalil said would slide right off of him. As though he were made of glass.
“You look smug,” George said. Call him on it. Don’t put up with the crap. “I will sit here and hold your hand through each and every tantrum.”
Khalil watched. Reptilian, not moving or blinking. No, he was evaluating, the bastard. Weighing his options. George broke the gaze and began to study his fingernails. They needed to be clipped.
“What do you want me to do here?” Khalil’s voice broke the silence. “You are risking men’s lives here. So they are GSPC. Fighting the Algerian government is not a crime under your laws. So a few GSPC declared themselves Al Qaeda. Any one with a video camera can broadcast to the world via the Internet these days. Doesn’t mean a thing, and doesn’t reflect accurately on our entire organization. Now we are all at much greater risk because of a few crazies.”
“That’s why you should more carefully consider your associations,” George answered before realizing his mistake. Yeah, tell the guy to fry his friends. What was that about honor among thieves? So recover. Soften the message. “Look, if you give me names we’ll watch them. If they really are just fighting your government we won’t touch them.”
Khalil laughed. “Yes, of course,” he said.
“Write something down, Khalil. We already know about the GSPC involvement.” George noted that Khalil didn’t invoke a comparison with his own imprisonment. Of course not. Khalil, his friends, weren’t just fighting the Algerian government, were they?
“Friends, enemies, what do you want? I don’t have my address book here. I don’t remember any numbers.”
George pulled a file from his brief case. “Okay, let’s go through some names and pictures,” he said. Five hours at least. Maybe six. Then he could go home.
Khalil sat in his cell. The light was soft, as it was only twice a day, his favorite time. Late in the afternoon, before the jail’s fluorescent light came on the cell was lit with a fading light. Khalil loved its gentleness. He was able to be reflective, assimilating what had happened in his limited and confining world. Having that ten-minute period, marking the transition from day to evening allowed him to come to peace with his current plight in life and to refocus on the importance of his mission. The other part of the day he loved, early morning before the prison guards made their presence known, was also peaceful but unfortunately often included the burden of his thoughts, those that had filled a sleepless night. Why aren’t we ever able to escape our own thoughts? Instead we are forced to live in a world of our own making.
He had been spending a lot of time alone. Too much time. What had happened to him as a result? He was lonely, that was certain. The deep aching loneliness of being completely shut off from the world. Being cut off from loved ones was hard enough. Khalil was used to that – he had been on the move so long. The list of those he loved had dwindled. This loneliness was different. It was absolute. He was used to the camaraderie of his brothers, the fellow mujadeed. The smelly safe-houses, the dusty tents of Afghanistan and the grungy European group apartments all came back to him, crystal clear in the remnants of his memory. Whispered voices. Discussing the future with Tariq, a distant cousin, always in the dark, with a lone candle burning. Holding his cousin’s hand as they dreamed of the future. All just pictures moving through his mind now. Yes, the jihad was all-absorbing. But while it was a life with few true roots, it was also a community.
This new loneliness was something entirely different. It was as if the world existed completely separate from him. He had disappeared, but life outside his jail cell continued. Khalil no longer really existed – all of those who knew him didn’t know his whereabouts or whether he was alive. And he knew nothing about them, or even about the world itself. Was it still there, after he had left it?
Each day was made up of routines; it had to be made up of routines if he was to stay sane. He said his prayers five times a day. He ate three times a day. He wrote or sketched for two hours each day. He showered and dressed for fifteen minutes each day. Then he shaved. Three times a week he was allowed to walk in the gated back yard – he chose to run – for forty-five minutes. He divided the rest of his time between reading, writing and thinking. He did each activity at the same time, religiously, day after day.
The Koran. He read it, recited it. He found comfort in Allah’s words. His God had tested the true believers before. During the Crusades Allah had rescued them and guided them as they smote their swords on the infidels’ necks. The men then had not wavered. Khalil found strength in their forbearance and tried to imagine the hardships they had endured, much worse than his own. “Attacked by Mongols – the Tartars – in the east and by Franj in the west, the Muslims had never been in such a critical position. God alone could still rescue them.” (Ibn Al-Athir). And Allah had.
His people had been humiliated for centuries, driven from their homes, murdered, raped and pillaged. History, the endless crusades as the west sought to destroy the umma. But they had not been beaten. Allah had prevailed. Their faith had grown, then spread. It now covered much of Asia, large parts of Africa and had begun to take control of Europe. All in due time.
Khalil would recite the Koran, saying the verses over and over again until he entered a trancelike state. The gloom of the jail cell would slowly fade away, the edges of the objects around him blurring until they ceased to exist at all. His mind would relax, all tensions melting into nothingness. Even his body would enter a vegetative state, present but not intruding on his visions of Allah and the world beyond this heartless one.
Khalil would imagine the battle cries of the soldiers who fought before him. Their arms held high as they went fearlessly running to attack the enemy before them. A fight to the death then as now. The Crusaders had spared no one as they uncoiled their forces eastward. He was aware of the blood as it coursed through his body as well as each nuance of his rhythmic breathing. He could hear the life in his body as he prayed. And he knew that Allah was with him, more real now than he had ever been.
Khalil had known many verses by heart before entering this jail. He had now memorized many more. Perhaps Allah had given him this cell to pull closer to his beliefs. Had he been veering too much off the righteous path before getting caught? Had he become arrogant and dismissive of the power of verse? Was he no longer motivated by a love for Allah but rather from an obsession with power?
He hadn’t asked to be given time locked up in a nightmarish prison – alone and haunted by his own mind. Memories could be powerful things. No one would willingly be stuck alone with them and no distraction. But the Americans wouldn’t destroy him. Rather he would use this time to get stronger. And since his cause was Islam he would turn in that direction to escape his internal prison cell. Many prisoners before him had done so in the past. When you are completely alone there is no one else – only your God.
George stared at Khalil. He was fascinated at how the man could sit so still, yet exude energy. It was a common physical state for seasoned soldiers or others who had been forced to live with constant life threatening surprise. In the United States it was rare – some soldiers, occasional gang members – the older ones who had survived their lifestyle, and men like Khalil – who shouldn’t really be here. Like a coiled snake – an analogy Karen and her literature-oriented mind would love. Never come out and say anything directly, wasn’t that what her prized writers practiced ever so gracefully?
