Two dead in a terrorist attack on the Second National Bank in Atlanta, a vicious mayoral re-election and puzzling intervention by the Ku Klux Klan, complicates British counter-terrorism expert Dr Marcus Denning's solemn dance of death with Abu Almussab, Denning's one-time torturer in Beirut. And both are being watched by a nameless man in the black Lincoln whose motivation is unknowable. Nicholas Clough's taut, twisting thriller takes a headlong dive behind the mask of respectability and down into the depths of ferocity and deception.
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About the Author
Nicholas J. Clough worked as a DJ and a chef before becoming a criminal defence lawyer. He is the author of A Safe Place to Kill and Wish Him Dead.
Read an Excerpt
In the Company of Strangers
By Nicholas J. Clough
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2014 Nicholas J. Clough
All rights reserved.
He was late the morning they took him hostage.
They had people observing him for three days. It was in their city and they knew every half lit alley, dark corner and rat run. They silently watched him from the shadows of deep doorways and behind tinted car windows.
He didn't receive his wake-up call and he left the hotel in a rush. Still, with his experience, he should have seen the signs. The man on the mobile phone in the corner of the crowded lobby whose eyes followed him all the way to the front door. That morning his driver didn't turn up, for the first time since he had arrived in Beirut. The hotel doorman spread his hands in apology and told him that there were no cabs available. He cursed himself for the decision a thousand times later, but he decided to walk the half mile to the office.
He was walking quickly and after five hundred yards, as he turned from a busy main road into a side street, he noticed half a dozen men repairing the pavement. But none of them seemed to be working and three of them were looking directly at him. A van was standing at the kerb with the side door wide open and the engine running. That was when he knew. He turned quickly to escape, but it was too late. The world went dark as a man behind him dropped a hood over his head. Denning lashed out, kicking backwards with his right foot and heard the man scream as the heel of his shoe caught him on the kneecap, shattering it. But as other hands took hold of him, he was lifted off the floor and thrown through the door into the van. The heavy landing onto the metal floor winded him and before he could recover he felt the point of a needle being pushed into his neck and he descended into a floating, silent world of blackness.
He came to slowly, his eyes still shut as he felt an aching pain in his left shoulder, and he remembered the impact when they had thrown him into the van. He reached to rub it with his right hand, but the movement stopped in mid-air. He opened his eyes and looked around him.
He was sitting in a small, square, windowless room with plain unpainted brick walls and a concrete floor. The only light in the room came from a single bulb, housed in a small steel cage, in the centre of the ceiling. He was sitting on the floor and on both his wrists were manacles, attached to chains that were bolted into the wall behind him. He was naked. He pulled gently at the chains, testing the strength of the links and the bolts. Neither gave an inch.
The sound of the chains attracted attention. The metal cover of a spy hole in the centre of the steel door to the room swung open, and an eyeball observed him for several seconds before the cover swung shut again.
About ten minutes later, the door opened and the two men came into the room. They were dressed in green fatigues and carried baseball bats. They checked the manacles and the chains and then they stood over him, looking menacing but saying nothing. One of them gave Denning an almost casual kick to his side before they walked out and closed the door. Then the light went off, plunging the room into total darkness.
Denning sat in the blackness and thought about what would happen next. There was only one reason they had kidnapped him: they wanted information. They would persuade him to talk by any means, from bribery to torture. He had only two weapons to defend himself. He had a high pain threshold and he had lectured in methods of torture, so he knew, in every painful detail, what was coming.
It started with disorientation. At random, the light was turned off for hours, then for only a few minutes. Hot or cold air was pumped into the cell, so it was either boiling hot or freezing cold. His meals were brought to him, sometimes two within an hour, other times he went for over 24 hours without food. After, he guessed five days, came the sleep deprivation. The light shone constantly and every time he closed his eyes, the guards came into the cell to beat and kick him until he opened them.
He estimated it was four days later when they changed tactics. He couldn't be sure, the cell had no windows and they had taken his watch, but it would be the usual routine and these men, although they were brutal, were unimaginative. He had watched the guards when they came into the cell. There were six of them, they always appeared in pairs, probably working round the clock in eight hour shifts. He used the change of their shifts as a primitive clock and had started to recognize their different personalities. Most of them were unemotional, silent men, but one stood out. He was a big man but with the soft, trusting brown eyes of a baby deer. Although he was large, it was not the hard-muscled body of a man who pumped iron and there was a gentleness in the way he moved. Of all the guards, he was the one who came nearest to smiling and when he hit or kicked him awake, Denning could feel that his heart wasn't in it. The seeds of an escape plan began to germinate in Denning's mind. First, he would have to get this man away from the other guard. Working out how to do that would not be easy as his brain, deprived of sleep, was not thinking clearly.
