Moshe Ben-Ari usually liked Damascus. The nightlife was interesting, the food was good, pretty girls were plentiful and bombs were scarce – relatively speaking – the crowds, especially in the souks, provided excellent cover for a variety of activities, and the Syrian security forces were so inept (again, relatively speaking) that it was comparatively easy to operate there.
He couldn’t figure out what he’d done wrong this time, but Damascus was no longer on his list of favorite places – assuming that he was still in Damascus, that is, or even anywhere near it. Not that it truly mattered. He wouldn’t be keeping the list much longer, after all. For a katsa – a Mossad operative – the knowledge was part of everyday life: espionage was punishable by death, usually by hanging, if you weren’t simply shot out of hand. It could get worse than that, of course. Much worse.
It hadn’t been too bad so far, but then, he’d only been a prisoner for a day – he thought. He was pretty sure it was only a day. And for most of the last several hours, he’d had the feeling that he wasn’t much of a priority. That surprised him.
To be a katsa was to be overlooked – when things went well. Things had gone disastrously wrong; that’s why he was here in this stuffy, cramped, airless cell, God knew where, his cuffed wrists looped over a hook in the wall out of his reach, his hands and arms long since gone numb with the incessant strain of the unnatural position.
The future, what there was left of it, had to be regarded with fatalistic pessimism. The present was best ignored. But it was odd, in the circumstances, to feel ignored in turn. Once you were caught, you weren’t supposed to be overlooked. Something must be distracting them . . . whoever ‘they’ were. Moshe hadn’t been able to figure that out yet.
There was a scraping of approaching footsteps in the corridor outside the cell; someone was coming, several large and noisy someones by the sound of it. A key turned in a heavy lock. Moshe let his head sag to the side and pretended to be unconscious, watching through barely slitted eyes as the door swung open, admitting a draft of slightly less fetid air.
Two men entered, dragging a third between them, the long form of a tall man who sprawled, limp and unconscious, as they hauled him over to another wall of the cell and hung his cuffed wrists on another hook. The guards wore the same nondescript not-quite-uniform as Moshe’s captors, leaving him still frustrated in his inability to identify his opponents properly.
The cell door crashed shut, the key scraped in the lock again, and the steps receded into silence. Moshe opened both eyes and studied his new companion, wondering if the man was a colleague, a plant, or a distraction. Possibly the distraction that had taken the enemy’s attention off of Moshe for most of the day, in which case, he owed the man his thanks . . . not that they were in any position for thanks to amount to much.
The sight wasn’t promising.
Probably an American. By his clothes, an American tourist, God help him. He wore khaki cargo pants, scuffed athletic shoes, and a short-sleeved shirt of a painfully brilliant shade of blue. Long sandy hair hung down over his closed eyes. The shirt was torn and dirty, and the hair was matted with blood; from what Moshe could see of the man’s face, he’d been worked over thoroughly. So, nobody really likes American tourists. But still.
It did give Moshe another thin piece of information on their captors: the Syrian government, hungry for tourist dollars, didn’t approve of snatching American tourists off the streets. Far better to let them run loose, so that the fine Syrian people could best pursue the common goal of separating the tourists from their dollars as rapidly and thoroughly as possible. Beatings were frowned on, and chaining folks up in airless cells wasn’t at all popular.
So whoever it was, it probably wasn’t the Syrians, not officially at least. That only left a few hundred possibilities, all of them worse.
Sometimes, all you could do was try to keep things from getting worse. They’d get worse anyway, but no sense in just letting it all happen.
“Hey, friend!” Moshe called out urgently in English, hoping that he’d guessed the nationality right. “Wake up!”
Moshe’s new companion began to stir, letting out a dull moan. His eyes fluttered, but didn’t open.
“Wake up, for God’s sake! You’re not going to like waking up, I promise you – but if you don’t get your feet up under you, your hands will be dead meat before you know it.”
The man winced, opened dark eyes made hazy with pain and confusion, looked at Moshe without comprehension. He flinched, and then winced again; with all the damage to his face, the grimace must have hurt. He tried to shift his weight and cried out in pain, his body swinging from his dangling arms. No wonder: Moshe could see blood oozing at the edges of the cuffs. Pressure cuts, and no surprise, with the American’s full weight on them.
“That’s it, keep trying,” he urged. “Get your feet under you. It’ll help. Don’t give up, whatever you do. Gangrene smells awful in this heat, trust me.”
Incredibly, the man’s glazed eyes focused on him, and the bleeding lips curled into a crooked attempt at a smile. “Can’t have that . . . ” the reply was a gasp, and the accent was unmistakably American. So were the teeth.