“Have you been treated well so far?” George was struggling to keep a conversation going. He was turning to a bag of tricks developed over the years dealing with many men. His techniques helped with both terrorists and in his day-to-day real world encounters. Most people didn’t really listen to or observe others. It was all part of being a psychologist – just finding a way to build a repartee with anyone.
“No.” Khalil still didn’t move as he answered the question. His voice was low, indifferent.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” George asked.
Khalil smiled, almost as if he enjoyed identifying each move in the game. “No.” His tone hadn’t changed. Still, he was refusing to bond with George. The strategy was the normal course for the early stage of an interrogation. What was slightly unusual was that Khalil had lost his antagonistic attitude. Most prisoners kept that up for a while – until George wore them down. Khalil had dropped it, almost immediately. That was a smarter way to go – pretend that you aren’t the enemy. Why justify an interrogator’s suspicion that you are by proving it with your actions? An innocent man, if he could control his emotions, would be rational – knowing that ultimately he had to be set free.
“I have spent a lot of time abroad over the past few years,” George said. First, the story. Never stop trying to build closeness. Ever. Show that they share a common bond – that of having been in the same places, living less than idyllic lives. “Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt. My trips weren’t pleasant. I saw desperate men, frightened men. I saw the guilty and the innocent. Khalil, I learned one thing – the sooner a man talks the sooner he is released.” The words sounded canned to George. Fake. Had he lost his golden touch? Don’t panic, he reminded himself. In an interrogation it is better to be confident in a mistake than unsure in doing the right thing. Of course, most important was not to make a mistake. An alert man like Khalil would notice any weakness or uncertainty.
Stick to your strategy. When in doubt, retain at least that much discipline.
Khalil pretended that he wasn’t listening to George. He watched one of the many now familiar spiders haunting his cell. Yet he did hear the words. Would he be here had he confessed earlier? Confessed to what? What did he need to say to satisfy them?
London. He had slept in a piss stained cell full of drug addicts and petty criminals. Many of them had spoken Arabic and they had joked together until late in the evenings. The place echoed Charles Dickens – had grand old England really progressed much? The class distinctions between jailor and jailed were no longer socioeconomic. Now they were race and religion. Perhaps the Irish could understand. He was there for only a short time.
Then, a plane ride to nowhere. Dark goggles had covered his eyes. Shackles had weighed his limbs. He arrived dazed and jet-lagged. His sense of disorientation had been amplified when the guard accompanying him hadn’t let him sleep during the flight.
“Hey, you, lazy bones. You think you in charge ‘ere?” With a swift kick every time Khalil started to doze off.
A long drive through the desert to a place otherwise known as hell. Not a hell as Allah had promised to the infidels. Rather a modern non-Islamic version created by the blasphemous Egyptian state. The prison had been stone with few windows and no fans. Bugs, rats, an occasional scorpion. The temperature during the day outside in the desert often reached 120 degrees. Khalil could only imagine how hot it had gotten inside. He had been placed in solitary confinement. Even there he could hear the other prisoners. The screams, begging for mercy, desperate choking of a man tortured too far. Nights were the worst, full of terrifying sounds and an almost complete darkness. The desert winds had blown sand in through the small windows. Khalil got used to waking up tasting the grit between his teeth. Initially, he had only visited interrogation rooms located a few miles away and run by Americans. When they didn’t get the answers they wanted, they had left him to the Egyptians.
“No, I don’t want to talk about it.” Khalil repeated his answer. He stared back at the man sitting in front of him. He had heard the best reason to talk yet – to get released. No one had offered him that in Egypt. Not even the Americans he met along the way. What was that western saying? Possession is nine-tenths of the law? Thus far his jailors were keeping him.
“Maybe we could talk about something different.” He heard a small tremor in his voice and willed it to disappear. He still hadn’t moved, but he had decided to let the conversation do otherwise.
“Where you have been in the last few years.”
“How many years?” Khalil replied.
“Why don’t we say around ten or so.”? George watched Khalil as he gauged what sort of answer to give. How much information did George have?
“The Sudan….” Khalil said.
“Doing what?” Not a hardass tone, but a brisk, business-like one. Keep up the pressure and see if Khalil can provide the answers – coherently and quickly. Time pressure and staccato questioning could be intimidating. Would Khalil break under it? George focused on Khalil exclusively, ignoring the room around them.
“Business.” Khalil drew out the word, after waiting a few seconds. He attempted to slow the questioning to give himself more time. Familiar strategy. George would do his best to prevent it.
“Business, what sort of business?” Again brisk tone, short question and no comment beyond that.
“Cement. I imported cement. My company – not the one I ran but….”
“What company?” George interrupted.
“Allah cement! Who cares?” Khalil replied, visibly annoyed.
George’s face didn’t change. There was a time for jokes. This wasn’t it.
“What company?” Not that George cared. He just wanted to know where Khalil had been.
“Al Tahib Cement.”
“Based in?” George continued his badgering.
Khalil sighed. Tiredness was showing in the deep shadows taking hold under his eyes and the redness spreading through the white of his eyes. Don’t shoot until you see the white of its eyes… an old hunter’s rule.
Khalil wasn’t supposed to be deprived of sleep. Hopefully the guards were honoring that law. Was it the natural insomnia that haunts those left alone too long with their thoughts? Khalil’s life must hold numerous bad memories and moral lapses, enough to keep him awake for many nights to come.
“Khartoum. Based in Khartoum.” Great, probably a Bin Laden owned company. How else does an Algerian end up working for a Saudi company in the Sudan? Why not, right? The borders in Africa are porous.
“Then?” George asked.
“Bosnia.” Khalil replied.
“Yes, of course. Not a crime in this country.”
“No. Then?” George kept up the pace.
“Europe, mainly. I was based in London for a while. Then I moved to Amsterdam.”
George looked into his folder. It was tucked in his lap, under the desk and away from Khalil’s eyes.
