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Table of Contents

Detainee 717

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Chapter 5

Ten minutes later, when Salah stops for the sign at the intersection of Chelan and Strand streets, K13 rear ends the Ford Taurus. The impact is minimal, almost genteel, a jolt causing the car to curtsey. The collision is not forceful enough to cause any more than minor damage to the fender, but the sound produced is disproportionately amplified in the early morning silence. Salah is jarred forward and the seat belt straps its bandolier across his chess, snaps him back against the seat, his eyes leaping immediately to the rear view mirror. K13 puts the van in reverse and backs up, the Taurus’s bumper detaching with the screech of a rusty hinge and clattering to the street.

How Salah responds to pressure and stress is what K13 hopes to observe when he confronts Salah. Knowing his emotional predilections will enable K13 to more effectively design and customize the interrogation he will conduct. All the inane James Bond hijinks, the wiretaps and the night-vision micro-binoculars, the juvenile spy antics, the cheesy disguises, and now this orchestrated fender bender – it all serves a single purpose: to find out who these people are, who this man is. Who he is at a distance and who he is closer up; who he is on paper and off, in the flesh. Lamborghini does not bother with his kind of personal research and is content to learn everything about her detainee from a file before she settles down to business with him, letting the bureaucrats and field operatives do her legwork. A small smile fills the corners of her lips when they deliver a fifty-pound bolder of reports and drop it at her doorstep. Maybe the documentation lends legitimacy to what she does, builds a scholarly scaffolding around the deathly wreckage she wreaks. Whatever it is, she loves reports, loves the detail, page after page of useless self-justifying accumulation.

But there is no substitution for this, K13 realizes as he steps out of the van, Salah stepping out of his car at the same time and approaching him. No substitute for this proximity, where the vague scent of this morning’s breakfast spices can be detected riding lightly on Salah’s sigh. No substitute for the sight of his keyhole-black eyes narrowing to focus on K13’s own through an eclipse of worry.

Salah reaches out with an open hand, and it takes K13 a moment before he realizes the man has offered it to him in formal greeting. And then, surprising, the warm worn leather of his palm. The firm handshake itself spawns a second surprise, very little padding of flesh, the strength emerging straight and stiff from the bone.

“Are you all right, sir?” Salah asks.

K13 is the first to withdraw from the grasp. “Yeah. Obviously, though, you’re not.”

“I’ve not been injured,” he says, stepping back and looking down at himself, his arms spread wide illustratively.

“Maybe you’re not injured, but you’re not all right.”

“I have no complications, other than this.” He looks at the car. “And this is something that can be fixed, so it is really all right.”

A few people appear, hungry for something to see. They use their eyes like can openers, lifting the lid on the ordinary sight of two cars in a minor accident and stirring it with their eagerness, pouring a new spectacle out onto the street. There are four of them, excited and curious, a group in front of a neighborhood tavern, Lucky’s, closed at this early hour. Not having seen them gathering, K13 assumes they have come from nearby residential streets, though maybe they have been congregated all this time in front of Lucky’s locked door, waiting for it to open. Of the four, two stand out in the group: A tall Hispanic man with a pushed-in face holding a metal detector and an elderly white man who wears a beige safari jacket with a constellation of zippered pockets and is squatting next to a panting German Shepard, his arm draped around the dog’s neck, wreathed with thick fur.

“No complications? You backed up into me. I’d call that a complication.”

Salah’s eyes enlarge with onyx bafflement and his thin frame freezes. “But, sir, that is unlikely,” he insists without vehemence. “Why would I do such a thing?”

“How the Frank Fuck would I know?” K13 had glanced through Salah’s side window, seen the stick shift. “Maybe you thought you were in first when you were really in reverse.”

“Do you truly believe I backed up into you?”

Two of the men from the spectators, the one carrying the metal detector and the one with the dog, approach the intersection. Letting incredulity helium his voice, K13 says in a tone of rising impatience, “You think I have nothing better to do than stand here and argue with you? Lie to you?”