So was the stubbornness. Moshe watched with astonishment as his companion tried to pull his feet up, failed, then gritted his teeth, grabbed hold of the looped chain on his handcuffs, and bodily hauled himself up until he could get his legs under him. His chest and arm muscles stood out sharply and he gasped with the effort. Finally he was standing, swaying, steadying himself with the chain, the weight finally off the lacerated wrists. He flexed his fingers and winced again.
“Thanks,” he said at last. “You’re right. They almost feel like dead meat already.”
“Well, the rest of you already looks like hamburger,” Moshe observed. “Whatever you did to piss them off, it must have been good.” He paused, waiting to see if the American would volunteer any information, then continued. “I shouldn’t say I’m glad to meet you, since we’re both in trouble, but what the hell, I’m glad to meet you. I’m Moshe.”
“And how are you enjoying your visit to historic Damascus?”
The veil of confusion descended again briefly. “Damascus? This isn’t Damascus. Not unless – no, I’m sure I wasn’t out cold long enough for that . . . ”
“Huh.” Moshe frowned. “My error, perhaps. Where do you think we are?”
Moshe let his head fall back against the hard stone wall. “Oy. Oh, merciful God, take me now. Baalbek?” He winced melodramatically. “You’re sure?”
“Well, that’s where I was when they snatched me.”
“Forgive me if this seems less than hospitable, but what the hell were you doing in Baalbek? They don’t like American tourists there, you know. They don’t much like anyone there, except Hezbollah. God help us. That must be who’s got us.”
“Probably.” MacGyver was blinking, looking around, his stance becoming steadier and his gaze growing clearer. “As for why I was there – I’m not a tourist. I’m with the Phoenix Foundation. UNESCO wanted to send in observers to see if the ruins had taken any more damage during the last few years since it was listed as a World Heritage site.”
“So who’d you piss off, that you should draw such a short straw?”
“Nobody. I volunteered.”
“God help you.”
“That’d be nice if we could manage it . . . I think there’s something about helpin’ yourself, though.” MacGyver was looking around the cell, peering into the corners as best as he could. There was little light in the cell; the daylight that leaked in through chinks and cracks, and oozed under the door, was beginning to shift to orange as the day waned. It would be night soon, although the stuffy cell was unlikely to grow any less uncomfortable with the drop in temperature.
“Not much here . . . ” he muttered.
“What, you were expecting luxury accommodations?”
“Well, no,” Mac replied absently. After a few minutes, he looked back at Moshe’s expression and added, with a shade of annoyance, “Y’know, they say humor’s a cultural thing – but whatever you’ve got that you’re finding funny right now, I’d be glad to share the joke.”
Moshe tried to shrug, drawing a sharp protest from his cramped shoulders. “Just something I remembered – a foolish cartoon drawing – I saw it, oh, many years ago. I had forgotten it. There were these two men – raggedy, bearded prisoners, you know the type – hanging from chains in a cell. Very like this one. And one man says to the other, ‘Now here’s my plan . . . ’ ” Moshe shrugged again. “Not really very funny.”
MacGyver grinned, a frank, undaunted smile that belied the bloody gashes on his face. “Oh, I don’t know about that. It depends on who the joke’s on in the end.”
“So why did they grab you? Come to that, why’d they half kill you? I didn’t think the CIA had any operatives in Baalbek – ”
“I’m not with the CIA. I told you. I work for the Phoenix Foundation. The problem is, I used to be with the DXS a few years back, and I’m pretty sure they know that.” MacGyver had been twisting his head, peering up at his manacled wrists and the hook in the wall above them. He stretched out his fingers as far as he could, standing on tiptoe, only just managing to brush the hook with his fingertips.
“I already tried that,” Moshe remarked.
“Anything you haven’t tried?” Mac grunted, still intent on his hands.
“Yeah, sure. Anything that works.” Moshe studied the other man’s battered face. “DXS, eh? I have to say, I don’t think they’re buying the idea that you’re an innocent civilian.”
“Well, they mighta been put off by the whole bomb business.”
Moshe gave an exasperated sigh. “A wise man would not ask, but I never claimed to be wise. What bomb business?”
“Somebody planted a bomb in the lobby of the Hotel Palmyra in Baalbek. The local DXS ops chief called me in to defuse it. It’s not much of a hotel, but it seemed better to take the bomb apart before it messed anything up.”
Moshe stared. “You’re a civilian, you say, and the DXS – the DXS! – called you in on bomb squad duty?”
