THE INTERROGATOR, PART TWO
His instincts were infallible. When he bore into their eyes with his, he knew, right away, if they were ready to talk or needed another ten hours in the room from hell.
Some broke quickly, spilling their guts after the first session in the room. Others held out until their minds confused them with hallucinations from lack of sleep and the torment of the ceaseless light and noise.
One snapped completely, screaming and flailing about as if being torn apart by wolves. The medics had to sedate him before taking him away.
Sam couldn't have said when the gasps, groans, grunts, cries became nothing more than signals of the detainee's state of readiness to answer questions, the trembling hands and pleading eyes only that the prisoner was ready to be milked. They passed in and out of his sights, nameless and, eventually, faceless. He pushed them over the edge with as little consideration as he might have kicked a stray rock off a cliff.
He no longer asked himself if it was right. He had no need to. As a United States Marine, he felt his actions to be despicable, unAmerican and, worst of all, without honor or integrity.
Yet he slept dreamlessly, ate with appetite, his bowels emptied themselves every morning. He maybe drank a little more then before but not enough to impair his judgment. When they brought in the next naked prisoner, smelling of sweat and fear, he stared into those brown eyes and went to work.
He did it to protect Martha and the kids, to prevent another nine eleven, to cleanse the world of the poison of terrorism.
Maynard was a happy camper.
The captain delivered a new prisoner. "Al Quaida," he told Sam. "Not Iraqi, but here looking for trouble. So, let's give it to him."
This detainee was no kid. He looked to be in his mid- to late-thirties, and strutted about as if he thought he owned the place.
Sam ordered Wheeler and Farrell to strip and shackle him and bring him to the room. The detainee stood in front of Sam, head high, shackled hands cupped over his genitals, eyes afire with the cold hatred of a zealot.Sam ordered Wheeler and Farrell to manhandle the man against the railing and chain him, arms flexed, spine stretched, legs splayed. When Sam stood over him to check the chains, the prisoner curled his lip as if looking at a cockroach. We're vermin to them, Maynard had said.
Sam tightened the chains. The detainee's expression turned mocking, as if to say, is that the best you can do? Sam cinched the chains again, well beyond the allowed limit, and, finally, the sneer left the man's face and he grunted.
"Oh, yeah," Sam said, softly. "I bet that hurts just a tad."
He switched on the spotlight, adjusting its angle so, no matter which way the man turned his head, that light shot straight into his eyes. Flipping on the stereo, Sam saw the prisoner cringe as the sound of a rock band in full tilt blasted through the room. He twisted the volume knob the last couple decibels, then walked out and shut the door.
"Let's see how pleased with himself he feels after a few hours of that," he told Wheeler.
Wheeler's look seemed to question the overly-tight chains, but Sam ignored him. Fuck Wheeler. Fuck Maynard. Fuck the Geneva Conventions.
Maybe he couldn't take pride in being a marine any more but, in the fight against fanatics, winning counted more than honor, and that arrogant bastard in there didn't give a shit about honor or decency. Those cold eyes told Sam more forcefully than a loaded gun pointed at him exactly what he had chained up in the room from hell. High-level Al Quaida, a goldmine of information.
The marines had a rule; get the bastards before they get you, and that was precisely what Sam intended to do with this one. He'd break him. In time.
A powerful, pleasurable urge shivered through him as he anticipated the challenge, the kind of excitement he only knew from being with Martha. What the hell was that? The thought of bringing that murderous zealot to his knees gave him a hard on? Jesus. He must miss his wife more than he thought.
He stood in front of the detainee cells, noting familiar faces, his eye hanging on the detainee he'd tried to comfort in the interrogation room when he'd first arrived. The prisoner sat on his cot in a clean, orange jumpsuit, knees pulled up to his chin, eyes closed. He'd put on weight.
"What are they going to do with him?" he asked Wheeler, who had guard duty.