“Trips? I have here Pakistan, Afghanistan – long stays on many occasions. You seem to have disappeared. Then the Philippines. Where else?” That list contained what the authorities had been able to trace. Who knew the real itinerary of his life, what with fake passports and European laxness.
“Small trips throughout Europe. Paris, London, things like that.” Khalil said.
“How did you support yourself?”
“Odd jobs. Bookstore. Construction company.”
“This looks like a typical terrorist resume Khalil. An Al Qaeda resume. You have been hitting every Islamist war and training camp over the years. Sustenance jobs for a smart guy like you – what were you really doing? You want to know how you got on a terrorist watch list look at your travels. Forget the other stuff.”
George shook his head. He had changed his tone, becoming scolding as if he were now talking to a child. Khalil had to learn that his attitude wasn’t good enough. George had the upper hand – he alone possessed the key to the heavy door a few feet away.
“Look, I am a fighter.” Khalil said. “I have never denied that. Fighting the wars I have fought is not a crime in your country. I fight for Allah, and try to spread his message. But I haven’t broken your laws.” Khalil’s voice had become so soft, so non-threatening. Almost passive. Soft was a trick George had already seen Khalil pull. But why passive. Why now when George mentioned Al Qaeda?
George had a hunch that Khalil was Al Qaeda proper, not the GSPC version. Yet Khalil’s base was in Europe. The higher ups in Al Qaeda rarely visited the West – too dangerous. Meanwhile, less senior guys grew like weeds. Distinctions were blurring these days regardless. What was Khalil’s role, and how could George find out?
“Theoretically, why would Al Qaeda base a smart guy like you in Europe? And how could you stay uncategorized as Al Qaeda for so long?” George mused aloud. Not that we really have a clue, he said to himself.
“I told you, I’m a freedom fighter for Algeria. That’s it.” Khalil raised his hands in a gesture George always attributed to Turkish carpet sellers in the vast bazaars of Istanbul. It was typical of the Muslim east’s melodrama. These gestures were too familiar.
“Go with me for a minute. Let us suppose. You are based in Europe yet you are planning an attack against the United States. You blend reasonably well into western society. But you haven’t been to the United States recently. Where you have been is here, there and everywhere in Europe. How would that work? Why Los Angeles?”
Khalil stared into George’s eyes as if looking for something. Then his gaze shifted, as his eyes got milky.
“I don’t know.” Khalil spoke, yet the words barely escaped his lips. “Doesn’t seem to make sense. So, perhaps you are wrong.” He leaned back in his chair, looking expectant.
“No.” George didn’t expect cooperation. But Khalil’s physical responses would ultimately betray him – the body hides nothing. His thoughtfulness was a signal that George’s words weren’t being discounted. Khalil looked uncomfortable, tension visible in the set of his shoulders.
“Is it fake passports? Pictures of your future targets? A strong American-based network? It could be any of them, couldn’t it?” George said.
“It could be, I suppose.” Khalil replied. “If any of it were true. Planting a bomb isn’t nearly as difficult as one might think – if you have the mind for it. Luckily for you, I don’t.” The flash of white teeth that followed was unnecessary.
“Of course not.” George said.
Khalil looked at George and shook his head. The word insanity seemed to emanate from his now rigid form. As if that was new to George – but he no longer cared about what people thought – he cared only for results. It was the subtle tics in the face he was searching for as he tried to guess Khalil’s true identity, not the one detailed in the government files. How can you really track an intelligent man when so many other global networks exist to ensure that you don’t?
So, George continued.
“You could be part of a sleeper cell awaiting orders to attack your semi-adopted country. But you haven’t stayed put. You could be a recruiter – but your personality is all wrong. You are too quiet and probably too tactical.”
See, there it was. Plain as day, as the expression goes. The twitch of an eye. The slight change in the mouth. Khalil had tremendous physical control – his limbs often barely moved. – not with discomfort and not with fear. Yet he was still human.
George knew he was on the right track. Brilliant! Even well trained men couldn’t hide such shifts. Eyes darting up and to the left with a lie.
“My guess is that you control a number of cells. Sort coordinator of European/American operations for Al Qaeda.” There it was. The nostrils had flared and Khalil’s eyes had shifted. Damn, I’m right. George felt sure. Khalil was still quiet. George continued. He wasn’t yet ready to ease the pressure.
“But if you are planning an American attack – why haven’t you been here to scope out the target? Perhaps you don’t do that – you study pictures. Would that work? It would have the advantage of keeping you further removed from police or whatever.” George took a breath – he was excited. “But my guess is false passports.”
Now he was done. Time to wait. Would Khalil respond? Not that it mattered – his body had spoken for him.
Khalil’s smile was slow and lazy. “Why would I want to spend time in this country? How does that help me free Algeria from the yoke of a repressive government?”
George was right. Every word was true. Khalil tried to deaden his face, to take all emotion other than an artificial smile out of it. Had George guessed or had Khalil been betrayed?
Khalil was trained not to crack. Giving in just proved that you had information and made the enemy push harder. It didn’t help buy freedom. The best outcome was to slowly filter disinformation. Ibn’ al-Shaikh al-Libi was able to trigger the Iraq war by alleging that Al Qaeda had been trained in chemical warfare by Saddam. He later recanted his “confession”.
Omar brushed himself up against the girl as she lay sleeping next to him in his bed. She was curled on her side, half entwined in a pillow. Her brown freckles, lightly flecked across her tan back, matched the color of her perfectly straight hair. She seemed too flawlessly matched for his taste – what with her candy pink toes and finger nails, her tonal hand bags and shoes and, worst of all, the make-up palates that belonged anywhere but near him.
What was her name again? Candy, Kelly, Monica? Not that it mattered anymore. He would ram himself into her one more time before breaking up with her and throwing her out of his apartment. For good. She would babble for a minute before leaving in a rage, reeking of sweat and semen. Woman always left in a huff when you insulted them. Didn’t they understand that getting them to leave was the whole point? He certainly didn’t keep them around for debate.
Omar was bored. The phone was quiet now. He no longer lunged for it with every ring, hoping for the rich melodies of deep guttural Arabic. Now, more likely than anything else, if he bothered to answer he would hear some high pitched monologue on feelings. As if he cared. Worse, possibly, were the telemarketers or political recordings. None of them would help him achieve his apocalypse.
