Detainee 717


Chapter 10

Walking up to the bar the Diplomat feels, before sitting on the leather stool, a person-shaped nimbus that has been left behind by the stool’s previous occupant, an impalpable blood-warmth. He is willing to wager money that December has been here, sitting here, below the television set that would require him to tilt his head back to view it. The man is one of the few people the Diplomat knows who openly admits nurturing an almost pathological affinity for watching television. He will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that he maintains as close a physical proximity to a television screen as possible at all times, for reasons that have never been altogether clear to the Diplomat.

“In the last ten minutes, there was someone sitting here. A man around 5 ’10 or so. It would be difficult to describe him, beyond this. He looks like a character actor, like he could be anyone.” The bartender has a neck so short that his head appears to sit atop his shoulders precariously; the head seems to be on the verge of rolling away. It is apparent that he works out obsessively, the veins in his neck permanently erect; as though the Diplomat’s words were a flag, the veins snap a crisp and prominent salute as the bartender leans forward to listen to what his patron may say next. Skin, like the soul, expands with pressure. For all this physical bombast the bartender’s voice has nothing masculine about it, though to describe it as feminine would not be completely accurate. He responds to the Diplomat’s statement by asking, “How many people would that describe?” and negligently wipes the surface of the already spotless bar with a white cloth.

“Surely not that many in the last ten minutes.”

“So, what, are you a cop?”

“Would you like to know how to establish priorities? You imagine that with any individual you have dealings with, you are allowed to ask that individual only a single question. Now. Is the question you just asked me that question?”

“I can’t say. My imagination doesn’t really gel that way.”

“Do I look like a cop?”

“Not really. Too well dressed. You act like one, though.” The Diplomat pauses before asking, “What do I look like? To you.” He stops wiping and looks steadily into the Diplomat’s face with weary fixity. “I don’t know. Like an animal. Of some kind.”

“An animal. As in oink oink, or ruff ruff.” The phone behind the bar rings. The bartender picks up the handset after the third ring, lifting it an inch, dropping it back onto the cradle. The few patrons sitting on stools at the bar do not shift their attention away from the television with its formidable and mesmerizing high-definition screen looming above the cash register.

“Something with feathers or fangs,” the bartender clarifies. “Or feathers and fangs both. I think the guy you’re talking about went in the back.”

“Feathers or fangs. It has a ring to it. Like a Nevada brothel.”

“It’s not meant as an insult.”

“It’s possible you may have even meant it as a compliment.”

“I’m caught between a rock and a fucking hard place, here.”


The Diplomat strolls to the end of the bar and turns and makes his way down a corridor that right-angles on an elbow of darkness, opening into a suavely lit room with two pool tables, booths that burrow intimate enclosure along the walls, another bar behind which another bartender with hulking bear-like movements attends to the polishing of already gleaming surfaces.

The man the Diplomat is meeting, December, is playing darts. Without his glasses, an astigmatic squint brings to his face a look of permanent, laterally compressed inquiry. He has a tall man’s self-effacing hunch, though his height is average. Poor posture is one of many tools in his arsenal of techniques to avoid calling attention to himself, to maximize the impression he gives of an average or nondescript man going about his business in unremarkable ways. Overall he has succeeded in this quest for invisibility, but he does have a peculiar distinguishing characteristic that the Diplomat believes works against December’s quotidian façade: he moves with a sort of scraggly grace, showing glimpses of the elegance that lives at the heart of things in the process of minutely breaking down. His genius, in this connection, is that he manages, through this kaleidoscope of glimpses he affords, to suggest the ongoing aspects of the process of breaking down while perpetually postponing its culmination, the breakdown itself never actually coming to pass. He is known for this quality in certain circles, though few appreciate him for it – an oversight that in the Diplomat’s opinion is regrettable.

“What is wrong with this scene?” the Diplomat announces, walking up to December, who, with a concentration both deeply authentic and theatrical, does not turn away from the target to respond.

The dartboard does not hang on the wall. A man with a face reflecting sturdy and inebriated resolve, a man substantially sized with blunt-tipped sausage-thick fingers and a head that might be used illustratively in an advertisement openly exploiting the humiliation of unwanted baldness, the man holds the dartboard squarely at chest level.