Then it all changed again. Denning knew what was about to happen as soon as he saw him. He came into the cell behind the guards dressed like them, in green fatigues, but his were better quality and neatly pressed, like an officer's uniform.
He was a small man, well below average height, but there was an intensity about him that instilled fear. His dark hair was long but neatly cut and he wore a clipped military moustache. He had no distinguishing features except a scar, as straight as if the blade that made it had cut down the side of a ruler, that ran from the corner of his left eye to his jaw line. He stood in the doorway, silently watching Denning, for two minutes. Then he casually strolled to the centre of the room.
'You are Marcus Denning. You were educated at Oxford and Harvard and you have a PhD in criminology. You are married with a young daughter. You see, Dr Denning, we know a lot about you.'
His English was flawless and without any accent. Denning guessed that he had been educated in England.
'What do you want?' he asked.
'I just want to talk to you, a casual chat.'
'Then take these shackles off.'
The man nodded to the two guards, who unlocked the manacles while the small man walked out of the room. They dragged Denning to his feet and frogmarched him along the narrow corridor to a well-lit room with a table and two chairs, one on either side of it. The small man was sitting on the chair against the far wall and Denning was pushed onto the other chair. The guards stood either side of him, slightly back and just out of his vision. The other man leaned casually on the table, his arms folded in front of him.
'You asked what I want. You're an intelligent man, you will have guessed that what I need is some information. Let's start with why you are in this city, who came with you and what you have found out so far.'
'Why don't you go screw yourself.'
The man on Denning's right hit him with a savage blow to the side of his head, stunning him and knocking him off the chair. The guards picked him up and roughly pushed him back onto the seat. The expression of the man on the other side of the table was full of sorrow, but the eyes remained cold and watchful.
'You will tell me what I want to know,' he said with a voice so soft that it was menacing, 'and you can either do it now, or the hard and painful way. Do yourself a favour, then we'll give you a good meal and a bed to sleep in. After that we'll think about when to release you.'
Denning knew that once they had their information there would be no meal or bed; his only reward would be a bullet in the back of the head. He looked the man in the eye.
This time the guard on his left hit him. The blow landed just below his ear, fracturing the jaw. As he fell, the guard on the right caught him.
The man got up from the table.
'Take him next door,' he said.
As they dragged Denning into the room, he saw the metal chair and the electrical wires. Without any haste, the two guards strapped him to the chair and pulled on rubber gloves and wellington boots. Then one of them threw a bucket of cold water over him. They were taping the ends of the wires to his chest and genitals when the small man appeared in the doorway.
'Make him talk,' he said and walked out.
The wires were connected to the mains through a rheostat so that they could control the current. Denning concentrated his mind on thoughts of a woodland glade in the spring with dappled sunlight shimmering through a canopy of leaves onto the long green grass, and a softly gurgling stream. They started the current at low and the needle on the rheostat was halfway round the dial before the electric shocks broke through his thoughts. Fifteen minutes later, he was unconscious and they could not wake him. He had screamed a lot but hadn't told them anything. A doctor examined him and said that the next shock would kill him. They took him back to his cell, put the manacles on again and left him.
When he regained his senses Denning remembered, through the haze of pain, that he had told them nothing; he knew that soon one or two men would come into the cell with handguns and shoot him through the head.
What saved his life was their greed. They decided to ask the British for money for his safe return. Once they had the money, as an example to others, they would dump his body in the main square from the back of a speeding pickup truck.
That morning Denning spoke to the big, soft guard and told him that he needed some fresh air. Half an hour later they unlocked his manacles and the big man and another guard, armed with Uzis, took him out to a compound at the back of the building. It was a small, dirt floored compound, maybe 15 meters square, surrounded by thick walls 8 to 10 feet high. He sank to his knees and leaned against the wall of the building. He pretended to close his eyes and let the warmth of the morning sun wash over him. He looked carefully around him through the slit between his eyelids. There was no gate in the walls and, even if he had the strength to sprint, they would cut him down long before he got to any of the perimeter walls.
After ten minutes, the big guard lifted him gently to his feet. Denning smiled at him through cracked lips. The big man smiled shyly back and led him back to his cell. As he was being manacled to the wall, Tarek Antar opened the front door of the building and started to make his way to the Vinar Café. In his shirt pocket was a Pay-As-You-Go mobile phone that had been bought for cash the previous day at one of the big, busy retailers in the city centre.
