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Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

BAGHDAD, IRAQ

Dina Westbrook hated the place. From the moment the door of the C-130 had opened two days before and the first wave of diesel-smelling air to now, there was nothing good about this place. Not even the intel she had come here to collect.

Scholars called this region the Cradle of Civilization. To the forty-four-year-old senior agent with ICE, Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency—and to many of the military personnel who had served here, whose worldview no one ever asked—a different c word applied: the cesspool of civilization. That was not a reflection on the people but on the inhospitable terrain, fly-infested humidity with deep sandstorms the color of rust, streets often filled with bomb-sprayed blood and torn flesh that clung to the cobbles and asphalt, their odors baked in by the sun, and hatreds that dated back more than a thousand years.

It was not just a hothouse. It was a madhouse.

She knew she should be grateful that she was here in December and not July when the heat would have felt like rippling waves from a barbecue pit. However, her temporary office, in the section of the Green Zone fortress left to the CIA by departing embassy employees, was only a few hundred yards from the impossibly polluted Tigris River. Even with temperatures in the sixties, she was still being plagued by mosquitoes. The insects didn’t keep twilight hours like their American counterparts. The air was quieter during the day and better for flight. The undersized bugs squeezed through the screens and tried to mass hungrily around her face and hands. She could only close the windows for a half hour before a dankness she detested turned the air of the room to soup. She slapped at a bug in the bangs of her short-cropped blond hair, then watched it fly giddily away.

There had been two days of waiting around, confined to the Green Zone because of security concerns. She’d refused to watch DVDs she could see back home. She was unwilling to talk to the remaining embassy personnel and other agents who could not tell her what they were doing any more than she could tell them why she was here. Two days of cursing the interrogations skill set and intuition that had made her reputation. She had almost completely transitioned to working on the American side of ICE’s international counternarcotics operations, but her track record still ensured several trips per year to pits like this. Two days of looking online to see what type of work she might find in the private sector when she got back home. Two days of increasing claustrophobia.

Now, at last, Dina had permission to see the detainee she had come to Baghdad to interrogate. It was red tape that had held her up. The Iraqi Special Operations Forces had brought the man in. Their umbrella organization was the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service. However, the Service still had not been approved by the Iraqi parliament after years of attempts, so whenever the Service had a major find of international significance to report, the question of whom to report it to had to be debated all over again. The Iraqis had become increasingly disinclined to share information with the Americans because of, according to the CIA’s suspicions, a drip-feed infiltration of the Iraqi military by Al Qaeda. Their old enemy was newly reorganized in Iraq and loaded up with weapons filched from the Syrian conflict on the northwest border.

However, the CIA had allies in the Service, too, and Dina was about to benefit from them.

The door to Dina’s office opened and two Iraqi soldiers entered with the man she had come to see. A translator entered behind them.

The detainee was an adult, unlike so many of the prisoners she had seen in this area of the world. Most of them had been boys still in their teens convinced that they were in the process of earning their manhoods. This prisoner was about forty but Dina knew better than to assume the age of his character matched the age of his body. He was an Iraqi, short-bearded and dressed in an orange jumpsuit. He was handcuffed in front with a chain that connected to a leather waistband. That, in turn, dropped a chain to ankle bracelets. The Red Cross had decided that the front-cuffing with two connected pieces was the most comfortable for captives. Dina had no opinion about that. She didn’t think the man’s scowling expression would have been changed by anything except a sackcloth over the head.

That’s not politically correct, she cautioned herself. But that was what the new Iraq did to her. The sense of impending failure with this country they had fought so hard to make safe and decent, now rolling back to the same old ways—guns, drugs, and jihads—it stripped her of her training and left only her instincts. And her instincts were leading her away from anything that looked, sounded, or smelled “humane.” She wished there were a U.S. military Moses who would emerge to smite the enemy and lead all these kids to the Land of Milk and Honey, once and for all time.

The man allowed himself to be placed in the chair in front of her desk. His dark eyes fixed on her pale, fair, blue-eyed face. The soldiers stood at ease on either side of him. The translator sat in a chair to the man’s right, between him and the door.

There was a laptop open in front of Dina. She touched a button but did not break eye contact with the captive.