Wheeler shrugged. "Probably ship him out to Gitmo."
Sam stared at the orange-clad figure sitting motionless on the cot, part of his mind congratulating himself for the intuitive way he'd broken the boy, part praising himself for the efficient, emotionless way he'd conducted himself ever since.
"What about the information he gave up? What happened to it?"
"Captain Maynard filed a report, sent it to the brass in Washington. They read it, probably saw it for what it was, told Maynard to keep at it, move on to the next prisoner, maybe this time we'd actually get something."
His words wiped Sam's self-congratulatory mind clean, like an eraser over a blackboard. "What do you mean?"
"The names he gave us - most of them we already know, half of them dead. The village on the Pakistani border where he said they trained him? Probably a set up so we'll go rushing in there and get our heads blown off. As for the plans; road-side ambushes, suicide bombing, here, there, everywhere. Crap, sir."
Sam stared through the bars at the boy he'd last seen, head down, sobbing. "You're saying none of what he gave up was any good?"
"Wouldn't you say anything to get the hell out of that room, sir? Did you take him seriously?"
"Yeah, I took him fucking seriously." A cold finger laid itself at the base of Sam's neck. "Did Captain Maynard know he was giving crap?"
Wheeler gave him a cautious look. "I couldn't say, sir. Most likely."
"And he didn't tell me?"
Sam's voice slammed off the cell walls and the prisoner's eyes flew open. Wheeler stepped back, as if fearing Sam might lash out at him.
"Take it easy, Sarge," he muttered. "I thought you knew."
"What about the others. Was any of their information any good?"
Wheeler hesitated, as if his brain were signaling him to watch out, he'd acquired a live grenade about to go off.
"I asked you a question, corporal."
Wheeler's expression turned wary. "Captain Maynard's only obeying orders. Jesus. How long you been a marine, sir?"
A marine; somebody to be respected, looked up to, somebody who conducts himself at all times with courage, honor and integrity. Well, he had the courage. It was the other two he no longer had.
Sam looked into the brown depths of the prisoner's eyes, looking for that cold, merciless hatred - but the boy smiled, and a bomb went off inside Sam.
The little son of a bitch. Did he think Sam wanted to be his friend? No, he smiled because he'd put one over on the big, stupid Americans, let them exchange their souls for a bunch of useless information.
Sam snapped his fingers at the circle of keys hanging from Wheeler's belt. "Keys."
Wheeler eased himself towards the telephone sitting on a nearby desk. "I can't give up my keys, sir. Sorry. You'll have to see Captain Maynard about that."
"I've a couple questions he'll want to answer, believe me."
"How you going to question him? He doesn't understand English, you don't understand Arabic. The translator's not around. Go upside and get a beer, Sarge, simmer down."
Sam stepped towards Wheeler. "You giving me orders, Corporal?"
Wheeler's face closed up. "No sir. Just a suggestion, sir. About the beer, I mean, but if you want to interrogate the prisoner again, you'll have to get the OK from Captain Maynard. Sir."
"Fuck you." Sam whipped out his sidearm, cocking it with his thumb as he brought it up, clamping both hands around it, steadying it on Wheeler.
Wheeler wet his lips and backed up even further, but Sam kept the pistol trained on him. "Keys."
Wheeler shook his head. "No, sir."
Incredulous, Sam asked, "You're willing to take a bullet to protect this piece of shit suicide bomber, knowing he gave us the finger? Give me the fucking keys."
Sam shifted his aim and pulled the trigger. The bullet whizzed past Wheeler's ear, close enough to send him ducking sideways.
Sam brought the muzzle of the gun to bear on Wheeler again. "Keys, Wheeler. The next bullet will be a lot closer, I promise you." He hadn't trained with the best for nothing.
Wheeler fumbled with the ring holder, finally snapping it open, releasing the circle of keys.
Same waved the gun. "Separate out the one to this cell. Put the bunch on the desk and step away."