Like a runner mining millimeters to gain a competitive advantage, shoveling his upper torso forward into the finish line, December leans far out and over the invisible line he stands behind. The Diplomat would have called this cheating, if asked. No one asks, or is likely to ask. December launches the dart by oddly flicking it off his fingertips and it sails through the air, fins spinning cylindrically as it arcs and falls in a tautly balanced descent. This too seems both deeply authentic and theatrical to the Diplomat, as though in its flight the dart possesses awareness, is performing for an orgy of eyes striving for climax. The dart misses the board and buries enough of its tip into the man’s left shoulder to stay impaled in the T-shirt garbed flesh for five seconds before losing its grip and tumbling to the floor. A few of the patrons in the booths manage to mirror in laughter the wincing relish that streaks across their faces, while others simply produce meaningless applause.

“I am the human dartboard,” the man roars like a wrestler lensing lunacy for the television audience. “BRING IT OONNNNNN!”

A petite salamander of a woman darts out from one of the booths, leans a shot glass to the human dartboard’s lips, pours while the vodka is gulped. When the glass is empty she swishes quickly back to her booth.

“We’re through. No more. ” December’s gesture is one an umpire makes when a player slides too late into home plate, an X brushed like dust off the forearms. “But you took it, dude. You took it all AND MORE.”

“BRING IT OONNNNNN!” the man roars. A half-dozen darts are heaped at the human dartboard’s feet. Carefully kicking these aside, he hangs the dartboard back on the wall and with a dignified stagger disappears into the corridor. December relents, finally turning to the Diplomat. “It’s obvious what’s wrong with this scene. Baby, it’s an experiment gone bad.”

December leads the Diplomat to a booth and they sit. With the Human Dartboard no longer the patrons’conversational focal point, the furniture of their voices is rearranged to fill the vacuum, shifts from foreground to background again, where the prattle becomes low and fragmented and blends with recorded pop-jazz music, unnoticed until now, dominated by the saccharine slur of a soprano saxophone. The Diplomat does not resist the urge to make a comparison. He observes that the quality of the darkness in Sandman’s is similar to that found in a movie theater – an adulterated matinee darkness that encourages forgetfulness.

“I’ve been testing people lately,” December admits. “I don’t know what it is. Strangers mostly. So-called friends. So-called family. Others. My own so-called self.” His eyes slide about the room, pouring into corners, his squint a vial dispensing mercury. Then sometimes he takes in the Diplomat’s eyes in evasive snatches, as a pigeon pecks crumbs from the ground.

“You establish parameters for the purpose of obliterating them,” the Diplomat tells him.

“Don’t we all?”

“Do we?”

December ratifies his statement. “When I said don’t we all, I meant it rhetorically.”

“You’ve been testing people.”

“A man walks into a bar …”

“This is a joke?”

“December walks into a bar, into Sandman’s. He takes a seat at the bar and has a Michelob. December is not an alcoholic, but his mother was. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Though I certainly never told you.”

“It’s in a file somewhere.”

“If anyone would be in a position to know, it would be you.” The Diplomat is watching December in a certain way. He sees that what began a few moments ago as a readily graspable gesture of nonverbal communication, a simple unambiguous nod, has rapidly deteriorated. The gesture becomes a withdrawal from the public sphere, repeats itself as a series of dangerously private rhythmic assertions that defy interpretation. He continues nodding, lost not in thought at this point but perhaps in whatever dubious gratification the motion of a bobbing head provides, while an unattractive waitress wearing attire that calls to mind humorless Nebraskan prairies leaves two drinks at their table, a Michelob for December, sparkling water with a slice of lime for the Diplomat. Gradually the nod subsides. “Because of the mother December is careful and only has a Michelob. He enjoys the beer at the bar, watching TV. He loves TV. So-called real life, even with all its surprises, pales by comparison. Colors and sounds on TV surpass colors and sounds from daily life. Why live life when you can experience the enhanced version, in a box? So the TV, the beer, and then he goes to the back to see what’s going on.”

“The human dartboard is waiting for him.”

