THE INTERROGATOR, PART ONE
"This is a detention facility?" Staff Sergeant, Samuel Smith inquired, as the armored vehicle in which he'd been riding pulled up outside a small, square office building. The 38-year old marine had been expecting Abu Ghraib.
"For obvious reasons, we prefer anonymity." Captain Josh Maynard led the sergeant into the building.
"Who's got my squad?" Sam had been pulled off street patrol, told he was being reassigned, no explanations, no chance to pick up his things, just, bang, hustled into a vehicle and whisked off.
He looked around at white walls, red carpet, paint-by-number pictures of mountains and lakes, office on either side of the entrance. Didn't look like any detention facility he'd ever heard about.
"Your squad's fine."
"So why am I here? I do something wrong?"
"No." Maynard, a solid, six foot three, with blunt, graying hair, smooth cheeks, deep-set gray eyes gestured to a door on the far side of the entrance. "One of my interrogators has been furloughed out, family situation, and I'm shorthanded at a time when the capture rate's up. I asked for someone who's been on the streets and knows which end's up. You were recommended; fifteen-year marine veteran, honorable record, good head on his shoulders."
"I don't know anything about interrogation."
The captain opened the door and Sam stepped into a dimly lit corridor lined on either side by small, barred cells containing by men in orange jumpsuits, all shackled, hands in front, a length of chain trailing from their wrists to the shackles around their ankles. Some crouched, silent, some bowed, forehead resting on the cement floor, a few squatted on their cots, rocking back and forth.
"Al Quaida?" Sam asked.
Maynard shrugged. "Jihadists of one kind or another."
Their booted feet tapped the ground in unison as they walked the length of the corridor. Sam counted upwards of thirty prisoners.
Approaching the end of the corridor, he became aware of a peculiar, rhythmic pulsing coming through a heavy door recessed into the far wall, like the distant throbbing of a car stereo turned up full blast.
Maynard halted outside the door, handing Sam a pair of dark glasses. "You'll need them, Sergeant." He jammed a pair on himself before opening the door.
Sam recoiled as an inferno of blazing light and demented sound assailed him, a stereo, turned up, full volume, blaring like a herd of outraged elephants, filling the small space with the thunder of hard-driven drums, screeching guitars, roaring voices.
Sam hung in the doorway, reluctant to expose his ear-drums to those hurled nails of sound. Light flooded the room, so white and piercing, it stabbed his eyeballs even through the dark glasses.
He saw a figure in the center of the room, a man, naked, chained to a piece of railing, arms pulled back, spine flexed, legs likewise, stretched and chained apart, a bush of thick hair inside which the man's genitals seemed to shrink as if in protest at the assault of noise and light. Sam observed protruding ribs, caved-in belly, jutting hip bones.
Reaching overhead, Maynard snapped off the stereo and in the resounding silence, Sam heard the prisoner muttering to himself. Not being an Arabic speaker, he couldn't tell if the detainee gave thanks, offered up curses, or simply finished off a prayer.
"He looks half-starved," Sam murmured to Maynard. He knew questions were raised about the kind of tactics used in secret detention facilities like this one, but he hadn't heard anything about prisoners being denied food.
Maynard ran his eyes over the skeletal shape on the railing. "No need to whisper, Sergeant. He doesn't speak English. We haven't had him long enough to fatten him up. He's been too busy trying to figure out ways to kill us to be bothered with anything as ordinary as eating regularly." He shook his head, as if detecting Sam's unease. "All prisoners here get three meals a day, prepared in accordance with their religious requirements. We may push them, but we're not barbarians."
A spotlight fixed on the wall across from the prisoner sent a blinding beam straight into his face. Sam doubted, even closed, the man's eyelids gave him much protection against that penetrating glare.
He saw thick, curved eye-lashes and took a closer look. "Jesus," he exclaimed. "It's a kid."
"Says he's twenty-one."
Sam would have guessed eighteen or nineteen, the face of a boy, skin stretched taut over narrow cheek-bones. Sweat beaded the prisoner's forehead, trickling down into his ear. His body trembled against the restraining chains.
"How long's he been chained up like that?" Sam asked, trying to imagine what it would be like to have that searching light stab its vicious way into his eyes, that hellacious noise beat relentlessly on his ears.
"Jesus."Sam began to sweat himself and his lunch of ham sandwich and chocolate chip cookie threatened to come back on him. Ten fucking hours in that nightmare.
Maynard flipped the stereo back on and Sam saw the young man grimace as a roar of guitars stormed out into the tiny room.
He followed Maynard back along the corridor, grateful for the cool and quiet. Behind him, through the heavy, padded door, Sam could feel those drums battering on the detainee's unprotected senses.
Maynard brought Sam into one of the offices by the front door, indicating he should take the chair on the side of the desk. The captain opened a drawer, lifted out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, held up one of the glasses.
