Ethan let the tension knots in his shoulders relax, lifting both hands, palms open, in what he hoped Pope would mistake for a sign of deference and defeat.
He drew his head back, dipped his chin, said, “OK, you’re right. We should keep talk—”
—and came off the balls of his feet like they’d been spring-loaded, driving the plate of his forehead straight into Pope’s nose.
Cartilage crunched, and Ethan felt blood gushing down into his hair as he scooped Pope by his cedar-plank thighs, lifting with his legs, the sheriff struggling to catch Ethan’s neck between his biceps and forearm, but too late.
The heels of Pope’s boots slipped out from under him, greased with some blood that had slicked the floor, and Ethan felt the man’s substantial weight go airborne.
He dug his shoulder into the man’s stomach and drove him down hard onto the concrete.
A burst of air exploded out of Pope’s lungs, and Ethan sat up, straddling the sheriff as he cocked back his right arm for a palm-heel strike.
Pope torqued his hips and drove Ethan’s face into the leg of the wooden table with enough velocity to split open his cheek.
Ethan fought to get up amid the motes of excruciating light that starred his vision, but as he got his legs underneath him and struggled to stand, he saw that he’d righted himself a second too late.
Ethan might’ve parried the haymaker if his head was clear, his reflexes primed, but in his current state, he reacted at half speed.
The force behind the blow made Ethan’s head swivel far enough that he felt his thoracic spine pop.
Found himself dazed and prone on the surface of that wooden table, staring up through his one good eye at the maniacal sheriff descending for another blow, his broken nose mushroomed across his face like something that had detonated.
Ethan raised his arms in an effort to protect his face, but the sheriff’s fist ripped easily through his hands and crashed into Ethan’s nose.
Tears streamed out of his eyes, blood into Ethan’s mouth.
“Who are you?” the sheriff roared.
Ethan couldn’t have answered if he’d wanted to, his consciousness slipping, what he could see of the interrogation room beginning to spin, interspersed with snapshots of another...
He is back in that brown-walled room with a dirt floor in the Golan slum, watching a bare lightbulb swinging over his head as Aashif stares at him through a hood of black cloth that reveals only a pair of brown, malevolent eyes and a mouthful of smiling teeth too white and perfect to be a product of any fourth-world, Middle-Eastern shithole.
Ethan dangles by his wrists from a chain bolted into the ceiling, his feet just close enough to the floor to ease the circulation-destroying pressure by rising up on his big toes. But he can manage this for only seconds at a time before his phalanges collapse under his weight. When they finally break, he will have no means by which to stop the loss of blood flow to his hands.
Aashif stands inches from Ethan’s face, their noses almost touching.
“Let’s try a question you should have no problem answering...What part of America are you from, Chief Warrant Officer Ethan Burke?” the man asks in excellent English that is tinged with a UK accent.
“No, the state.”
“Ah. You have children?”
“But you are married.”
“What is your wife’s name?”
Ethan doesn’t respond, just braces for another blow.
Aashif smiles. “Relax. No more punches for now. You are familiar with the saying ‘a death of a thousand cuts’?” Aashif holds up a single razor blade that gleams under the lightbulb. “It comes from a Chinese execution method, abolished in 1905, called lingchi, translated also as ‘slow slicing’ or ‘the lingering death.’”
Aashif motions to the briefcase sitting open on a nearby table, lined with hard, black foam and upon which rests a terrifying collection of cutlery that Ethan has been trying to ignore for the last two hours.
Pope struck Ethan again, and along with the smell of his own blood, the blow jarred loose the memory of the smell of old, rotted blood on the floor of that torture house in Fallujah...
“You will now be taken to a room, given a pen, a piece of paper, and one hour. You know what I want,” Aashif says.
Aashif punches Ethan in the gut.
Pope punched Ethan in the face.
“I’m growing tired of beating you. You know what I want. How could you not? I’ve asked you twenty times now. Tell me you know. Just tell me that.”
“Who are you?” Pope yelled.
“I know,” Ethan gasps.
“One hour, and if what you write down does not make me happy, you will die by lingchi.”
Aashif takes a Polaroid out of his black dishdasha.
Ethan shuts his eyes but opens them again when Aashif says, “Look at this or I’ll trim away your eyelids.”
It is a photo of a man in this very room, also hanging from the ceiling by his wrists.
American. Probably a soldier, though impossible to know.
Three months of combat, and Ethan has never seen mutilation approaching this.
“Your countryman is alive in this photograph,” his torturer says, a hint of pride creeping into his voice.
Ethan tried to open his eyes to see Pope. He felt himself on the brink of losing consciousness, wanting it both for the alleviation of his current pain, but also to block the perfect image his mind had conjured of Aashif, of that torture room.
“The next person who hangs from this ceiling will see a similar Polaroid of you,” Aashif says. “Do you understand? I have your name. I also have a website. I will post pictures of what I do to you for the world to see. Maybe your wife will see them too. You write down everything I want to know, which up until now, you have held inside.”
“Who are you?” Pope asked.
Ethan let his arms fall to the side.
“Who are you?”
No longer even trying to defend himself, thinking, There is a part of me that never left that room in Fallujah that smelled like rancid blood.
Willing the coup de grâce from Pope that would mercifully knock him unconscious, kill the old memories, kill his present agony.
Two seconds later, it came—a blow that connected with his chin and brought a burst of white-hot light like a flashbulb going off.
The dishwasher was loaded and groaning through its wash cycle, and Theresa, well past the point of total exhaustion, stood at the sink drying the last serving dish. She returned it to the cabinet, hung the towel on the fridge door, and hit the light.