“The human dartboard at this point is just Phillip. December buys him a drink and there’s friendly talk. The talk gets around to what people will and will not do for money.” “They will do anything for money. Some will do anything for no money at all.” “Hands down my position. That’s the position I’m establishing with Phillip, who insists on taking the noble perspective, which he’s saying is no, there’s limits. Oh, come on. You yourself – this is me talking to Phillip – would do anything for enough money. It goes back and forth like this. Bar talk. Then I tell him, if I offered you enough money, you would hold that dartboard and let me throw darts at it all damn day and night.”

“Long story short.”

“I give him $500 and he holds the dartboard. Certain conditions go along with this proposition. You can’t move the board around. You yourself, in fact, can’t move. You take whatever comes. If a dart hits you in the eye, too bad. ‘Now wait a minute. My eye? My vision? That’s different. That’s worth a hell of a lot more than $500.’”

“The eye becomes a negotiating point.”

“Turns out Phillip’s vision is worth $3,500.”

“One wonders. What price tag would he have attached to the testicles.”

December shrugs. “You never know.”

“So. Phillip is now the human dartboard, $3,500 richer.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”


“I wrote him a check.”

The Diplomat laughs. For a moment, he allows himself to feel a ripple of unpremeditated amusement. Yet his experience of the smile as it spreads across his face is unpleasant, prompting him to think of the mouth as an asymmetrical opening to a cave, a misshapen bear of laughter shambling through it. An unexpectedly complex moment, fraught with shadowy emotional reversals. To curtail this facial distortion he guillotines the laughter abruptly; it rolls off, forlorn as a decapitated head. “You wanted to prove something,” the Diplomat reminds him. “What?”

“Say the same thing, but with different words.” “An experiment gone wrong, you said initially. You were testing this man. What was the experiment, the test?” December picks at the Michelob label with his thumbnail. “I wanted to see whether he could be convinced to do what I told him to do. He thinks he did it because of the money, but he would have done it without that. Maybe not holding the dartboard, but something equally as fucked up.”

“Do I want to ask why you wanted to know this?”

“It seemed essential at the time. Now it doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s the topic of another test.” His laughter is cautious as an adulteress leaving a motel room at noon. “If I made sense I’d be a dangerous man.”

“Either way you are a dangerous man,” the Diplomat assures him matter-of-factly.


They clink glasses. Neither drinks.

“Maybe it’s nothing more than too much time on my hands,” December speculates. “I should be mentoring. I should be instructing. It’s what I do. What I do best, at least at this point. I almost said, ‘at this point in my career’ but, fuck me, I have no career.” He winks playfully at the Diplomat. “The last time I worked, it was with K13. That was months ago.” “I distinctly remember how pleased with K13 you were.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, a teacher lives for students like that. Students who have a thirst for what the teacher is teaching. Students who live for the day when they’ll out-do their teacher.” December had been a member of the intelligence community for a decade. His status as a NOC – nonofficial cover, an agent operating with no apparent ties to the U.S. government – ensured that he would reap none of the more public forms of bureaucratic recognition for his work on high-profile assignments, but because he was the sort to typically shun the limelight, he was not frustrated by the quiet accolades that drifted down to him from above rather listlessly, without ceremony or fanfare. In the winter of 2001, December had traveled to Palestine, posing as a UCLA professor deeply committed to radical Islam with a Ph.D. in microbiology; an agent in the guise of a graduate student assistant had accompanied him. The cover was enough to convince prospective buyers Yawar Abbas Naqui and Akbar Sukk Urwata that such a professor would have no problem obtaining ten drums of yellowcake-refined uranium oxide. The discussion of the transaction’s details, which had taken place in a bombed-out skeletal warehouse mazed with lurking shadows, soured during negotiations surrounding the cost of yellowcake. The buyers were not willing to pay more than $8.75 per pound. Yes, they knew that the going rate was closer to $11.00 per pound, but they believed that the professor should simply absorb the loss as a gesture of commitment to Jihad, to the cause. December tried to walk a fine line. He knew that if he appeared to be eager to absorb the loss, he would probably be viewed with suspicion. They bickered over the price and Yawar had pulled a gun; they had all pulled their guns.

