* * *
There is undeniable intimacy between them.
At first, Ethan hadn’t watched, but now he can’t tear his eyes away.
Aashif forces him to drink water and shovels lukewarm beans into his mouth, all the while talking to him in the most casual tone, as if he were merely a barber and Ethan had popped in for a trim.
* * *
Later, Aashif sits in the corner drinking water and watching Ethan, studying his handiwork with a mix of amusement and pride.
He wipes his brow and rises to his feet, the hem of his dishdasha dripping Ethan’s blood.
“Tomorrow morning first thing, I will castrate you, cauterize the wound with a blow torch, and then go to work on your upper body. Think about what you want for breakfast.”
He turns off the light on his way out of the room.
* * *
All night, Ethan hangs in darkness.
Sometimes he hears footsteps stop outside the door, but it never opens.
The pain is titanic but he manages to think clearly about his wife and the child he will never know.
He whispers to Theresa from this dungeon and wonders if she can hear him.
He moans and he cries.
Trying to come to grips with the idea that he is meeting this end.
Even years later, it will be this moment—hanging alone in the dark with nothing but the pain and his thoughts and the waiting for tomorrow—that will haunt him.
Always waiting for Aashif’s return.
Always wondering what his son or daughter will look like.
What their name will be.
Always wondering how Theresa will get on without him.
She will even say to him four months later, sitting at the breakfast table in their kitchen in Seattle as the rain falls, “It’s like you never came back to me, Ethan.”
And he will say, “I know,” as the cries of his son come through the baby monitor, thinking, Aashif didn’t just take physical pieces out of me.
* * *
And then the door finally opens, razor blades of light streaming in, bringing Ethan back to consciousness, back to the pain.
When his eyes adjust to the onslaught of daylight, it isn’t the silhouette of Aashif he sees but the bulky profile of a SEAL in full gear holding an M-4 with an ACOG whose barrel gives off wisps of smoke.
He shines a light on Ethan and says with a thick, west-Texas drawl, “Jesus.”
* * *
Theresa thinks the leg wounds are from the crash.
* * *
The SEAL is a sergeant, last name Brooks, and he carries Ethan on his back up a narrow flight of stairs, out of the basement dungeon into a kitchen where pieces of meat are burning on a skillet.
Three Arab men lie dead in the hall, and five members of the SEAL team occupy the cramped kitchen, one of them kneeling down beside Aashif, tying a strip of cloth around his left leg above the knee, which bleeds from a gunshot wound.
Brooks lowers Ethan into a chair and growls at his medic, “Get away from him.” He stares down at Aashif. “Who cut up this soldier?”
Aashif responds to the question with something in Arabic.
“Me no hablo whatever the f**k you just said.”
“It’s him,” Ethan says. “He did this to me.”
For a moment, there is nothing in the kitchen but the stench of burning meat and the gunpowder from the firefight.
“We’ll have air in two minutes,” Brooks says to Ethan. “This is the only cocksucker left and there’s no one in this room gonna say shit about what you do.”
A soldier standing by the stove and holding a sniper rifle says, “Fuckin-a.”
“Can you stand me up?” Ethan asks.
Brooks hauls Ethan out of his seat, Ethan groaning as he inches his way across the kitchen toward Aashif.
When they’re standing over him, the SEAL unholsters a SIG.
Ethan takes it out of his hand, checks the load.
It will occur to him months from now that if this had been a movie, he wouldn’t have done it. Wouldn’t have sunk to the level of this monster. But the ugly truth is it never even crosses Ethan’s mind not to do it. And though he will continually dream about the crash, about all the things Aashif did to him, this moment will never haunt him. He will only wish it could have lasted longer.
Ethan is naked, on his feet only with the support of Brooks, his legs like something that belongs in a butcher shop.
He tells Aashif to look at him.
In the distance, he can hear the distinctive whop-whop of the approaching Black Hawk.
Beyond that, it is as quiet as mass out on the street.
The torturer and the tortured hold eye contact for a long second.
Aashif says, “You’re still mine, you know.”
As he smiles, Ethan shoots him through the face.
* * *
The next time he comes to consciousness, he’s leaning against the window of the Black Hawk, staring three hundred feet down at the streets of Fallujah, morphine gliding through his system and Brooks’s voice screaming in his ear that he’s safe, that he’s going home, and that two days ago, his wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
Ethan opened his eyes.
His head leaned against a window and he was staring down at mountainous terrain scrolling past at a hundred and fifty miles per hour. Cruising, if he had to guess, at twenty-five hundred feet AGL. He’d flown an air ambulance for six months after returning from Iraq and before applying to the Secret Service, and he recognized not only the voice of the Lycoming turbines roaring above his head but the dimensions of the BK117 airframe. He’d flown this model with Flight for Life.
Raising his head off the glass, he moved to scratch an itch on the side of his nose, but found his hands cuffed behind his back.
The passenger cabin had been arranged in a standard configuration—four seats divided between two facing rows, and a cargo space in the rear of the fuselage, hidden behind a curtain.
Jenkins and Sheriff Pope sat across, and Ethan felt pleased to see the lawman’s nose still bandaged.
Nurse Pam—having traded her classic nurse’s uniform for black cargo pants, a long-sleeved black T, BDUs, and an H&K tactical shotgun—sat beside him, a half-moon trail of sutures curving from a shaved portion of her skull, across her temple, and midway down her cheek. Beverly had been responsible for that, and Ethan noted a flicker of rage at the memory of what had been done to that poor woman.
Jenkins’ voice crackled through the headset. “How you feeling, Ethan?”
Though he felt groggy from the meds, his head had already begun to clear.
But he didn’t answer.