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Detainee 717

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Chapter 14

Next to his bed in the lakeside home is a nightstand with a Bunsen burner on it. K13 sits on the side of the bed and stares at the unwavering flame, still as a blue and yellow butterfly perched, sleeping, on a stamen. Behind the nightstand on a fanged fragment of wall hangs a mirror, and in the mirror floats the reflection of his shirtless torso, the hairless chest not quite the color of bronze, nothing visible in the mirror above the neck. Lamborghini is upstairs, preparing to come down when he calls her. When he asked her to assist him with his interrogation, she had feigned a rush of giddiness, clapping her hands and jumping up and down, as though they were one big dysfunctionally happy family. But in actuality, tonight will be the first time they have ever worked together.

For the last project K13 was assigned, he earned an amount of money rivaling the paycheck that a certain B-list Hollywood actor had received for his work on his latest film – so K13 had learned from reading an article in People magazine. However exorbitant an average American might consider the remuneration K13 sometimes receives, he understands that the amount is an admission by his payors that the rituals regulating the pulse and flow of everyday life come to a perilous halt when he is called on to do this work. An admission that when the rituals stop, the chaos prowling at the edges of civilization creeps closer, the roaring beast emboldened. An admission that anyone willing to expose themselves to this chaos as a consequence of aggressively pursuing the nation’s safety and security deserves to be paid a great deal of money.

By they K13 means the Diplomat and his people. He means the pure and indisputable animating forces of the United States of America.

Ultimately, rituals in their lull and repetition anchor the clockwork world of mundane transactions. The rhythms of ritual beat a solemn drum that every sane woman, child and man yearns to march to. K13’s experience has led him to conclude that without the rituals you walk and talk and act like a human being, but all the while, inwardly, you become a zombie, one of the living dead.

When he had worked with his first detainee, he did not have the prescience to devise anchoring rituals of his own. It was true that his detainee suffered during the interrogation, but as K13 worked unflinchingly to break the man, to extract information the Diplomat said was vital to the security of the nation, he struggled with his own broadly unnameable emotional and psychological ejecta that seemed, in the free-flying shrapnel of its bits and pieces, to mirror the detainee’s suffering. In the end K13 walked away with the information he needed, but he, too, was broken by the experience – perhaps no less than his detainee had been broken, though broken in ways that were not irreparable.

The Diplomat must have known intuitively that although K13 had succeeded in collecting the information, the work had exacted a heavy toll. Or perhaps he had secretly recorded the event with a monitoring device attached to a satellite floating somewhere above the earth and watched it all. At any rate, during the debriefing he told K13, “You’ve learned that you are capable of performing the job successfully. Next you’ll learn how to do the job more efficiently. Everyone has his or her own way of finding these deeper levels of efficiency. No way, however unusual, is wrong. Even there, in the house, you set goals for yourself. Your goal should be zero self-investment.”

This is why K13 is careful now to establish and adhere to certain rituals of his own when he works with a detainee. This is why, in preparation for detainee 717, Salah Bhatti, who is waiting for him in the den with its aneurysmal walls, K13 holds his arm over the sheer stiletto flame of a Bunsen burner until his nostrils ache, become carved out corridors, the smell of burning flesh walking through them and stepping directly into his brain.

A scream is nothing but a reaction. A roar that rends the throat into scarlet pennants of pain is nothing but a reaction. It is not a reflection of moral strength or weakness. It does not mean a person is less capable of love. Only a fool would believe that trying to suppress the scream for as long as possible proves anything at all. There is no need to quantify the experience with the stop watch his eyes are riveted on. Six seconds. Seven seconds. Eight seconds. But for 8.4 seconds, the scream gathers in K13’s lungs, swells to a tempest, then the storm erupts from his mouth, passing violently through the rooms of the house but dissipating quickly.