In the ensuing gun battle, the two buyers were mortally wounded, but not before the other agent, the graduate student assistant, was shot in the larynx and killed. At home, they needed someone to blame; he knew this and expected it. They were careful not to use the word blame. Instead, they made repeated references to “accountability.” He was called before what was actually a tribunal of sorts, but the few men who sat in judgment of him did not possess the dignity and formality of a tribunal, an august body convening for the somber purpose of reaching a verdict or making a determination of grave importance. At 2:00 am December met with three agents at a Denny’s Restaurant whose sole customer at that hour sat glumly at the counter, an egregiously bearded trucker resembling the bass player in the band ZZ Top. The three agents wore jeans and T-shirts and sat opposite December in the booth; all three ordered the Mega Grand Slam breakfast and ate with flippant haste.

December ordered only a glass of V8, with a spoon skimmed off an accordioned film floating thin and stale on top of the tomato juice. The upper-echelon agent representing the triad sat in the middle, flanked by his subordinates, a scar in the shape of the letter J slashed rakishly beneath his right eye. The man had learned that the scar had an unsettling effect on others and used it to his advantage, subtly inclining his face in profile to ensure that the disfigurement was inescapably displayed. December admitted, in response to the scarred agent’s questions, that there were things he could and probably should have done differently. He readily cataloged oversights, omissions, misdemeanors, errors of judgment that were not substantial enough to be deemed significant but were not inconsequential enough to be judged immaterial. “It’s unfortunate,” the man said when it was all over, “but there’s nothing to be done.” He shook December’s hand, then handed him an envelope filled with cash. December understood that his officially nonexistent relationship with the organization had come to an end.

He might have protested or denied any malfeasance, but they already knew that he was in no way culpable; his guilt or innocence was incidental. Three days later the Diplomat called him. “They are so worried about accountability that they are paralyzed by it. By the dead weight, the corpse of accountability, you see. Take solace in the fact that if by chance they find true talent, they invariably let it slip through their fingers or destroy it. You don’t need them,” the Diplomat argued, his voice almost bitter, almost passionate. “But I have a place for you. One door closes, even as another opens: this is an observable fact of life, and now it is happening in your life. Do you see it?” Yes, December saw it.

December digs in his pocket and places on the table his car keys, a green chapstick dispenser, and a portable TV with a postage-stamp sized screen. “My birthday was yesterday,” he tells the Diplomat. “I treated myself to the world’s smallest TV. Weighs ¾ of an ounce and has a wrist band if you want to wear it like a watch. Screen measures 1. 5” diagonal. Made by NHJ. Shit these days is amazing.”“I don’t care for gadgets.”

He turns the TV on but not the sound. The color picture is surprisingly vivid. “I could live without them, but I wouldn’t want to.”

They both watch the TV in silence for a few moments, then the Diplomat leans forward and says, “K13 is going to be questioning someone. Someone we have a keen interest in. Salah Bhatti, from Lahore, Pakistan. XXX years in this country. There are reasons to believe that he has acted as a low-level hawaladar for Assad Uddin to the tune of $10,000. In addition to that, he receives XXXXXXX”

“$10,000? Chump change.”

“Drop by drop the bucket is filled.”

“Where is this Uddin? Here?”

“We’ll know soon. Between Salah Bhatti and Assad Uddin, Aadesh Hatwalne appears to be one of the significant links. He picked the cash up at Salah’s 99-cent store a few months ago. All this is why I’ve asked you here, though I’ve told you more than you need to know.” December raises his glass in a sarcastic salute of appreciation for the Diplomat’s generosity.

“Today K13 begins questioning Bhatti in the lake house. I want you to take this and capture the moment for posterity.” The Diplomat has placed an ordinary hand-held video camera, a Canon ZR800, in the center of the table. December appraises the camera without touching it, lowering his face close to the table’s surface and cocking his head sideways. “When and where does the moment take place?”

“Here, 30 minutes from now. K13 will be dressed in traditional Pakistani men’s apparel. The long shirt, the vest, the flowing pants. On tape, it will appear that Salah was abducted by one of his own countrymen. The wife will report him missing, it will make the local news, and you, an ordinary parade spectator who has taped the event, will come forward and offer the tape to police, having inadvertently captured the kidnapping on your videocam.”