“You were captured driving a truck full of opium,” she said, “on Highway 6 to Basra. Tell me about it.”

When the translator finished the man just sat there, still staring.

Dina swung the computer around. “This is your settlement in the marshes near Amara, seen from a drone,” she said. “We know there are opium stores. We know the enclave of five huts is yours. We know your wife and sons are home. You will cooperate or the buildings and the bales of drugs will vanish.” She exploded her hands, fingers splaying.

The man didn’t need the translator. He started talking.

Dina knew that the wetlands near Amara, about thirty miles from the border with Iran, had once been the home of the Marsh Arabs, a society largely ignored or reviled by mainstream Iraqis, especially because of tales of Persian blood in their veins. Having long sus-ected the quiet people of harboring insurgents, in the 1990s the Iraqi government burned the marshes and drained the water in an explicit effort to drive out the Marsh Arabs. It worked. They were scattered across Iraq, some into Iran, and the environment was devastated.

The Americans, arriving in 2003, decided to do the right thing and restore the valuable wetlands to their former state. The reeds grew high again, boatmen resumed paddling on the waterways, and the old tradition of building huts and houses from the reeds was revived. However, recently it had become apparent that only a small percentage of the new populace were members of the original Marsh Arabs. The others were taking advantage of the wetlands that were impossible to police, the border with Iran, the roads to Basra, and the poorly watched ports on the Persian Gulf, to do some highly lucrative business.

He was not trafficking the drugs, the detainee said, and he had no contact with anyone in Iran. He was storing the opium for the agent of someone who had connections in the Iranian plateau. He did not know who the men were or how they worked.

Dina studied him. The dominant stare was important and it belonged to her ice-blue eyes, not to him. She did not break it.

“I want you to take two of our people to the supply,” she said.

The man stiffened, then spoke through the translator: “If I do that, I and my family will be killed.”

“If you do not, the drugs will be destroyed. Now.” She leaned forward slightly. “Unless you have a name of a contact that I can verify, right now. I’m going to be using this computer for something.”

As the translator spoke the man seemed to deflate within his jumpsuit. He asked for water. One of the soldiers held a small plastic bottle with a straw for him. The large bottles could be used as clubs and a glass could be used to inflict wounds. Any bottle, overturned, could damage the computer. Hence, the straw.

The detainee thanked the woman. If he was hoping to gain her sympathy he was wrong. The opium trade helped to fund the Iranian government as well as Al Qaeda. It paid for weapons and it involved cartels that transported those weapons along with the drugs.

“I only know the man who comes to my home,” he said. “The agent.”

“Is he Iraqi or Iranian?”

“He is from Ferdows,” the man replied.

That was a relatively populous city in the Iranian plateau.

“He comes across the border how?” Dina asked.

“I do not know,” the man said. “I meet him on the road, Road 13, near the border. He drives a truck.”

“And you bring him to your boat.”

“Yes, we unload the opium to my boat. Three days later I drive to Basra. I only drive opium. No weapons, no people, opium only.”

Dina noted the extra information.

“Describe his truck, the exact meeting place, and when it is due,” she said. She turned the laptop around and put her fingers over the keyboard.

“Please,” the man said—in English.

Dina grinned. “Don’t worry. I won’t touch the ‘attack’ button by mistake.”

The man appeared thoughtful, then shook his head vigorously. “If I tell you what you want, they will do unspeakable things to my family.”

“Amazing.” Dina’s expression hardened. “These people will torture your wife and children . . . but you hate us.”

“You are kaafir,” he replied without hesitation. Disbelievers. It was better to read the Koran and kill other readers of the Koran than to accept help from Christians. This world was mad.

“I understand your concern, and these monsters will not know you’ve told me anything,” Dina assured him, focusing on the task at hand. “The drug traffic will not be stopped and the personnel who run it will not be assaulted. We wish to watch them, nothing more.”

“ ‘Watch,’ ” he said dubiously. “Like an eagle eyes a field mouse.”

“No,” Dina said. “Like a nation that doesn’t want weapons of mass destruction on its shores.”