K13 knuckles away the tears that have welled involuntarily in his eyes, gathers himself from the bed as though lifting a pile of wet laundry. He bends through the holes in the walls, making his way to the bathroom, his left arm throbbing with metrical regularity. The same throb that animates a headache, deeply sited in the flesh, rooted in the mitochondria of cells. In the medicine cabinet he finds creams, lineaments, salves, ointments, gauze, scissors, tape. Cool water parachutes down from the faucet, salvific on scorched skin. This is K13’s ritual. Sometimes he uses the flame, sometimes the blade, sometimes the vise. Because you never subject your detainee to intensities of experience that you, yourself, have not confronted – this is something he has discussed with Lamborghini, the two of them trading insights, techniques, exchanging ideas that seemed to be straying desperately toward a kind of ideological cohesion but, in the end, strayed wide of the mark. Why create between the detainee and his custodian an impassable chasm, victim on one side, victimizer on the other? This is what K13 wanted to know, putting the question to Lamborghini. If you are willing to impose suffering, you should be able to absorb it.

More important, by knowing exactly what your detainee is feeling, you are able to rightfully avow that you are not a monster.

Most of the time K13’s pain is self-inflicted and the ritual is undertaken here in the lakeside home, though there have been times when he has felt the need to extend the ritual beyond these walls by calling the dominatrix whose service is advertised in the back pages of the city’s alternative lifestyle weekly newspaper, The New Midwesterner. Twice now K13 has met the woman at her “studio”— a space so sterile it seemed configured to simulate an environment devoid of overt sexual imperatives, therefore by the absence of that imperative prodding the awareness of its opposite. The woman, tall as K13, calls herself Addictora. As he finishes wrapping his arm in gauze to treat the burn, a small sun that eclipses all other sensation anywhere in his body, to distract himself he thinks of her. Of her black knee-length latex boots, shiny as lip gloss. Of the translucent black nylons, winsomely shabby, to which the straps of the garter belt, a finger extended straight in the moment before the beckoning curl, are attached. Of the corset’s black latex clench.

K13 brings commotion with him into the den where Salah sits in a chair, hooded and with ankles and wrists secured to the arms and legs of a throne-like antique chair, the felt-lined bands of the restraints designed to mitigate chafe. When the felt is later removed and the restraints bite into naked flesh, the memory of the felt-lined comfort that is now taken for granted will return with the unforgiving force of nostalgia. Wearing a black suit, white shirt and a black tie thin as an liar’s excuse, an ensemble that seems somehow to mock rather than pay tribute to the Sixties, K13 walks into the room loudly, flagrantly. There are reasons why he does this. First, he does this simply because he wishes to do it. Second, he knows Salah’s process of thinking will whirlpool with questions, scenarios, conjecture, stirring up a yellow foam of anxiety at the edges. K13 reasons that if Salah has received training he will be less likely to disappear completely into this whirlpool of thought, but even so, the whirlpool is what he must be contending with right now, sitting beneath the musty dark dome of the hood. Or Salah may be mentally counting exhalations, backward from 10 to 1, while keeping his attention tethered to the spot an inch or so below his navel, feeling his abdomen ride the slow rollercoaster of his breath, a Zen technique that seems simple enough but is difficult to successfully execute. If the mind wanders, forgets what it’s doing, start over at 10. This is a technique that when practiced for days, weeks or months – depending on the individual – begins to stabilize the mind. When this finally happens, discard the numbers, which were only training wheels, and simply follow the breath. Then a blanket of stillness and silence descends. K13’s first detainee, in the end, had confessed as much.