“What do we accomplish by this?” “It may be useful, at some point, to be able to say that a Pakistani was behind Salah’s disappearance. It will certainly direct attention away from our involvement. To tell the truth, I don’t know precisely how I might use the tape, but I will have it. Just in case.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve started having hunches. You’re not the hunch type.” December weighs the camera in the palm of his left hand. “Tape the parade. That’s what you called me here to do?” His tone, edged with theatrical disappointment, at its core communicates a sense of mild contempt for a task he considers beneath him. Finally he asks with genuine annoyance, “Why am I doing this? Hell, your driver could do it.” “The man can’t even guarantee that the window in the car will work properly. I don’t have to tell you that we all have limitations attached to our abilities.”

“Why not have some flunky do it?” he insists.

“Do I need to point out the obvious?” The Diplomat can be blunt when necessary, but bluntness, the commonly used tool and easy resource of the masses, requires neither skill nor discernment. To communicate a message with subtlety and dimension is far more challenging; the Diplomat needs and pursues challenges, especially those that reside on an abstract plane. Such challenges provide him with a sense of vital engagement. This has become the culture of fuck, he thinks: fucking, fuck it, fuck off, motherfucker – bluntness in its most raw and viral incarnation, civilization descending with a happy shrug through its own muck and mire to a fecal nadir. An early sure sign of the descent is when language, which is as much a part of a country’s infrastructure as transportation or communication systems, yields to corruption. Fuck you – a Neanderthal phrase saturating popular culture, legitimized in books, movies, music. Young and old alike now use the expletives as unthinkingly, casually and ubiquitously as the words hey, okay or yeah are used. In answer to December’s question, he might have easily, bluntly responded, what makes you think you are anything but a flunky? But the Diplomat wishes to engage those he has occasion to communicate with, wants to encourage them to exercise creativity by reading between the lines, deciphering implications.

Sure enough, December understands. “So it’s like that, huh?”

“We are all restricted by the roles we play, and we all are given multiple roles to play. One day I’m given kingly latitude and have the ability to make decisions that affect nations. The next day I’m told in no uncertain terms exactly what to do and what not to do. As though I were a diapered five-year-old child.” December holds the Michelob bottle to his pursed lips and blows into the opening. His breath finds a tuneless flute in the bottle’s hollow, an idle echo, the breath severed when he suddenly looks up.

“This whole thing you’re doing, remember where it came from? I’m talking about the whole problem of why, even with unlimited resources at your fingertips, you people couldn’t get the information you needed from detainees. And I told you something that wasn’t even a secret: If you cut someone with a knife, then come back 10 minutes later and stick that knife point into the same cut, then come back 10 minutes later and do the same thing and stick the point in the same damn cut, only this time ask a question while you do it, you’ll get an answer. It’s that simple. You don’t have to cut deep and you don’t have to cut esoteric. It’s not a whole elaborate drama where first you’ve got to drug some guy up until he’s drooling and then put him on some elaborate contraption that measures his brain waves and charts out which pain receptors you need to tweak and the synapses involved and whatever, whatever, whatever. The problem is that you have to be able to stick someone with a knife, or a pin, or just even to be able to fucking pinch a person over and over in the same spot. You’ve got black sites around the world where you can get away with a little more, but it’s still not enough. The problem comes when you try to serve two masters.”

“This is the discussion we had nine months ago, on January 3rd. I listened.” ‘I know you listened. That’s my point. I said, it’s easy, but not if you can’t pinch the guy or cut the guy in the first place. Cutting someone with a knife is illegal, you said. That was your actual response to me. Can you believe it? And I said, what if it weren’t? All your problems would be solved.”

The Diplomat’s mouth is dry, the perfect haven for desert lizards, an environment hospitable to cacti, but he decides not pick up the glass and drink the water.

Frown lines fork tines between December’s eyebrows as he gropes to remember. With his index finger on the bridge of his nose he pushes up the glasses he has forgotten to wear. “Where were we? When we had our little chat?”

“I was having my inseam measured by my tailor.”

