Jenkins said, “Please don’t make us hurt you.”
Ethan shot a glance up the last aisle—two more figures loomed in the fog.
He was cornered.
Said, “What is this?”
“I understand you want to know.”
The psychiatrist studied him for a moment. “You look terrible, Ethan.”
“So I was what, frozen?”
“You were chemically suspended.”
“What does that even mean?”
“To oversimplify, we use hydrogen sulfide to induce hypothermia. Once the core temperature is at ambient levels, we pack you in volcanic sand and crank up the sulfur gas to a concentration that kills all aerobic bacteria. Then we attack the anaerobic. Basically anything that supports cell senescence. This puts you in a highly efficient state of suspended animation.”
“So you’re telling me that, at least for a time, I was dead?”
“No. Dead...by definition...is something that can’t be undone. We like to think of it as turning you off in such a way that allows us to turn you on again. To reboot you. Keep in mind, I’m giving you the dummy’s guide to a very delicate and complex process. One that took decades to perfect.”
Jenkins moved forward with the caution he might have used to approach a rabid animal. His thugs kept close, inching forward themselves, but he waved them back, stopping two feet away from Ethan, and reaching out slowly until his hand touched Ethan’s shoulder.
“I understand this is a lot to take in. That fact is not lost on me. You aren’t crazy, Ethan.”
“I know that. I’ve always known that. So what is this all about then? What does it mean?”
“You’d like for me to show you?”
“What do you think?”
“All right, Ethan. All right. But I have to warn you...I’m going to ask for something in return.”
Jenkins didn’t answer. Instead, he just smiled and touched something to Ethan’s side.
Ethan heard clicking, realized what was coming a half second before it hit him—like jumping into a freezing lake, every muscle flexing in unison, his knees locking, and a blast-furnace burn at the excruciating point of contact.
Then he was on the ground, his entire body vibrating and Jenkins’s knee digging into the small of his back.
The pinch of a needle sliding into the side of his neck cut through the effects of the electro-muscular disruption, and Jenkins must have hit a vein, because almost immediately, the pain of the Taser hit melted away.
The pain of everything melted away.
The euphoric rush coming fast and hard and Ethan struggling to see through it, to keep a finger on the fear of what was happening.
But the drug was too beautiful.
It pulled him under into a painless bliss.
Barely two seconds have elapsed since the last grain of black sand emptied from the upper bulb of the hourglass when the door unlocks and swings open.
Aashif stands in the doorway smiling.
It is the first time Ethan has seen him without a hood, and it strikes him that this does not look like a man who is capable of doing the things to Ethan he has promised he will do.
His face is clean-shaven with only the faintest peppering of stubble.
Hair black and midlength and greased back.
“Which of your parents was white?” Ethan asks.
“My mother was British.” Aashif steps into the room. At the desk, he stops and stares down at the sheet of paper. Points to it. “I trust it is not blank on the other side.” He turns it over, studies it for a moment, and shakes his head as his eyes rise to Ethan’s. “You were to write down something that made me happy. Did you not understand my instructions?”
“Your English is fine. I understood.”
“Then maybe you do not believe I will do what I have said.”
“No, I believe you.”
“What then? Why did you not write something?”
“But I did.”
“In invisible ink?”
Now Ethan smiles. It takes everything within his power to stifle the tremor that keeps threatening to move through his hands.
He holds up his left.
“I wrote this,” he says, showing the tattoo he carved into his palm with the tip of the ballpoint pen—dark blue and sloppy, his hand still bleeding in places. But given the time constraints and the circumstance, it was the best he could do. He says, “I know that soon I will be screaming. In terrible pain. Every time you wonder what I’m thinking, even though I may not be able to speak, you can just look at my hand and take those two words to heart. It’s an American saying. I trust you understand its full meaning?”
“You have no idea,” Aashif whispers, and for the first time, Ethan registers unchecked emotion in the man’s eyes. Through the fear, he makes himself catalog the satisfaction of having broken this monster’s cool, knowing it may be his only moment of victory in this brutal transaction.
“Actually, I do,” Ethan says. “You will torture me, break me, and eventually murder me. I know exactly what’s coming. I just have one request.”
This elicits a subtle smile.
“Quit telling me how much of a stud you are, you piece of shit. Whip it out and show me.”
* * *
All day, Aashif shows him.
* * *
Some hours later, Ethan snaps back to consciousness.
Aashif sets the bottle of smelling salts on the table beside the knives.
“Welcome back. Have you seen yourself?” the man asks him.
Ethan has lost all concept of how long he’s been down here in the brown-walled room without windows that smells of death and rancid blood.
“Look at your leg.” Aashif’s face is beaded with sweat. “I said look at your leg.”
When Ethan refuses, Aashif reaches his bloody fingers into an earthenware vessel, comes out with a handful of salt.
He flings it at Ethan’s leg.
Screams through the ball gag.
* * *
“Do you understand how completely I own you now, Ethan? How I will always own you? Do you hear me?”
* * *
Ethan has placed himself in another world, trying to follow a line of thought that leads to his wife, to her giving birth to their firstborn, and him in the hospital with her, but the pain keeps dragging him back into now.
* * *
“I can make it end,” Aashif purrs into his ear. “I can also keep you alive for days. Whatever I want. I know it hurts. I know you’re in more pain than you even knew a person was capable of experiencing. But consider that I’ve only been working on one leg. And I’m very good at this. I will not allow you to bleed to death. You will only die when it pleases me.”