No, he guesses that Salah is not counting. The detainee’s head moves jerkily to track the source of the sound as K13 circles the outer perimeter of the room, trotting, sharply starting and stopping, changing directions abruptly, his rubber-soled running shoes forcing the hardwood floors to speak a language made up of gibberish, a syntax of sharp squeaks and jabbing yelps. In one corner, the corner Salah will be able to see when the hood is removed, is the body that one of the Diplomat’s underlings delivered a few hours ago. Male Caucasian, twenty-something, the black hair on the side of the head a dark dandelion of violent disarray, the result of close-range small-caliber impact. His face does not look peaceful; death does not become him. His skin is now the color of coldness, of frost clinging to slabs suspended in a butcher’s meat locker. Leaned back against the wall in a sitting position, head slightly uptilted, legs extended, arms crossed at the wrists in his lap, the body is clothed in jeans, a tucked-in blue denim button-down shirt, sandals. He was told the dead man’s name was Lenny. K13 had managed to reach his early teens without being directly exposed to death, and had listened, with a fervor he tried to downplay, to his classmates’ stories involving deceased grandparents, aunts, uncles, and in one instance, the mother of a boy he knew – he still remembers her name today, Mrs. Winestammer, Judy, though he no longer recalls the cause of her death. At a distance, death was a faceless abstraction that assumed a concrete shape only when he learned of the circumstances connected with it. If the storyteller cited the fact that a dead uncle had been a policeman killed in the line of duty, then death took on a noble, heroic quality for K13 and seemed almost desirable; if the cousin was an alcoholic who had drunkenly run his car into a tree, then the idea of death was thrown into a comic light; if an infant died, death was sorrowful and tragic. It was not until his sister, Christie, had died of leukemia at the age of sixteen – he had just turned thirteen – that death, always clothed in someone else’s perspective, eagerly shed its vague apparel and stood naked before him, striking him in the same way that the first girl he would see without clothes a few years later would strike him, triggering his puzzled, appreciative and self-deprecating amazement: so this was what it looks like – how could I have been dumb enough to not know? But it was not as if he discovered any usable perspective when she died. He did not understand what he was seeing when he saw her lifeless body in the hospital bed, and he had not understood what he was supposed to feel when he saw her in waxen repose at Pickson’s funeral parlor, the coffin backdropped by a panorama of red and white carnations, her favorite flower: after all, in death, Christie was beyond the reach of his feelings; his feelings no longer mattered. He knew only that he had loved her and that if he continued to love her, he would be slowly crushed by that love. K13 slows to a standstill and says, “Salah, I’m going to remove your hood now, and we’re going to have a conversation. What kind is up to you. But we need to talk now. Converse. Get to know one another, just a bit.”

“All right,” Salah answers, clearing his throat: dust in a crypt swirling to life. Dry and brittle, his voice is a skeleton rattling in K13’s ears. This the first time he has spoken since the abduction. Salah’s face wears a haunted expressed as the hood is pulled off. His eyes are apocalyptic and host terrible visions, the eyes of an acetic from some pre-biblical time in the act of delivering, from the soul-stunning isolation of the desert, flaming end-of-the-world prophecies. All he needs is a staff, a white beard, a beige robe woven from some rope-like fabric. K13 straightens his tie, sliding the knot up and down, adjusting it above the hard bolt of his adam’s apple. Salah will not know how to interpret the gesture, the suit, the environment; his mouth moves, in vain summons the ability to speak. “My name is K13. This is not my real name. This is a spaceman’s name, an alien’s name. I’ve dropped down from the sky. I’m here, visiting you on this planet. You may as well think of me this way. You’ll be better off thinking of me this way, as not belonging to your species. Make an effort to absorb this. K13 – it’s absurd. It’s an insult, an affront to reason. Nod if you understand me. Better yet, speak.”

“Yes, I … your name, which is not real, is … can you tell me, what have I done? Why am I brought here?”

“I want you to listen to me, Salah. Can you do that? Curry my favor. Are you listening?” And he waits until Salah nods.

“Your existence has become problematic for certain people. I work for these people. So your existence is problematic for me.”

Salah’s head shakes in a small but almost continuous palsied motion. “A mistake, you’re thinking. That’s what you’d like me to think you’re thinking.” The view of the dead man is once again blocked by K13’s body. “Certain people have misidentified you. An error of some magnitude has been made. You need to leave, go back home to your son, Jhanda, your daughter, Taj, you wife, Yasmine, your store. Well, I would like you to be able to go home. Think of me as your facilitator to that. Not a friend – but a facilitator.”

Words thinned to an urgent whisper, Salah asks, “Who is it that you think I am?” “Right now, you’re godlike. As important as god.”

The head tremor has now become for K13 a source of ambiguous attribution. In an inspired moment of realization he surmises that the motion indicates something other than terror. “You disagree?”

His voice is still whittled to a whisper. “No man is as important as god.”

“No man is as important as Allah?”

“God is god by whatever name,” Salah manages to say.

“No. God is god according to his names. Your turn.”

“Please. I only want to go home. You are right, all I want now is to see my family.” K13 steps back, gestures voila with an arm that is a matador’s cape, sweeping sight toward the body in the corner, the bull of the detainee’s astonishment staggering forward. “If you scream, no one will hear you. And I don’t think our friend over there will mind.”

“This cannot be.”

“It can be. It is.”