“That’s right, you were. My advice, which wasn’t really advice, just common sense … my advice was, do two things. Number one, don’t be afraid to use your power. Use the hell out of it or don’t use it at all. Laws? Break them and don’t look back. Suddenly, all the energy that was spent trying to figure out how to tiptoe around the edges of the law is freed up for other things. Do that, and you arrive naturally at number two: you don’t need to set up black sites halfway around the world to interrogate suspects in Thailand or wherever. Set them up right here. Set them up in Mayberry U.S.A, in a house a mile down the road from Aunt Emma’s house. Keep it domestic. There’s no place like home.” The Diplomat realizes that all this elaboration is driven by December’s megalomania, his frustration at having to lower himself to the level of an errand boy by taping the abduction. Yet it is certainly true that the simple observations December had made that day had struck the Diplomat with the force of a bludgeon molded from cold solid ice. He had listened to December’s philosophical meanderings as the tailor fluttered about him taking measurements, and he came to conclusions he had been groping toward, through the twilight, for a long time: that the success of covert and clandestine activities was completely dependent on how efficiently the machine that produced deception, dissimulation and deceit operated. The secrecy that cloaked the machine and what it produced by its very nature cast a shadow, a fertile darkness that transformed the cultivator of secrets in the same way that an addiction transformed the drug user. Though covert and clandestine operations were sanctioned by the U.S. government, these activities, fueled by anti-truths, ran counter to every spiritual and religious tradition, every meaningful assertion found in the world’s sacred literature; ran counter to all ethical and moral postulates. The Diplomat thought of the Bible, one of the many aliases it attached to Satan: the prince of lies. Once he understood that the lies he manufactured could only be defined as evil, even though those lies were said to contribute to the greater good of the society he had vowed to protect, he was finally able to move forward, the treadmill beneath his feet dissolving in a sweet effervescence, a carpet of smoke that buoyed and elevated him. He had walked the treadmill for many years, attempting to balance left and right, white and black, up and down. When December, whether he was serious or facetious, had articulated the Diplomat’s own obscure secret thoughts, it catalyzed a paradigm shift. He finally understood that it made no sense to attempt to adhere to laws, when evil reached beyond what was circumscribed by law.

Black sites, the secret prisons housing suspected terrorists and enemy combatants, existed in a number of countries across the globe, established by the U.S. for the purpose of suppressing the growth of the legal and jurisdictional thorns that would flourish as a consequence of interrogating and detaining suspects on American soil within the confines of what was deemed permissible.

Very soon after their conversation the Diplomat took December’s suggestion to heart and began to establish black sites on U.S. soil, in U.S. cities, in homes that ordinary U.S. families might live in.

“No place like home,” the Diplomat now repeats. December sends the hovering waitress off with a wave of his hand.

“That’s right. Do it right here, I said. Because if you do it here, the detainee will be all fucked up before you can even start in on them. Why? Because this is America, where the kind of thing you’re doing to them is illegal and can’t be happening, because America is supposed to be better than the rest of the world, its representatives don’t stick knifes into people and ignore the law. Guy looks around and finds himself in a normal house, for christ’s sake, with maybe Wal Mart or Toy’s R Us he knows is a couple miles away down the road, and he’s being subjected interrogated this way, his sense of reality has already been shattered.”

December’s eyes slide off the Diplomat’s impassive face like a silk negligee sliding off shoulders, focusing lightly on something across the room behind the bar.

“To answer your question, I remember where it came from. It came from you. I haven’t forgotten. Your remarks were my launching pad. They were my inspiration.” The Diplomat’s expression of appreciation may or may not be genuine. “There are important people, people who come as close as is humanly possible to being indispensable, who are aware of this.” He does not know whether he is telling the whole truth, a partial truth, or no truth at all. Yet he prefers these strange moments that drop before his eyes an opaque screen, a cloudy cataract of amnesia, filtering the futile and disturbing clarity that often derives from self-knowledge. Regardless, December seems to find the remark sufficient in some way, satisfactory. “Then there it is.” Rising from his seat, pocketing the TV and the videocam, he says in the swaggering voice of an anchorman, “Parade goer’s abduction caught on tape, news at eleven.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 11

Article By: dglenn

Arts | Fiction | Novels

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