Wheeler laid the keys on the metal desk against the wall, having angled one out from the rest. Sam snatched at the key Wheeler had singled out. "This had better be the right one."
He backed up to the cell door, maneuvered the key into the lock behind his back, snapped the lock open, eased the door outwards with his toe, whipped inside and slammed the door shut.
Wheeler went for the phone but Sam sent another bullet whizzing by Wheeler's ear, causing the corporal to stumble away.
Inside the cell, Sam holstered his sidearm. The young man hunched on his cot, looking bewildered, as if asking himself why the American soldiers were firing at one another.
"You think this is a game? You think you can corrupt me for a fucking game?" Sam slammed his fist directly into the prisoner's face.
With a strangled cry, the detainee crashed into the wall behind his cot, shackled hands flying up to his shattered face. Sam knocked them away and slammed his fist into the face again. And again.
"Not smiling now, are you?"
Sam went for the boy's midsection. Like Ron Lassiter, the detainee doubled over, retching. Sam then pummeled the kidneys.
"Jesus Christ, Sarge."
A pair of strong arms wrapped around Sam and jerked him away from the cot, but he kicked free, throwing himself at the bloody figure writhing on the cot, only to be tackled from behind and brought down.
Sam hit the cement floor, rolled over, came up twisting and bucking. Wheeler clung on stubbornly, yelling at the top of his lungs, "We've a man down in here. On the double."
Voices shouted acknowledgement from down the corridor. Sam heaved Wheeler off, found his feet, pulled out his sidearm again. Wheeler lunged for it and the gun went off, the bullet smashing into the wall over the prisoner's head, shaking the cell with its roar.
Booted feet thundered to a halt outside the cell and Maynard appeared, his glance bouncing off the limp figure on the cot, Wheeler in mid-lunge, the gun in Sam's hand.
"What the hell's going on?" he roared. "Stand down, Sergeant. Move away from the prisoner. Wheeler, get his goddamn gun. You heard me, Sergeant. I want your ass out of there."
"You want the real information from this little puissant, I'll get it for you."
"I gave you an order, Sergeant. I won't tell you again, or I'll take you down myself."
Sam stared into Maynard's unyielding eyes and saw there a clear understanding of why he'd tried to kill that boy in the orange jumpsuit. He saw there was no honor left anywhere.
He walked out, slapping the gun into Wheeler's hand.
In Maynard's office, he stared into his whiskey glass, as he'd done when he'd first come to the facility, in what seemed like a whole, other life.
"What the hell happened, sergeant?" Maynard flicked his thumbnail on the corner of a manilla folder in front of him. The folder bore Sam's name.
"I lost it, sir. I don't have an explanation. It was like I became somebody else, somebody I couldn't respect." He looked back at the cold hatred in the Al Quaida detainee's eyes. "The only other time I beat up on someone, it was a matter of honor. I don't know what this was."
Maynard's gray eyes turned cold. "This isn't about you or your goddamned honor. This is about defending your goddamned country." His cheeks reddened.
Looking into those blazing eyes, Sam knew Maynard's rage wasn't directed at him but at the captain's recognition he'd become just like the men he chained up in that room from hell. "I consider I am defending my country, sir."
Maynard's mask dropped back into place. "All right, I can hush this up, say other prisoners beat on him for giving it up, but you go off like this again, sergeant, you're not going to be any good here."
"I want to go back to my unit, sir. I am no good here. I probably never was."Six o'clock news, Channel 5, Boston: Two more Americans died in Iraq today, one of them a native Vermonter. Staff Sergeant Samuel Smith, fifteen-year marine veteran, recently transferred from administrative duties back to combat status, we're told at his own request, died in a fire fight South of Baghdad. At least eighteen insurgents were killed in the exchange and a number of small arms and bomb making equipment destroyed. Sergeant Smith leaves behind a wife and three children. He'll be buried Friday with full military honors.