That was true. The route was all that mattered, a route that might one day ferry nuclear materials or biotoxins to the United States, regardless of this pawn’s fervent faith that no weapons were ever transported.

The man took a sip from the water bottle. His mouth was twisted, his expression pinched. His eyes said, If I had poison, I would rather take it than help you.

“Make your choice,” Dina said.

“It is a green MAZ dump truck,” he said. “The driver is named Abda Larijani.”

The translator confirmed the spelling and Dina typed the information into the computer. MAZ was the Minsk Automobile Plant, where Russia had produced heavy road vehicles for decades.

“When is the next pickup?” she asked.

He hesitated again. “How will you do your ‘watching’?”

“I’m not free to discuss that,” she replied. “Your drones . . . are not silent. He will know.”

“The driver will know nothing,” she said. “This will never be traced to you. Whether you believe it or not, we don’t want anything bad to happen to your family.” He nodded toward the laptop. “Is that why you were ready to kill them?”

“We don’t want anything to happen to our families, either.”

The man seemed to accept that. “He comes the night after tomorrow. Shortly after sunset.”

The man described the drop site and Dina sent the information to the 134th Cavalry Reconnaissance and Surveillance Squadron of the Nebraska Army National Guard. They were in charge of RSTA—reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition—for this particular mission. They would have “tail-running” surveillance on the ground by jeep, out of sight from the truck. The truck would also be tracked by satellite. Stops, contacts, and routes would be carefully marked. The truck and everyone who had any contact with it would join the Active Target Surveillance program at the National Reconnaissance Office, meaning there would be eyes and ears on everyone 24/7 until the full reach and activities of the smuggling system were understood. The route would not be obliterated until they picked up a weapon of mass destruction or a component thereof. Squashing them now would only send the surviving players elsewhere.

Dina swung the laptop around so the detainee could see it again. She pressed a button and a green sign that said ENDED flashed across the image. The surveillance went down. The prisoner did not seem relaxed; he had, after all, just ratted out a deadly ally. But he had averted what he thought was a more immediate danger. It wasn’t, of course. Dina never had any control over the drone. It had been sent there to coerce their guest, nothing more.

Dina told the man he would be released after his information had been confirmed. She followed that with several minutes of silence while she stared at him. The man, at first relieved to know the worst was over, began to exhibit signs of renewed anxiety. Still some water left in this bottle, Dina thought. Just need to put the straw in the right place.

“No weapons?” she asked.

He was adamant that never had he transported or seen any weapons, aside from the machine gun that of course the driver must carry for self-defense.

“And no people,” she said. “No, no, no, no,” he stated.

She leaned forward. “I think you have been transporting terrorists,” she said.

“No, I have not!”

“It’s not possible that no people should ever take advantage of this route,” she said. “I think we will have to keep you until we hear the truth.”

She stood as if to leave.

The man howled. She had a flash of sympathy for him. He was now in a position of trying to prove what could not be proven.

“Only one man,” the detainee cried out. “From Iran?” she asked.

“Yes, from Iran, he was a doctor, one week ago. I drove him to Basra, that is all I know.”

She recognized the look of a broken man. She knew he had given her all he had. Her intuition was satisfied. She ordered the soldiers to lead him away.

Alone, Dina exhaled. Only now she realized how much she had perspired, how uncomfortable she truly was, how tense that session had been. She never doubted that she would get the information she wanted; now that she had it, though, she could relax. She alerted Homeland Security’s Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement about any Iranian doctors who might be involved in the opium trade; they would get the message to all other agencies. Then she shut down her laptop, planning on finding a shower and some anti-itch ointment. The phone on the desk pinged. Two seconds and she would have been out the door. She sighed and picked it up. It was Lt. Gen. Alan Sutter, commander of the American army units that were conducting, so they said, training missions in Iraq. It wasn’t his aide or a lower-ranking officer, but the lieutenant general himself.

“Ma’am, since we have the good fortune of entertaining you here a little longer, might we trouble you with one more matter?”

They sure were polite when they wanted to skip protocol and ask a favor of Homeland Security.

But before she could decide whether to wiggle out of it, he said, “We’ve picked up an American soldier who’s been lost in Iraq for sixteen years.”