Antar was a bad choice for the task. All he had to do was call the British Embassy and make a ransom demand. He was to make the call from the back room of the café, then get rid of the phone. It was not a difficult job, but he was a lazy young man. When he got to the café, the air conditioning wasn't working and the back room, as the heat of the day increased, was like a sauna. He decided to sit under the awnings by the road at the front of the café, where a light breeze was blowing. He chose a table a distance away from the others so he would not to be overheard, then he made the call, speaking quickly and softly. When he had finished, he ordered a coffee and enjoyed a cigarette before strolling along the pavement, throwing the phone into the back of a garbage truck that had stopped in the traffic.
Five minutes later, there was a polite knock on the Ambassador's office door. He was told that a ransom demand had been made for Marcus Denning. Ambassador Cameron-Jones asked the usual questions, then told his assistant to contact security while he called the Foreign Office. He spoke to a junior minister, Simon Shawcross, a man he had met on the diplomatic circuit half a dozen times. Their polite conversation masked a mutual dislike and distrust.
'That chap Denning who disappeared some weeks ago, he's turned up.'
'Dead or alive?' asked Shawcross, without any real interest.
'Alive, we think. Some local group has got him, they want £500,000 for his safe return.'
'Is he important to you?'
'He is a visiting advisor, not one of the embassy staff.'
'I see,' drawled Shawcross, 'I will have to issue the usual statement, saying that we don't negotiate with terrorists.'
They both knew that the statement would be Denning's death warrant.
'I asked security to see if we can get any information on where he is, could you give us a bit of time before you issue the statement?'
Simon Shawcross sighed. 'Three days,' he said eventually, 'you've got 72 hours, Sir Dudley. After that the government would look disinterested or, worse, inefficient.'
'Can you do anything else for us?'
'I thought you said he wasn't important?'
'That's not exactly what I said,' replied Sir Dudley carefully, 'besides, none of us wants the press crawling all over us, asking why we didn't do more for a British citizen.'
A note was slid across Shawcross's desk, saying that the Foreign Secretary was on the other line.
'I'm afraid I've got to go,' he said hurriedly, 'I'll send you some people. That's all I can do.'
The Head of Security had been in the job for years and had made a wide circle of contacts in the city. He took the tape of the phone call to an electronics company who could amplify the background noises. While they worked on the tape he contacted the phone company. The nearest relay to where the call from the mobile had been made was on the side of a building in a street just off one of the major east-west arterial roads through the city centre. When the electronics analyst played the background sounds to him, he heard traffic, lots of it, and the distinctive klaxon of one of the city's buses. There was also the sound of crockery, as if someone was carrying a tray of cups and saucers. He went from the electronics company to the Highways Department of the city council and asked to look at a large-scale map of the area surrounding the telephone relay. He was looking for a café on a busy road travelled by buses. There were only two possibilities: Café Atlantis or the Vinar Café. He asked about the location of CCTV cameras covering the frontages of both cafés.
Two hours later, he had footage from three cameras showing the front of both cafés for the twenty minutes either side of the time the call was made. He met a detective, a man nearing retirement who was happy to be paid to sit and watch the films, to see if he recognized anyone. Midway through the second tape, the only one that showed the Vinar Café, he said, 'Tarek Antar.'
The security man stopped the tape and looked at the still of the young man in a blue polo shirt walking casually towards the camera. He let the tape roll on and saw the man reach into his shirt pocket, pull out a small black object and throw it into the rear of a garbage truck.
'Who is he?' he asked.
'He likes to think he is a terrorist and tells the girls that he is but, in truth, he's a gopher for one of the groups. He is seen as a very minor player.'
'Can you get an address for him?'
The detective nodded.
'I need to make a call,' he said and left the room. When he came back he exchanged a slip of paper for the wad of banknotes which the security man gave him.
Within an hour, a team of five, two in a car, two on foot and one on a motorcycle, had started to follow Tarek Antar. At six in the evening he knocked on the door of a house in the Kantari area and was let in.
At almost the same moment a small military aircraft landed at the airport and six grim-faced men got out and each carrying a large backpack, they walked silently to two waiting Land Rovers.
It was now almost routine to Denning. The two guards, the large soft man and the smaller shifty one came into his cell and unlocked the manacles. Then they took him out to the compound, where he sat down on the dirt floor and the guards stood either side of him.
Excerpted from In the Company of Strangers by Nicholas J. Clough. Copyright © 2014 Nicholas J. Clough. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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