Sam nodded. He could use a drink to settle his curdling stomach. He hadn't been prepared for what he'd just seen. While Maynard poured a measure of whiskey, Sam fished out a handkerchief from his jacket and dabbed it on his forehead.
Maynard set the glass of whiskey in front of Sam. "We do what we have to do, Sergeant. No one wants this. We're Americans. We don't go in for this kind of thing."
"He's just a kid," Sam insisted, taking a hefty swallow of whiskey, letting it burn its way down into his gut where it settled into a spreading pool of warmth. He wondered if anyone offered the boy in that room any comfort.
Maynard leaned over the desk. "That boy may look harmless, but he'd think nothing of blowing himself up in the middle of a crowd of women and children, just to make a point, and he wouldn't hesitate to hack off your head. Don't let his age fool you, Sergeant. He's lethal as a stepped-on rattlesnake."
He sipped his whiskey. "We'll give him a break shortly. If he talks, we'll shut down the music, switch off the light, he can clean himself up, get dressed, sleep on a cot with a pillow and a blanket. If he refuses to tell us what we want to know, he'll go back for another ten hours, and another after that, and another after that."
"I can't say I care for it. I thought we were better than this, sir?"
Maynard's tone turned soothing. "I know this is hard when you first come to it. It's hard on all of us at first. You want to do the decent thing but you have to realize they're not soldiers you meet on a battlefield, man to man. There's no honor to these people. They're killers. Period. They'll kill you any way they can; front, back, sideways, standing, walking, sleeping, makes no difference to them."
Maynard leaned further over the table towards Sam "You have a wife and kids, don't you, sergeant?"
Sam nodded; wife, Martha, kids - Sara, Adam, Eleanor; all loyal Americans, proud to let people know their old man was a marine. He hadn't done too badly for a kid with no prospects from a two-dime town in Vermont.
"Well, imagine what that boy would do if he got his hands on your wife and kids," Maynard went on. "Or maybe your family goes out to a park one Sunday afternoon and some fanatic blows himself up. You can't cut terrorists any slack, because they, sure as hell, won't cut us any."
"I didn't think marines were involved."
Maynard's eyes narrowed. "In interrogation, you mean?"
That hadn't been the word Sam had been going to use. What he'd remembered was his astonished pride the day he'd marched onto the field with his graduating class to the applause of his parents and friends, Martha holding up Sara to get a good look at her Daddy; a United States' Marine in dress uniform.
He'd never had any problem following the code, conducting himself at all times with pride and honor. Adam and Eleanor were born.. He went up for staff sergeant. And made it. Life was good. All changed in the blink of an eye one heinous September morning.
It had been hard to say good-bye to Martha and the kids, but he never doubted for one second, WMD or not, Saddam Hussein had to go. Sam believed in Homeland Security and the Patriot Act. They were needed to keep the country safe from terrorists and suicide bombers, who were willing to blow themselves up among ordinary people out doing ordinary things like buying groceries. Where the hell kind of honor was in that?
"We're not human to them." Maynard seemed to have an uncanny knack for picking up Sam's unspoken thoughts. "We're vermin, to be wiped off the face of the earth. To protect ourselves, we squeeze them for information when we catch them, within the limits of the Geneva Conventions, of course."
Sam stared down into the golden depths of his remaining whiskey. "What I saw back there - that's allowed?"
"Yes, it is." Maynard didn't hesitate. "He's not going to give up anything unless we make things unpleasant for him. We're simply letting him know we mean business."
Sam closed his eyes, picturing the prisoner in the cell amid all that light and screaming noise. Would he end up calling for his Momma? Would he curse the Americans who tormented him? Did he pray, or did he pass the time planning revenge, assuming thought possible in the midst of that din?
Maybe he didn't give a shit. Maybe he told himself the big, stupid Americans could do what they liked to him. They were the enemy and they'd get nothing out of him. That's what he'd have told himself under similar circumstances. "What do you want from me, sir?"
"I've been told you're a good soldier, more importantly, that you're an honest patriot. We can't have doubters here. There's no room for Charlie Browns. We need good, firm men who may not like some of the things they have to do but are willing to put aside personal considerations for the good of their country."
"It's not exactly what I became a marine for, sir."
Maynard's expression turned rueful. "None of us did."
"The kid's a suicide bomber, you say?"
"What else do they want him for? He's nothing but cannon fodder to them. We saved his life by capturing him but now he needs to tell us what he knows; names, places, plans."
Sam had been so proud standing in that field in his uniform. "I suppose I have to trust you guys know what you're doing."
"We all have to trust that. This is a new kind of enemy. We're simply trying to adapt." Maynard downed the last of his whiskey and stood up. "All right, let's go see if he's ready to talk."
