Now we had to ensure the translator’s well being. Her Russian passport put her in danger, as local journalists can be knocked off in this region. As an American, I faced some risk of maltreatment, but generally authorities simply expel pesky foreigners rather than kill them. The translator was probably okay as long as we remained together, and for that we played the female card. “I promised her mother I would take care of the girl,” I said, throwing a protective arm around her shoulders. “She stays by my side.”

The translator in turn scolded the men: “She’s old enough to be your mother.” I winced slightly at this. “Would you treat your mother like this?”

They agreed they would not.

Here I summed up Rule… well, it doesn’t have a number, but sometimes there’s no recourse but to Bore Your Captors Out of Their Skulls. “Look,” I said, leaning forward as the bad cop lit me a cigarette, “I have this theory about mountain clans. They’re always fighting.”

“Definitely in Dagestan!” said the pleasant cop. “We have 40 warring clans. You must visit the mountains.”

“If we let her out,” snarled the wicked one.

I tried to distract him with a ramble about the traits of highland folk, starting with tribes in Papua New Guinea. “Mountain people have a different mentality. They’re suspicious of outsiders”—I shot him a look here. “Why are Dutchmen peaceful? Because it’s a flat country and they have to get along, but when you gain altitude people start sparring, because you can’t see what’s on the other side of the hill, and generally lowlanders subjugate people living at high altitude and exploit their natural resources. Think about it,” I went on. “We see this all over the world, in Kashmir, Appalachia, Ecuador, the Atlas Mountains, even the Pyrenees. Some 80 percent of conflict occurs in…. ”

“Enough!” shouted the bad cop. “You’re giving me a headache. Let’s drink tea.”

The duo escorted us upstairs to a toasty room, where we sank into a plush sofa in front of a flat-screen television. There, a woman on a talk show sobbed about her dead son. I guessed his demise was linked to the insurgency when the mean agent snarled, “So this is what you came here to see?” The nice guy broke out a package of cookies and put water on to boil. “I recommend the raspberry variant,” he said, adding that he would drink from the same pot to prove it was not poisoned. (Rule 5: Be wary of drugged refreshments.)

After a few ladylike sips, the translator asked for the bathroom, where she checked off Rule 6: Text emergency contacts. (We had held onto our cell phones after the interpreter swatted the gunmen’s hand, on the grounds that good Muslim men don’t touch strange women.) I followed suit with an e-mail to my husband about our whereabouts, so that he could inform diplomats in Moscow. (Rule 7: Make sure spouse has embassy number.)

Over tea, we interviewed the chaps about their covert jobs. Rule… well, there’s no number for this one either, but Flatter Your Captors As If Your Life Depends On It. This can work, too. After dispensing with pleasantries about their intelligence, our journalistic curiosity got the better of us and we grilled the pair about life in the Federal Security Services. It’s a rare reporter who gets the inside scoop on Russian spies, and the lads welcomed a sympathetic ear. “We receive no overtime pay and toil every weekend,” griped the nice one. He hungrily reached for another biscuit.

“You can’t imagine some of the people we arrest,” said the malicious one. He shot an appreciative glance at the interpreter. “It’s a pleasure detaining a pretty woman.”

Conversation hit a lull and the interpreter suggested that they release us in time for dinner. They agreed. It was as simple as that. Everyone said goodbye with handshakes, and warnings about menacing terrorists. Then they gave us their telephones numbers. The kind one even walked us to the car.

“How about a drink if I knock off work early?” he asked hopefully.

The translator politely demurred. Rule No. 8: Don’t date sources, especially sources with guns.


Judith Matloff is a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is a veteran foreign correspondent, who teaches a course on conflict reporting at Columbia, and is the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War and Home Girl.