Omar turned the girl over to face him. She groaned, then sighed deeply. Her sleep continued. He caressed her stomach, running his hands along the canyon around her belly button and up to the sharp ridges of her hip bone.
He replayed his memories of his last call, savoring them as he did so. Had he missed any of its meaning?
“But where is Khalil?” Omar had asked, fearful that the mission would be aborted in Khalil’s absence. He had clutched the cell phone tightly as he spoke.
“We don’t know. Don’t ask so many questions. His whereabouts don’t concern you.” The voice coming across the line was deliberate, but empty.
“Are things still going forward as planned? Who fills his role?” Again Omar searched, no, grasped. He heard desperation in his own voice. His concern outweighed shame. His mission must go forward.
“Don’t ask, brother. Leave Khalil in Allah’s hands.” The voice was quiet enough that Omar could hear his own breathe.
“What do I do? Do I keep building the bombs?” Again, Omar pushed on.
“Brother, no more questions.” The voice was loud and clear now as it spoke. “Why would anything change? Your role is the same. I will call you again.”
“Wait! Am I in charge now? Do I take orders from you?” And who are you? Omar didn’t want the voice to hang up the line. He needed more information.
“Allah be with you. I will call you again. Keep working until then.” The voice was gone after the final word fell. The information was finished, until the phone rang again. It sat now on his night table, perched a few feet away from Omar’s hands. Silent. He would just wait.
Omar now worked his fingers into the girl’s pubic hairs. She moved only slightly in response as her sleep continued. He began to massage her open. Not much else to do. At least he could enjoy himself as he waited for the phone to ring.
The wall didn’t move. Why should it move? It was, after all, a wall. Still, Khalil couldn’t help but try to will it away. If only his God would dissolve matter into gas, making the barrier before him disappear in a puff of smoke.
But that wasn’t going to happen. Allah was watching him – giving him the opportunity to prove his piety and devotion to the ummah. Khalil would have to find his own way out.
Yet behind that wall lay a world – in which he now didn’t have a part. He was the one that had dissipated into thin air.
Worse, Khalil was bored. Just plain bored.
The malady was familiar. His life had been full of boredom and waiting. The life of a fighter was all about killing time. Attacks had to be flawless and so Khalil had mastered the art of counting perfected it until it took on the sanctity of his prayers, organic as his heartbeat.
Waiting on a hill for the Russians to reach the booby traps, rigged with explosives and lethal. The cadences of each movement, figuring out how long a man would take to reach the perfect spot. How Khalil loved the hills and valleys of Afghanistan. The sharp sun had cast dark shadows on the uneven landscape. It was the perfect place to fight and win a guerrilla war. The perfect starting place for his personal jihad.
Now there was no reason to count. He was just sitting – with no end in sight. Instead of counting he read. Figures had turned into words, flowing as he tried to immerse himself in fictional worlds to forget his miserable cell. We each choose the reality of our own creation.
After all, Khalil’s daily existence contained little of interest – nothing like that created in a vibrant imagination. His influences were so limited here – how he longed for a computer. The books were falling flat – too inactive. At one point Khalil had yearned to be a scholar. That was long ago. He had chosen the life of a fighter instead. Mere pages of paper couldn’t hold him anymore. He couldn’t stop moving; like a shark, he would die if he did.
Khalil hadn’t fought in the mountains for a long time. Small spaces no longer signified safety but rather stagnation. In battle you appreciate breathing even if your hiding place is no bigger than a coffin. Khalil didn’t fight in gutters anymore. He had escaped to the safe pastures beyond the battlefield where older man plotted. He felt stifled in this cell with its lack of any breeze.
So he was stuck with books. Khalil had perused the prison’s makeshift library. The list of reading material was hopeless. He wasn’t searching for escape from the travails of day-to-day life in the west. He didn’t care about aging or how the culture was changing. Nor did he want to read about dinosaurs being bio-engineered. No, he wanted real ideas, eternal ideas to ponder at night, when his eyes refused to shut. His life now was but empty time. An eternal space, expanding with each passing day. Had life stopped?
The room around him remained the same. Spare, rigid, dead. The metal of the furniture didn’t even gleam in the harsh daylight sun.
With a sigh of disgust Khalil picked up a spy novel – juvenile in its lack of intrigue. The hero’s life was less dangerous and exciting than his own. This was the best escape from his dungeon?
And why did the villains in these American books always seem to smile when they killed? Killing wasn’t about passion or enjoyment. It was an act of war and a victory. With any kill came the risk of your own death. No kill was ever completely clean.
The emotions involved were more complex than simple enjoyment why else would some men get so addicted to it. First came the exhilaration of adrenaline as you won the battle and killed your adversary. That was always followed by more complex emotions, clouding your victory. Initially, perhaps apprehension or fear would set in. Questioning or shame was also a possibility. But ultimately man could justify anything – even a kill. For none of us is truly innocent, are we? Sometimes death is the only option. And for a man of faith death wasn’t the important thing – rather what mattered was being aligned with Allah. Life on earth is short.
Khalil sighed deeply. He couldn’t breath. Was it the lack of air in the stifling room or his emotions? But why would thinking of death bring the latter? Hadn’t he gotten past such complications long ago?
What wouldn’t he give for just one honest gust of wind?
Khalil and George had been discussing London in excruciating detail for two hours. George prided himself on his skill at relentless questioning – never pushing too hard, always searching for inconsistencies. It was a process that wore a prisoner down. Ultimately, the prisoners were adrift. The breakdown of resistance was inevitable. They were too alone, without any support system or exposure to reality. Anyone so isolated couldn’t keep a mental grip.
Khalil was smarter and stronger than most. But even he could only take so many days of this – if it was done right. George always did it right. Well, not every day, of course, he was human. But overall.
“You crossed the street, then bent over to pick up a piece of paper. What did it say again?” George asked.
“I didn’t read it. I threw it into the trash bin.” Khalil replied.
“The bobby said he saw you reading it. That was why he stopped you.” When would Khalil come clean?
“Maybe I glanced at it – to see if it was important and had some form of identification on it,” Khalil said.