The interrogation room, tucked into the back of the building, was a narrow, cinderblock affair, bare, except for a long metal table and four metal chairs.
Two tall marines brought in the still naked prisoner, each gripping an arm, half lifting him off the ground, as he hobbled along in his ankle chains.
They plonked him down in one of the chairs, placed his shackled hands on the table in front of him.
"Corporals Wheeler and Farrell," Maynard introduced. "This is Staff Sergeant Smith. He'll be taking Messini's place."
"Sir," the two corporals chorused in Sam's direction
Maynard produced a can of soda, which the detainee grabbed and popped open as if he'd been popping soda cans all his life. Sam watched the kid's Adam's apple bob up and down as he gulped the contents. He eyed Sam over the raised can, and Sam could see him wondering who he was and why he was there. Sam gave him a quick smile to let him know he hadn't come with cattle prods and barbed whips.
While the prisoner sucked on the can, an Iraqi translator entered and took the seat next to him. The detainee glanced at him, then away. He apparently knew exactly who he was.
"OK," Maynard announced. "Let's get started. I want the names of the people who trained him and I want to know where they trained him."
The translator spoke, quietly and the prisoner shrugged, lifting the empty can to his lips again.
Maynard stood up and slapped the can out of the shackled hands, sending it careening across the table, where it fell to the floor with a hollow clack. "Who trained him?"
The translator spoke again, more insistently but, still, the prisoner remained silent, eyes on the table in front of him.
Maynard nodded to Wheeler, who reached down, grasped the prisoner's wrists and yanked his arms over his head.
The detainee cried out. "Aieee."
Wheeler dropped the manacled wrists back onto the table, and resumed his attitude of passive attention.
"Shoulder joints get a bit sensitive after being flexed for so long," Maynard said, apparently feeling the need to explain to Sam the reason for the maneuver.
Sam's stomach clenched, along with the prisoner's fists. He bit back a protest as Wheeler wrenched up the detainee's arms again. The boy cried out again.
Sam longed to leave, to lunge from the room, slam the door behind him, and run, run outside into the beating sun, where people walked and talked and looked up into the sky, where marine patrols rolled up and down the streets, the privates and corporals saluting him as they passed, where he could get a cold beer and take a shit and where, oh, please God, he could call Martha, hear her quiet, steady voice, the kids yammering in the background.
For the first time since Sam came to Iraq, he wanted to go home, America The Beautiful, land of the free. He wanted it to be six o'clock on a Friday afternoon, so he could park the Saturn in the driveway, hear its friendly beep as he pressed the remote door lock, head for the kitchen where he'd find Martha making dinner, fourteen-year old Sarah at the table, scribbling on a piece of paper, an ipod clamped in her ears, twelve-year old Adam crowded on the other side, head bent over an open book, and eight-year old Eleanor busy writing.
"I have to write I will not talk out in class twenty times." His chatty, always in trouble, completely adorable youngest daughter.
He'd drop a kiss on Martha's cheek and she'd buss him back, all the while scrubbing carrots. "Could you help Adam with his algebra. I don't understand any of it. Sarah, take that thing out of your ears. I can hear it from over here. Ellie, no ice-cream if you don't finish that before dinner."
"I hate writing."
"Well, then, don't talk out in class."
"It's not my fault Mrs. Coulter always calls on stupid Chrissy Walker."
Sam had been married fifteen years and he felt the same way about his wife he had the day they married. She took care of the kids, put up with him, made ends meet on his marine pay and, thank you God, still liked sex with him, whenever they got the chance, with three kids, always one of them in crisis.
Sam came back to the interrogation room in time to hear the prisoner gasp as Wheeler pulled up his arms a third time.
He'd had enough. "For Christ's sake," he exclaimed, glaring at Wheeler but addressing the prisoner. "You want another ten hours of this?"
The translator murmured and the young man's thick eyelashes swept upwards, the brown eyes pleading with Sam, who nodded, urging the prisoner to for God sake end it. With an abruptness that took them all by surprise, the boy lowered his forehead onto his hands and sobbed, hoarse, wrenching, choking sobs.
Sam's mind flashed to his son. Dear God, this could be Adam in a few years. He reached out and laid a hand on the shackled wrist. The touch seemed to galvanize the prisoner. He lifted his glistening face, jerked his wrist away, and began to talk.
Silence descended on the room except for the sound of the low, stumbling voice, the whisper of the translator's ballpoint pen as it raced over the notepad, and Maynard's staccato demands for clarification.
When Maynard indicated he was satisfied, Wheeler and Farrell took the prisoner away for a shower, clean clothes, a hot meal, a quiet, darkened cell where he could sleep.
"Good job, Sergeant."
"I didn't do anything." Sam had no desire to win praise for sending a desperate kid over the edge. Where was the honor in that?