Salah steps forward, not back, and that single step toward K13 brings him dangerously close to an act that could be seen as trespassing into another’s personal space. He is stepping into the zone that extends beyond the frontiers of the flesh, where K13’s emotions, instincts and thoughts have built rarefied outposts, scouting what lies ahead; transparent and timeless, this area is where the zone’s owner can be taken by surprise, affected in unseen ways, badly thrown off balance even before a finger can be lifted in defense. This is a territory possessed and occupied wholly by K13 even though it can assume no legitimate existence except through another’s trespass. This is K13’s reasoning. At the same time he observes that Salah steps closer not to invade, but to carry his understanding of things forward into a vacuum, into K13’s apparent lack of understanding. It seems reasonable to K13 that his own reaction should take the form of a step backward, and he does so.

Salah spreads his arms open again. His gestural repertoire so far seems limited to this pantomime of a wide embrace. “No, of course not. I’m saying nothing of the kind. If only I could say with 100 percent certainty that I did not back into you. But the fact is that in all good conscience, I can’t say it.”

“My sister’s male child is a lawyer,” announces the man with the growling German Shepard, standing near the side door Salah has left open. He makes the remark to no one in particular, or to both Salah and K13, or to the man standing next to him with the metal detector. The dog strains on its leash, yellowed bars of teeth failing to cage the low growl that seems aimed only at K13.

“Your sister’s male child?” the other man asks. “You mean your newphew?”

Salah says, “Please, I do not need the services of a barrister.”

“My nephew is dead to me,” the German Shepard man says.

The other man passes the metal detector thoughtfully over the German Shepard’s head. “My own son was dead before he was born.”

K13 is growing impatient. Any excursion into the streets these days ends up this way, in these random collisions with people frayed at the edges, people in the process of departing before they’ve arrived, city dwellers aimlessly wandering through a toxic urban milieu. “What are you going to do about this?” K13 asks Salah.

Salah touches his fingertips to his forehead, as though massaging bruised and broken thoughts. “I’m sorry for not introducing myself,” he says slowly. “My name is Salah. Salah Bhatti. May I ask your name?”

“Smith.”

“Mr. Smith, if your own car is damaged, it does not appear to be seriously damaged, this is something that can be fixed. I have a friend, Aadesh, a reliable man who owns an auto repair. He is good with these things, good with making damaged parts good as new. He can help the both of us, if need be.” Salah bends down low on one knee, his cheek almost parallel to the asphalt as he tries to peer under the van’s front bumper. In this awkward position, he is a pretzel of jutting elbows and knees. “I am going to work, but his shop is along the way. You can follow me, Mr. Smith, and he can lift your van on his hydraulic and tell us whether your van will need repairs. It looks fine, but after all, who knows?”

The dog is barking now.

The words rise and seethe in K13’s throat, like bitumen in a tar pit. “Shut that dog up.”

“Don’t raise your voice to my dog,” the man warns.

The dog continues barking at him with mounting frenzy. K13 does not like animals; or rather, since his childhood, they have always seemed to react to his presence with varying degrees of suspicion or blatant hostility. Having been subjected to this unprovoked hostility all his life, whether emanating from dog, cat, hamster, fish or fowl, he does not attempt to disguise what he regards as a well-justified enmity for the entire animal kingdom. His Zastavia Z10, a handgun manufactured in the country formerly known as Yugoslavia, is in the van’s glove compartment; for a moment he fantasizes quieting the German Shepard with a 10mm slug. The fantasy is therapeutic and defuses any tendency he might have to produce or brandish the weapon.

At any rate, he sees this is going nowhere. Salah Bhatti displays an absence of the anger, frustration and fear that magnify innate tendencies a thousand fold, revealing weaknesses that fissure the foundation of the personality. Emotional states that are the opposite of anger, frustration and fear, like the hopeful equanimity displayed by the detainee-to-be, reveal nothing at all. From experience, K13 has learned that a fearful person is a transparent person. Today he has learned nothing new about Salah Bhatti; this face-to-face with him confirms but does not extend the knowledge K13 been able to puzzle together through observation: Salah the decent man, devoted to his family, hard-working, outwardly grateful for the opportunity to take part in the American dream, though disillusioned about of his place in the American hierachy. Prior to the work he has done for the Diplomat, K13 had believed that evil would announce itself mythologically, by way of any number of larger-than-life distinguishing characteristics. Unmistakable as a scar, evil would clearly mark or a man or woman, live in the lines of their faces, in the depth of the eyes, the flare of the nostrils, the slant of the lips. But he has learned that in reality evil is as undetectable as a thought, coming to full blossom in the deed, not the doer. It took K13 some time to rid himself of his superstitious certainly that evil must of necessity have a monstrous appearance. Of the four detainees he has so far worked on, only one had the sort of twisted dissolute look that would suggest an intimate alliance with evil. The others, like Salah, looked like people you passed on the street, people you glanced at and away from without a second thought.