“I thought you didn’t read it.” George pushed. “What did it say? If you checked then you must know.”
“I don’t remember.” Khalil didn’t flinch.
“Think harder. I can’t believe you because you lied about not reading it.” George stayed on the offensive as he spoke.
Khalil raised his hands, in mock defeat. “I didn’t lie. It was a stupid piece of paper. I just don’t remember it.”
“Well, it lead to your arrest. You didn’t throw it away, you put it in your pocket.”
“Where was it then? They arrested me and took everything.” Khalil said.
“That’s why it’s doubly suspicious. The paper disappeared. You must have managed to drop it without being seen.”
Khalil looked exasperated.
“George, I don’t remember.” Bluffing, still.
“It was some sort of organizational communication.” George said. “It’s why you turned up in London all of a sudden.”
“This is ridiculous. I don’t remember.” Khalil replied. The sunlight streaming in the room was a muted pastel.
If Khalil really didn’t answer his line of inquiry, then George knew his guess was right.
“A bomb, Khalil. Is that what it was about?” George put his pen down as he spoke.
“What do you know about bombs?” Khalil’s voice had turned ugly. “How many times have bombs rained down on your shoulders? Why is a bomb worse than any other way of dying? How many did your government bomb in Afghanistan or Iraq? One million Iraqi children dead from your American sanctions. It is you who murder the world’s innocents, not me. We have a proverb, ‘She found comfort in accusing me of her own illness.’”
George shifted his weight as he prepared to hear another monologue.
“Still, some people do deserve to die,” Khalil continued, his earnestness evident, his eyes round and wild. Better to let Khalil burn himself out. He might be more pliable tired. “I would rather cleanse the world of the impure with bombs than see them converted to your civilization’s corrupt lifestyle. Allah be praised for the martyrs your government has created. Especially the children.” Khalil stopped, watching for the effect of his words. George must have known it was just another typical terrorist rant. Fanatics all spoke like shamans when they didn’t want to answer a question.
Yet it wasn’t meaningless to George. The martyrs we have created.
He stared over Khalil’s shoulder, not seeing the block of wall behind him. Iraq. George had been driving with some soldiers in Baghdad. The roads were notoriously dangerous – car bombs, suicide bombers, gunfire. But a helicopter could be worse. All just different ways to die. George was needed at a different facility and the soldiers were his escorts. The day was warm and dust settled around them. Heat permeated everything. No cooling mountains hovered in the distance – no place to run and hide. George had been petrified. He was no soldier, and questioned daily his decision to be a part of war, any war. The hostility was evident as he passed them by on the road. Burnt out buildings added to his unease, as did the knowledge that guns were pervasive – even if he didn’t always see them.
They had stopped to use the toilets at a small store beside a cluster of date palms. The owner was friendly, and made his premises available to American soldiers. Not all merchants were so welcoming. As George was gulped a warm Coke, purchased at an exorbitant price, a small boy ambled up to him.
“American?” The boy smiled. He looked about five, when a slight lankiness starts to replace baby fat. He grasped a ball in one of his hands. Soft dark curls fell into his eyes. His shorts were tattered.
“Why, yes. What’s your name?” George said.
The answer had been in Arabic, a language for which George had demonstrated no skill. He pointed to himself. “George.” Then he pointed to the boy.
“Mustafa.” The boy held out his hand to shake. “Nice to meet you.” He pronounced the words slowly, enunciating each syllable. They had obviously been carefully memorized since his English seemed limited to a few basic phrases. So common among children in the third world.
As George shook the boys small hand he noticed wonder in the melting dark brown eyes. The boy broke away from George with a throaty chuckle and ran away to rejoin his friends. As he kicked his ball a car drove by and blew up. Debris flew everywhere. George was knocked to the ground. A large section of the car’s body landed only a few feet away from him. The almost impossibly loud blast had been followed by silence. Then the screams started. The boy was gone.
George decided to leave Iraq. He probably should have seen a trauma counselor. He knew that better than anyone. The war was over for him.
Khalil saw the shift in George’s face. The man’s mind was no longer present. Emotional trauma – it looked the same anywhere. Khalil was unsure which of his words had so shaken his interrogator. He had spoken the standard rhetoric – stuff George must have heard many times before.
George had ceased conversation. Very bad protocol for an interrogator – unless that was his strategy. Some men found silence unnerving. Khalil wasn’t one of them.
He continued to watch George. That was what he did – watch and wait.
Time to go in for the kill. Always go after the weak man; while you had the chance. Control, once established, wasn’t relinquished so easily.
“Too many memories clouding your mind, George? The wounded and maimed, haunting you when you sleep?” Khalil smiled, slowly, watching for George’s reaction. He didn’t expect much, but that didn’t matter a bit.
George smiled back, his face empty and hollow. In the fluorescent lighting each line on his face was visible and his complexion showed the sun spots around the lines. George didn’t move. Wait, Khalil reminded himself. We are all vulnerable, somewhere. George had just opened up his own emptiness.
“No answer, George?” Khalil said, turning George’s strategy of attack back on him. “You scared?”
“Don’t try it, Khalil,” George said, as he shifted. “I can leave.” The last statement was little more than a whisper.
“Of course,” Khalil replied, with a smile. He already knew his victory wouldn’t be complete. George was smart enough to shut down and follow through on his threat to leave. But Khalil had gained something. And he wanted George to know it.
Blood. Sticky, red and seeping. The age old question from Macbeth – once you had blood on your hands could you ever wash it off?
George accelerated too fast onto 280. He ignored the trees and hills around him. They were all just more background noise at this point. He had driven this freeway too many times to see any of the surroundings.
Perhaps he should read Macbeth. Why hadn’t he ever read it? His wife could probably recite lines from it. In her sleep. Except that she actually slept when her head hit the pillow. No blood on her hands.
Why can’t we be good? George was killing himself trying to be good. He soldiered on, probing, pursuing, toughing it out. Nothing macho about his job. It was just a grind.
What was Karen teaching now? Every year her seminar classes would change. How come he never asked her about them? She was probably writing a paper on it. Or them. Perhaps even a book. Why hadn’t she written a book yet? Didn’t professors have to write books to keep their jobs?