It was Mac’s turn to shrug. “I was in the area.” He had swung himself around so that he was facing the wall, and he began to twist the cuff on his right wrist, turning it around and around. He held the chain that led from the other cuff steady with the fingers of his left hand, frowning upwards as he worked. Moshe felt the back of his neck prickle as he realized what MacGyver was doing.
With each turn of the cuff, the chain was wrapping around itself, the links jamming together, gradually becoming semi-rigid. At the same time, the chain was shortening, and Mac had less slack with which to work. Moshe held his breath, waiting to find out if the American would run out of room before he could manage to get free, leaving himself hanging even more painfully. Mac was already gritting his teeth as the tightening cuffs dug into the raw skin of his scraped wrists.
The fingers of MacGyver’s right hand delicately eased the unsteady column of the twisted chain upwards; in the hot, breathless air of the cell, even the dust motes seemed to pause as he carefully lifted the looped chain free from the hook. With a heavy whuff of exhaled breath, he let his hands fall in front of him, still cuffed together, wincing as the stressed muscles of his shoulders howled their protest.
Moshe barely remembered, in his excitement, to keep his voice low. “God be praised, you did it! You did it, my friend!”
“Yeah.” The tall American crossed the cell in a few strides and freed Moshe’s wrists from their hook, catching the man as he slumped to the floor.
“Sorry about that . . . my legs . . . I’ve been standing there for hours. Speaking of dead meat.” Moshe set his teeth against the prickles of fire that began to run through his hands and arms and legs.
“So what’s your story?” MacGyver eased him down into a sitting position.
“How’d you end up hanging from the wall of a Hezbollah hidey-hole when you thought you were in Damascus? Why’d they grab you?”
The stone floor was dusty, but cool. Cooler, anyway. “I should know what makes a gang of terrorists do anything?”
MacGyver gave him a long look, touched with disappointment. “Okaaaay.” He stood up again and walked over to the heavy door, examining it closely. “Maybe they think you’re Mossad?”
By God, the man was persistent. “Would I admit it if I was? Even to you? Nothing against you, Yank.”
Moshe let his head rest against the wall. The cell swam in front of his eyes. Through the fog, he watched dully as the American returned to the wall where he’d been left dangling, pulled something from a trouser pocket and began to work on the hook. After a few minutes, a screech of metal on stone announced success, and the hook fell out of the wall into MacGyver’s hand.
“What the hell have you got there?”
Mac held up his makeshift prying tool. “They took my pocketknife, but they musta figured this was just a piece of junk.”
Moshe blinked. “That’s a receiver cover from an Uzi. Do you always carry bits of dead Uzis in your pockets? Pity you don’t have the rest of it stashed somewhere.”
For the first time, something hard and opaque shuttered closed behind the honest, open American face. “Good thing I don’t.” MacGyver returned to the door and bent over the lock, delicately fishing through the keyhole with the hook. After a moment, he dug another piece of metal out of his pockets and set to work again. Moshe squinted; it was the selector lever, presumably from the same Uzi. Former Uzi.
“You’re sure you don’t have the other pieces handy? Up your sleeve, perhaps?”
Mac ignored the question; he was biting his tongue as he probed the locking mechanism. After a moment, he asked, “If we get out of this cell, we’ll still need to get outta Dodge. You got any contacts in Baalbek?”
“Don’t you have contacts? I thought you said UNESCO sent you. And it seems to me the DXS owes you a favor, not to mention the owners of the Hotel Palmyra.”
“Yeah, but a little help on your side would be nice. Aren’t there any local sayanim?”
Moshe’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
MacGyver stopped working on the lock, straightened up, and turned fiercely towards his cellmate. “Aw, c’mon, Moshe, would you let it go already? Secrecy’s got its place, and this is not the place! Mossad has civilian volunteers on tap all over the planet – you can’t expect me to believe there aren’t any sayanim at all in Baalbek. We’re gonna need some help if we’re gonna get out of this mess in one piece.”
Moshe studiously examined his feet in their dusty shoes. After a long, silent moment, he heard the clink of MacGyver’s manacles as the American resumed his hopeless tinkering with the lock. Moshe wiggled his reviving fingers and eased the cuffs on his own wrists, trying to find a patch of skin that would burn less under the weight of the intractable metal. He wondered how much adrenaline MacGyver must be riding, to be able to ignore his injuries like that.
When he heard the unmistakable sound of the unlocked door creaking open, he lifted his head and stared in confusion. He hadn’t heard footsteps approaching, but surely the mad American hadn’t actually managed to pick the lock with a handful of scrap metal . . .
MacGyver was cautiously peering out into the corridor. He pulled his head back and looked at Moshe. “You comin’?”