With a sense of grim purpose he intentionally calls to mind opaque events, splintered relationships, punishing rites of passage, graceless epiphanies, the clockwork of days squandered in the search for solidity and something three-dimensional. His past a whore strutting through his head wearing the short skirt of his afflicted memories as he exploits it, taking what he needs. In this chaotic 10-second delve there is sadness and the numbness of rage and between the two, rage has the greater utility, so he will use it in the same way that the method actor uses the emotional detritus of the past.

He can say anything to Salah but he wants this to be a believable performance. “You smash into my car, now you want me to follow you? So you can run some foreigner scam on me? I must look like a fool to you. Are you even a fucking American citizen? Let me guess – no. Let me keep guessing: You can’t stand America and you’re here to either leech all you can out of this country and then take it back to wherever you came from, or you’re here to help somebody plant a bomb somewhere.”

How Salah will react in the face of these hurled malignancies, how the two bystanders will align themselves with these accusations, is beyond K13’s ability to predict. The one with the metal detector is idly sweeping it along the length of the detached fender and seems not to have heard. The face of the German Shepard’s owner has the dark imminent look of a grenade that rolls across the floor and comes to a halt next to a baby’s crib, and K13 notices the man’s hand discreetly feeding slack to the leash. For the time being Salah is silent, staring at K13 with an expression that is empty, like a frame without a painting.

The German Shepard man says acidly, “Why don’t you back off him, buddy. The guy’s trying to work it out.”

When the dog lunges and its teeth snag the arm of his jacket, K13 leans back and begins to fall, then his center of balance gyroscopes and he is aslant but on his feet, complexly balanced, able to grab the leash. His adrenaline is a mechanism, a crank, and he uses it, winding the leash around his wrist with surprising speed, hefting the dog in the air. An erratic pendulum of fur and strangled yelps, the German Shepard chokes, long tongue rolled out like a red carpet at a lurid event. Leaning back and hefting the leash with both hands, K13 watches the owner’s blood-exiled face and lets the animal swing and twist in its collar. The pork-chop shaped haunches labor in small kicks and jerks as though needled by electricity.

The owner lets out an anguished moan and cups his hands around his own throat, vicariously choking. “You crazy bastard, you’re killing him!”

The man with the metal detector backs off, his gait uneven, filled with stumble and asymmetries. It becomes obvious to K13 that the man suffers from a mental impairment of some kind that has not been apparent until now. He drops his metal detector, turns and stumbles away, glancing over his shoulder, shouting “dead before he’s born, dead before he’s born,” over and over.

Salah has his arms thrust out, palms thrust forward, hands fanning frantically. “Mr. Smith, please, please, let this be between the two of us, let this man and his poor dog go …” And then he repeats himself, word for word, reaching the end of the sentence, pausing, starting all over again. Until the repetition begins to sound almost hypnotic to K13.

He decides to let the dog drop to the ground, a decision having nothing to do with the mesmeric quality of Salah’s heartfelt repetition. The German Shepard man approaches at first cautiously, and then, abandoning all restraint, throws himself on his knees before the dog, cradling the head in his arms, leaning down toward the slackly gaping muzzle. For a moment K13 watches him attempt to perform mount-to-mouth resuscitation on the German Shepard and then gets into the van. The rear view mirror K13 looks into holds Salah in diminishing oblong as the van pulls away. His window is down and he hears the eggshell-thin man calling out, “Thank you, Mr. Smith, thank you …”

Next Chapter

Chapter 6


Article By: dglenn


Arts | Fiction | Novels


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