Why didn’t she ever tell him any of this?
A red Volvo barreled into his lane. He slammed on the brakes but decided not to swerve. “So much for Volvo drivers being concerned about safety.” He said, but only his leather seats heard. Where was the guy headed in such a hurry? None of us really got anywhere anyway.
The red car accelerated. Its color was vivid against the grey road. George’s eyes easily followed its path as it drove off into the distance. The color of blood.
Khalil had blood on his hands. Speckled throughout his soul as well. Just a guess – not that such a leap took much faith. What about himself? George had never hit a prisoner. He had never held a gun. Unless, of course, he counted the guns the guards around him had toted over the years.
A bomb here or there; that he had seen. But they were always the enemies’ bombs. Well, not really. How to differentiate when he watched wounded men being wheeled into various camps? Was he guilty by association?
George turned onto his exit and slowed. The light at the bottom of the hill was red.
What kept him awake were memories of men he had known or merely questioned, now dead or missing. They didn’t fade, forming a YouTube panoply of film clips playing eternally in his mind. The past could both protect and damn at the same time, couldn’t it?
Much as George liked to pretend that his own hands were clean, he had shouldered his share of messes. Torture, threats, and the borderline behaviors in between. All had happened on his watch, hidden just below the surface.
The Iraqi boy had blown up. Had George’s presence, drinking a warm Coke on a dusty Baghdad road, pulled that child onto the bombs path?
The light changed. George was free to pull away, to escape. But he wasn’t having much luck doing so, was he? His car sped up as he pressed his foot onto the accelerator. His mind wasn’t keeping pace. George turned onto Stanford Drive. It was little road, lined by the university on one side and modest homes on the other. It didn’t fit the promise of the name.
Khalil had rattled him. The interrogation wasn’t going anywhere. George wasn’t living up to his own expectations. Adding one last prisoner was a joke. No matter how hard he tried to run George was stuck.
And the joke of it all was his own safety. He tormented the prisoners, just as he tortured himself, freeing no one in the process. They went to jail, he went home to bed. And Karen had to live with him. Except she had escaped into her lectures and books.
George turned onto his street. His house was there, white, at the end of the cul du sac. Where it had always been, and where it would be tomorrow. No bombs fell from the skies in Palo Alto. No car bombs drove up and exploded. At least not yet.
So how was he to escape?
Omar walked into the store. It was a normal convenience store: discordantly colored with too much bright light. The counter was to the left of the door. Right beyond the counter was an area with hot prepared food and cold drinks – for those really in a hurry. He ambled in slowly, whispering his prayers. For him, there was no hurry.
Omar felt hot, though the discomfort was self induced. He was shrouded in a baggy sweatshirt even though the late summer’s sun beat down mercilessly in the clear blue sky.
A man walked up to the counter. As he did so he passed Omar and their gazes met. The man’s eyes were a deep blue, tinged with purple. The color of flowers. Probably similar to the flowers that would shortly be placed on his grave.
“Allahu Akbar.” Omar whispered. Then he pulled at the cord that detonated the bomb meticulously strapped to his waist.
Seemingly off in the distance he heard a loud bang. He could feel the muscles of his body being pulled from the bones supporting them. His flesh singed as it was ripped off. His head catapulted toward the ceiling.
Debris was flying everywhere. Something fell with a loud thud. The screams had not yet begun.
Omar thrashed in his bed. The woman next to him stirred.
“Omar, what are you doing? I am trying to sleep.” He heard annoyance in her voice.
“Stupid whore, shut your mouth.”
Omar yanked himself out of the bed and stormed through darkness into his living room. He hadn’t given the woman time to respond, though he could hear her tearing through the bed covers in the room he had vacated. It had been just a dream. His time had not yet come.
He kneeled on the floor and began to pray. The words rolled off his tongue. The woman yelled at him and stormed out the door, but he didn’t allow her to interfere with his concentration. When would he get the glory he so desired? The victory he so deserved?
Khalil washed his hands in the sink. The water came out at his bidding – preparing him for what was to come. It purified him, as commanded by the Koran. When water was not available a believer could use sand, or dirt. “Allah is benign and forgiving.”
He smeared water on his forehead, then his temples. The water felt cleansing. Its coolness was purely symbolic, but he clung to that as any lonely man will cling to his familiar rituals.
He had no prayer beads. His fingers tingled at their lack, as they would for a missing limb long after it has been severed. “Allahu Akbar.” He mouthed silently 34 times. Then, “Subhan il’aha, God is pure,” followed 33 times. “Hamd-u-lilah, praise be to God,” was last, muttered 33 times. His hands and forehead fell to the ground beneath him. They found a solid foundation upon which to rest his fears and worries.
Tension was being released from somewhere deep inside his limbs. All the stress in his body flowed out of him, as the water had flowed from its chrome fixtures.
He remained kneeling for many minutes. Since his incarceration memories had escaped from wherever he had trapped them. How much we forget. How much pain we deny, slipping instead into a state of invulnerability – both artificial and fragile. He was being carried back in time, as the desert winds blow the sand. Khalil always felt strong in the desert – as if the scorching sun could nourish him.
Khalil hesitated, loath to leave his trance. This ritual provided comfort, allowing him to set his fate squarely in Allah’s hands. What a childlike wish, really. In a world of so little control how wonderful to have an eternal force safeguarding his passage.
When would the bomb go off? One, two, three, four, five… How many would die?
George put the pack of Marlboros on the cracked tabletop. Marlboro Reds, the third-world favorite. Islam condemned smoking but – as with suicide bombs – a great number of Muslims had managed to ignore the relevant and forbidding chapters of the Koran. Something about defiling the body, if he remembered correctly. George studied the slim, ever-guarded man in front of him. Was it his imagination or did he see Khalil’s right eye twitch? Note that. That twitch could mean emotion, even desire.
“Cigarette?” George’s tone was curious. But he knew Khalil craved cigarettes, when he could get them. Time for a refill.
“Yes.” Khalil’s chocolate eyes gazed directly back at him, almost unafraid, but with a slight question. This stage of the interrogation was still about building trust, bringing back the need all human beings have – to bond with another.