"You read the mood of the prisoner. Good instincts are what makes an interrogator effective. I'll grind them up for you. Your job will be to get them to spit it out."
That evening, after inspection, Maynard allowed Sam to use the office phone to call home.
Sam's fingers shook as he punched in the number. Please, let her be home, he begged the silent, stoic God of his Fathers. Please.
"Martha?" Her name burst from him in a relieved yelp.
"Sam?" Through the hissing and crackling on the line, he heard the worry in her tone.
"I'm fine. I'm fine. How are you, sweetheart?"
"I'm OK, but I miss you. Everybody misses you."
He pictured her face at the other end of the phone; round cheeks, sand-colored eyebrows, blue eyes - sapphire blue his father had described them after Sam first brought her home - curved lips, always ready to receive his kisses.
"God, Martha, it's so good to hear your voice. Kids OK?"
"They're fine. Sarah's got a boyfriend."
"What? She's fourteen years old. She can't have a boyfriend. I'll kill the little bastard, whoever he is."
Sam first woke up to Martha Corey in their junior year in high school, wondering why he'd never noticed her gorgeous blue eyes before, the curve of her waist, her long, shapely legs but, naturally, being the loser he was, Sam may as well have been invisible. Even after all these years, he couldn't stand to look at his picture in the yearbook; bland face, tidy hair, clean shirt and tie. He didn't play football, had never gone out for drama or performed on a musical instrument, had no idea what to do with his life, except end up working himself into an early heart attack like his old man, trying to make a small gas station and convenience store pay the bills.
Shortly after the funeral, his mother heard him refer to his father as a loser and turned on him. "Your father wanted to be a marine but they wouldn't take him because of a heart murmur. That's why he wanted you to be one, to stand tall and proud and serve your country instead of working twelve seven in some godforsaken hole of a gas station, only you're too busy goofing off with Dougie Johnson and Larry Phelps to bother getting good enough grades, so now who's the loser?"
She'd been right, of course. Not that it made any difference, since Martha dated Ron Lassiter, linebacker for the school football team, a big, handsome guy all shoulders and jaw. When Sam noticed Martha's attitude to Ron change from flirtatious to possessive, he guessed Ron had got her in the back of his Buick.
Well, OK, he could live with that, but then Ron dumped her for blonde, busty Susan Peters. Watching the lights go out in those sapphire eyes, Sam became totally pissed off. He couldn't have said why. It wasn't as if he and Martha had a thing going, but he wanted her to know she wasn't a piece of garbage, good only for Ron Lassiter to use then throw away.
He remembered his old man saying marines didn't back down from a fight, no matter the nature of the enemy. It was a matter of honor.
After chewing on it for a while, Sam decided he was willing to take a beating to make the point for Martha. He lay in wait for Ron after football practice. The fight was brief and bloody, with Sam ending up on his back, lip split, one eye swollen shut, head throbbing from Ron's fisted slam but, he, Samuel going-nowhere-loser Smith, had put Ron mister-athletic-b+ average-get-any-girl-he-wanted Lassiter, on his knees, doubled over and retching from a wrecking ball of a fist in the gut.
Martha called him. "I hear you went after Ron. Was that because of me?"
Sam felt strong and decent, and answered her, firmly, "I went after him because he's a punk. I saw what he did to you."
"Well, I just wanted to say thank you."
"You're very welcome."
God, he sounded so full of himself, like beating up Ron Lassiter was all in day's work, except her soft voice on the phone sent his insides running all over the place like hot syrup.
"I know I've been sort of a jerk to you, Sam, but I wondered if you'd like to go for pizza Friday?"
Sam thought about their first kiss, the first time they made love, on a blanket under a star-filled sky by Lake Pasamaquaddy. He'd have done anything for Martha, put down a dozen Ron Lassiters to protect her. She was the one forced him to face his long-discarded dream of becoming a United States' Marine, and pushed him to get the grades to go for it.
He couldn't say any of this to her over the phone, with the line hissing and spitting like an angry cat. Nor could he tell her about the prisoner, with his long eyelashes, his gasps of pain, his pleading eyes. He needed to hear his wife tell him it was all right, absolutely, no question, because he sure as hell wasn't convinced.
He needed Martha in his arms, away from chains and bright light and screaming rock music and pain and fear and broken men.
Instead, he said good-by, I love you, and hung up, empty and unsatisfied.
He took that unsatisfied emptiness into the interrogation room as he questioned a parade of baffled men across that metal table. They varied in age from boyhood to forties, the latter old enough to know better, Maynard groused, the former too young.
Gradually, Sam stopped wondering who they were, where they came from, what kind of families they'd left behind. He focused on getting them to give it up, using a mix of implacable determination, bogus threats, relentless nagging, confiding wheedling.