Salah’s eyes never stray from the body. “I thought I was being arrested for some crime, that I was being confused with a criminal. I thought a case was being built to try and deport me and my family. But you cannot be a police officer.”

“I could be a cop. Brutal, over- zealous.” K13 darts a glance over his shoulder at Lenny. “Who hasn’t heard of Rodney King? And I heard you say something about, deported? You, a U.S. citizen? Citizens can’t be deported. You know that. Or should know.”

“Who is that man?” Salah’s fingers spread and curl into fists and he screws his wrists back and forth in the restraints, pulling now, straining. “Please, I cannot breathe like this, this chair …”

“You can breathe.” K13 points to the body, “He’s the one with the real respiratory problem. What about this. We undo your hands. Gesture of good faith.”

When his hands are free, Salah massages the wrists, eyes still riveted on the corpse. “What has happened to him?

“What is your name?”

“Salah Bhatti.”

“Where were you born?”

K13 remembers that the first time he had asked the detainee the question in the Neighborhood 99 Cents Store there had been a hesitation preceding Salah’s response that, for all its eye-blink brevity, had been rife with wary calculation, the split-second weighing of consequences and possible repercussions, the attempt to discern in a stranger’s question a foreshadowing of the fanatic’s murderous vendetta. In answering the question this time he hesitates as well.

“Lahore, Pakistan. Am I here because I’m from Pakistan? Am I here because of some trouble with governments, either the United States or Pakistan?” Even though his eyes are fixed on the lurid spectacle of the dead man he asks these questions almost eagerly, giving K13 the impression that any response that might be forthcoming, even one that would initially seem to fan nothing more than a narrow deck of foreboding options or alternatives before him, would be preferable to the web of uncertainty Salah finds himself dangling in.

“How old are you?”

“Forty-six.”

“Favorite color?”

Salah’s expression sharpens around a triangle of reactions: guardedness, disbelief, confusion. “Color?” “Red, green, purple.”

“Blue,” Salah answers.

“Favorite season.”

“In this city, summer.”

“Favorite planet.”

“This one.”

“Do you dream in color?”

A furrowed brow signifies Salah’s attempt to retrieve buried information. “I … dream in black and white.”

“Are you certain?”

“Reasonably certain.”

“Do you fear death?”

Salah responds without premeditation. “At one time, when I was a youth, yes. But no more.”

“Does religion give you the strength to not fear death?”

“No. It is just an understanding.”

“Do you fear life?”

“I try to stand at the edges of life, to see myself more clearly. If at times I fear it, I remind myself to accept my fear.”

K13 dwells on this response longer than he intends, then breaks away, returning to the present, irritated to find that he has been pacing, but with no awareness of moving back and forth. “Who told you to stand at the edges of life to see more clearly?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Allah?”

“I’m a Muslim, but Allah does not blow words into my ears,” he explains without sarcasm, defiance or irony.

“You love your wife, I suppose.”

The detainee’s fingers spread, relax. “Yes, but without speaking of it.”

“You ever killed a man, a woman, a child?”

“No.”

“Do you think anything you’ve done has indirectly caused the death of any man, woman or child?”

“If a five dollar bill fell from my pocket and I had no knowledge of it,” Salah says slowly, “and if two beggars saw it on the street and fought over it, and one killed the other …”

K13 squats in front of Salah, his fingers linked behind his head. “Why did you come to this country?”

“To make a new beginning.”

For the first time Salah’s eyes leave the dead man. K13 is close enough to see Salah’s pupils widening, fertile and expressive as a mushroom cloud. The question has set off for the detainee a complex emotional and biochemical reaction, culminating in a telltale pupillary response. K13 suspects that Salah’s eyes have become the stage where specters from the past hurry forward, demanding an audience and crowding through the permeable black curtain that the pupil hangs between inner and outer worlds. He can almost see shimmering on the surface of the cornea a ghostly grisalle of the shapes that have been summoned. But he does not know what Salah is feeling or thinking, despite his native talent for filling in missing gaps, deducing motives. In a safe deposit box where he secretly keeps copies of files and dossiers on each of his detainees, Salah’s entire history, assembled by the Diplomat’s researchers, is available to him. But he has no way of knowing that Salah has, upon hearing the question, journeyed into the past on a satin surge of images that carries him back to the city of his birth.

Next Chapter

Chapter 15


Article By: dglenn


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