George held out the pack of cigarettes and watched as Khalil took one. He then took one himself. He had stopped smoking long ago, only to start again to create trust with his prisoners. Pulling out a lighter he lit both cigarettes. Khalil inhaled deeply as he took a puff.
“Tell me about the day your brother died.”
The man’s eyes immediately went to a spot of dirt on the ceiling. Yes, thought George, it is always the same spot, his defense mechanism. Then the man took another puff of his Marlboro and looked at George. He began to speak, his voice soft and strangely nuanced for someone so otherwise emotionless.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I want to hear about it. Please, give me the details.” George said as he inhaled, feeling smoke fill his chest. He enjoyed the rush… much to his chagrin.
Khalil shook his head. “It was too long ago.”
“Khalil, I need your cooperation if I’m to help you get released. Please.” George kept his voice non-threatening. Khalil must learn to trust him. He tried not to shift in his chair. The room had to be tranquil – more conducive to building trust.
Khalil watched George’s face for a moment and then began speaking. “It was a hot day. Oppressively so. I woke early to the mezzuin’s call. I went to the mosque for prayer during the early morning darkness. I always said my prayers. It was the one thing I did for my mother, who was a pious woman then. My brother slept, as usual.
“Later, we shared a breakfast, some tea and bread. We were very poor, and seldom had much more.”
Khalil stopped. His cigarette had been burning in his hand. His eyes lingered on it. Were they sad, or merely reflective? George just watched. He inhaled on his own cigarette again. How quickly he had developed a taste for the harsh and acrid smoke. The small room was already getting hazy.
“Go on. What happened next?” George asked.
“I was late coming from school. I had been discussing a Koranic passage with a teacher. We disagreed.”
Khalil faltered. His eyes went to the ceiling. Like pulling nails, thought George. He suppressed his impatience.
“Go on.” George’s voice was soft, comforting. Khalil was bundled up in his orange.
“I let him down, I was supposed to be there. I should have died too. It was only my religious questioning that saved me. Allah saved me, but in being saved I let my brother down, he was murdered, and I held him as he died.”
George breathed, almost. The smoky air had him imagining ghosts. Melancholy had settled in as oxygen became scarce. He spoke. “How did you feel when your brother, his name was….”
Khalil stood up, hastily, angrily, yet with a certain grace. He walked away, not getting far in the confining jail cell.
George looked down at the cracked table. His notepad was carelessly lying at an angle before him. The page was blank. Sometimes he hated this job. He visualized his own sibling, a younger sister. He recalled her smoldering smile and the sarcastic glint in her eyes. Could he imagine her lifeless in his arms? The pain of those who started out with so little yet lost so much. This cold and bitter man was just a person, nothing more. George could almost feel his pain. Almost, but not quite.
Indeed, George was no longer conscious of the cell. Indeed, he pictured his wife and children. Then he tried to imagine them dead and covered with blood. He couldn’t do it – the image faltered before it formed.
Bringing himself back to the present, George told himself that Khalil was a murderer. His mission in life was to kill innocent people, loved people. A voice rang out. George lifted his eyes. Khalil’s face was red.
“Don’t mention his name. You have no right.”
Taking a deep breath George asked his question. It had all been leading up to this. “Would you like a picture of your brother?”
As George could have predicted, Khalil’s eyes shot up to the ceiling. That spot. He spoke, though his utterance was more of a choke, from somewhere deep inside his throat. “Yes.”
Khalil turned away. George stubbed out his cigarette in the silver ashtray he had brought. He removed a photograph from his manila folder and left it next to the cigarettes and matches. The lighter stayed in his pocket.
George then stood up and headed for the door, without looking back. He was disgusted with himself – but his job was too important to allow for weakness. The weak get destroyed.
“Lock it up,” he said to the guard as he headed home. He would get nothing more here today.
The boy in the picture, his best friend. Familiar, but also not so familiar anymore. Hassan, his older brother. A shattered dream of the future they could have had.
The boy was so young. A child. The picture had been taken four months before his body was riddled with bullets and left to bleed under a hot sun. Hassan had been alive when Khalil reached him – only moments after the soldiers had fired on the protesting boys. Khalil had cradled his body, still warm. Hassan’s blood had flowed on to Khalil’s legs, soaking his trousers. It was the first time Khalil had felt life leave someone’s body. The heartbeat surrendering to silence. It hadn’t been the last.
Hassan had lived only a few minutes after Khalil reached him; it could have been a lifetime. He had never spoken, staring instead into Khalil’s face, never able to fully focus his own eyes. Khalil had willed Allah to save his beloved brother. In his youth and weakness had he believed that he could ask for such an intervention? Later his imam explained that Hassan was blessed for having died a martyr. The holy man had urged Khalil to tread the same path.
Eleven boys had died, some still grasping the rocks meant for the soldiers. Another boy had become an idiot, his brain having been irreparably damaged by his one immature mistake and a reckless bullet. Youthful rebellion was not tolerated in Algeria.
Khalil had left behind the body of his cousin, Josef.
Hassan he carried home, struggling under the great weight. Khalil had known then that Allah had helped bear the weight of his older brother’s lifeless body. It had still been limp as he carried it through the oppressively hot streets, sweat pouring down his back. But the body’s warmth dissipated rapidly, even under the burning sun. A sweltering breeze had blown sand into Khalil’s eyes as he walked. But he hadn’t bothered to clear his vision, stumbling instead on the familiar path home.
Upon his arrival at their small hut the horrible wails of his mother had greeted him. Such cries were common in their neighborhood. No matter how much misery someone faced, the loss of a child was always a crushing blow. For what else of value did these mothers have?
The boy in the picture continued to stare unblinking at Khalil. His lips were turned up at the corners, yet no teeth showed. Khalil had forgotten his brother’s mischievous smile. Who would have believed such a fun-loving boy would have picked the path of Islam and jihad? Khalil had followed him, as he always had, from his own first toddling steps. Khalil had chosen jihad partly to avenge the death, a little bit out of faith, and mainly because it was what the other boys were doing.
How many of those boys were dead now? The life of an Islamist wasn’t very long in Algeria during the years that followed. And the killing hadn’t stopped yet. Presumably there must be fewer people to kill – especially when factoring the mass migration out of the desert to the various metropolises of Europe. Or did the high birth rate just provide a cattle farm to slake the bloodthirsty warriors?
Well, Khalil wasn’t fighting that battle any longer. He had moved on to a bigger fight, as was Allah’s will.
“Hassan, would you be dead now anyway?” Khalil whispered, talking only to himself. “You wouldn’t have been smart or discreet enough to survive, would you?”
Khalil propped the picture up on the little table next to his bed. He used a murder mystery to support the delicate image. Blasphemous, of course. Islam didn’t allow for human images such as this one. But Allah, in his mercy, had provided this picture so Khalil would treasure it, as he could no longer treasure his brother, the martyr.
Omar could hear the laughter ringing in his ears.
“Raghead.” The snickers more than audible as a crowd took up the cry. They were all men, of course. Jealous of Omar. Jealous of his success with women. To feel the creamy flesh against you as you jammed your cock inside the willing body. Screaming in ecstasy. That he could do, and these boys were jealous.
Omar felt very much like the exotic. Pocahontas meeting the queen of England. He wasn’t at home in this place, ever. And it was the men who made him realize how alien he was.
Switzerland had been the same. Boarding school had been a frigid place. The country itself had been cold, the people pale and insipid. Not at all welcoming to a boy who had never even left his hometown before. But the cries of “Raghead” or “Arab” had been the same as those called out in this warmer place. Only the language and accent had differed.
“Omar, scored lately?”
“Omar, what is the price of oil?”
“Raghead, got any bombs under that shirt?” Infidels. If only they knew. What else did a chemistry student understand if not science? And weren’t bombs or poisons science, just simple science?
The classroom echoed with the voices of students. Young men and even women spoke in tones that projected excitement. And insolence. Who in that classroom had visited another world, where people starved to be heard? Their knowledge of other-world countries came from aid telethons with their pompous and parsimonious celebrities, full of drugs and decadence.
The teacher entered the classroom. Omar felt a rush. What would his lesson be? Would he learn a new concoction of chemicals? Would he unfold the combination that would create a bang to be heard around the world? His body trembled. This was why he had been sent here, Allah be praised. To learn how to serve, as Allah witnessed his devotion.
“Omar, you raghead, what sort of bomb can you build for us today?’
“If only they knew, he whispered it under his breath again. Someday they would lie mangled, their flesh ripped from its bones.
He saw a flash of red, an unnatural color that flowed in waves around its owner’s shoulder. The girl. He didn’t know her name, at least not yet. But he did know her hair and it fascinated him. What chemicals did she use to turn it that color? Certainly she wasn’t born with hair that gleamed so brightly.
He gazed down at the seats pyramiding below. She was a sea of color in an otherwise drab world. Why did only the dullest of students in the United States choose to be chemists? Didn’t these Americans understand the beauty of watching substances mix? Didn’t they want to see what happened when you mixed water with oil?
“Omar, what futures should I be buying? Expect turmoil in the Gulf regions?”
Always they mocked him. The strength of being on top. How long did any one stay on top? Omar whispered his prayers as he imagined UCLA blowing up. Could he persuade his superiors to detonate on campus? Did he have to? If he planned a strike correctly could anyone stop him?
The red hair flashed in the light again. He could feel his cock run through the thickness of the strands. He would have to learn her name. Girls liked you to know their names.
George moved groggily toward his bathroom. At least he thought he was heading in the right direction. “Ouch.” As his foot hit a table he knew that he was off course. Rubbing his eyes he questioned why he taken his contacts out the night before.
Reaching the bathroom George closed the door behind him. He was tempted to lock it, but if Karen came looking for him she would get suspicious. They never locked the door to the bathroom. He didn’t want her to realize that he was avoiding her.
“Oh Jesus, I want a cigarette”. The words escaped his lips before he realized what he was saying. Smoking, that disgusting addiction. The fog of sleep still hadn’t lifted. One more night of sleeplessness. Would the rush of nicotine help? Would anything?
The boy. He could still see the boy’s face in the picture, Khalil’s brother. A child. He had been just a child when he was gunned down. Younger than George’s own son. The thought made him sick.
The boy reminded him of a young man he had met while doing interrogations in Iraq. The boy had been picked up with his father, a farmer and accused gunrunner. As with Khalil’s brother, the boy’s smile had tilted precipitously, without showing a hint of teeth.
Initially, with his father in the room, the boy had been full of bluster and bravado. Yet, he had quickly deteriorated into tears and hysteria during his first interrogation – or so the interrogator had told George.
In the end, the father and son had been innocent. They had been released, free to return to their miserable farm, traumatized.
Boys pretending to be men. Not fully aware of the harm the world held for them.
George turned on the shower. Karen had exited it not long ago, so hot water burst out immediately. As the stream of water hit his body he imagined it rinsing away his thoughts, freeing him from a guilt and sadness he couldn’t fully explain. He willed the boy’s eyes to disappear.
George recalled the echoes of a conversation he had the night before with his boss, Tom Campbell.
“We are hearing chatter about Los Angeles again.” Campbell said. “Remember, Khalil had only one number programmed into his cell phone when he was caught. It was a now defunct and frustratingly untraceable one in Los Angeles.”
“What kind of chatter?” George replied.
“That information is classified.” Campbell’s tone was dead, cold as anything Khalil could probably muster. Heat had risen in George’s chest at that moment. It was oddly similar to the feeling from the hot water – the sign of a generally heightened anxiety level.
“How am I supposed to probe about Los Angeles when all of the related information tying Khalil to whatever related chatter is classified?”
“Sorry. Really, I am. Shoot over a memo explaining why you need the data and I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, get what information you can.”
Had there been a point to arguing? At that moment George couldn’t think of one. The insanity of it all. Instead, he had concentrated his energy on not throwing the phone out the window. Now, he wished he could wash the day down the drain. It hadn’t even really started yet. And, he wasn’t going to talk about Los Angeles. He was going to do the interrogation his way. Especially if no one would give him access to classified information on his prisoner.