It was another hot day. Sergeant Mitchell London moved down the alley with the other men in the squad. Unlike the others, London carried no weapon but for his sidearm which he could only use defensively according to the rules of war.
Not that the terrorists cared about the rules of war. They’d just as soon take a shot at London for the sole reason that he had the red cross patch on his arm. Rather than protecting him, it made him a target.
Ahead of London walked Lieutenant Arthur Hawkins. Hawkins was on his third tour in Iraq, and as a result had more combat experience than any two men on his team. This was especially true of the man flanking him to the left, Private First Class Richard Overby. Overby wasn’t even nineteen years old yet, and thus far hadn’t seen any action for the month he’d been deployed.
Overby glanced at Private Jesse Stalder who had taken up position on the opposite side of the alley near a T intersection, said: “You sure he came down this way?”
Stalder nodded. Overby gripped his M-16 in his sweaty palms, looked back over his shoulder at Hawkins. From where they stood, pressed up against the mud-brick walls of the various homes, they were relatively safe. The awning over the west side of the alley provided a bit of shade for Stalder too.
But in Iraq safety was always temporary. A few minutes earlier, they had been relatively safe inside their Stryker vehicle. Then, Stalder had seen a man glance up at them in surprise before he turned, picked up his AK-47, and darted into the alley.
Hawkins left Bravo team back at the Stryker and quickly assembled Alpha to do a quick check of the alley. Combat medic London had tagged along just in case his services were needed posthaste.
The alley was quiet, however. They hadn’t seen any movement at all since they entered, and even the traffic on the nearby road was quieter now. It was almost as if the alley simply swallowed up all evidence of life.
Hawkins felt a bead of sweat on his forehead. He ignored it. Something in the alley felt wrong and he had learned to trust his instincts over his three tours. He motioned to Stalder: check the corner.
Stalder moved forward. He carried the Squad Automatic Weapon, which could be used solo to suppress an enemy position if need be. Stalder reached the corner of the building and glanced around it. There was nothing there. He turned, shrugged toward Hawkins.
And the shot rang out. Stalder fell to the ground like a marionette with its strings cut. It happened so quickly that for an instant no one moved. Then Hawkins broke the silence, yelled: “Sniper! Find cover! London, stay put.”
“Sir, he needs medical help.”
“And that sniper’s waiting for you to go out so he can take you too.” Hawkins picked up his radio and calmly said, “Bravo, this is Alpha. We’re taking fire. Take the Stryker and flank the alley to the North. Copy?”
At that, Hawkins knelt and moved toward the intersection of the houses. He glanced around the corner but couldn’t see the sniper. “My guess, he’s in that building there,” he muttered to himself. Then he moved back around the corner.
Stalder hadn’t moved. Hawkins grabbed a smoke grenade. “Smoke out!” he yelled, tossing it around the corner of the building. He turned back to London. “When the smoke’s built up enough, go get him.”
“Yes sir,” London said. The seconds seemed to stretch on for hours, but he knew that was a figment of his imagination. He also knew that figment or not, Stalder didn’t have much time for London to wait.
“Go now,” Hawkins said. He turned, moving his M-4 to cover the alley for London.
London rushed across the alley and knelt by Stalder’s side. The soldier had fallen onto his face, and London gently rolled him over. The young man had been struck in the neck. The bullet had made its way through his spine. Stalder was already dead.
London turned to call for a stretcher. As he did, he saw an object sail through the smoke screen in the alley. “Grenade!” he yelled, instinctively covering Stalder’s body.
Hawkins jumped back from the corner of the alley less than a second before the grenade exploded, sending shrapnel in a lethal radius. Hawkins was hit in the leg and he stumbled backwards.
Almost concurrently, a barrage of AK-47 fire erupted and the patter of bullets striking brick filled the alley. London had nowhere to move, he was stuck with Stalder’s body on the opposite side of the alley just around the T corner. Across and back from him, Hawkins bit his tongue at the fire in his leg. He grabbed his radio: “Bravo, where are you?”
There was no response. Hawkins tried again before he realized his radio was dead. It had been struck by shrapnel and was now useless. “Give me your radio,” he shouted at Overby. But Overby had run down the alley toward where the Stryker had originally been parked.
There was another explosion as a second grenade went off. Hawkins rolled backward until he saw the entryway into the house. He pushed the door open and slipped inside. The house was empty.
His leg was bleeding profusely now. He quickly pulled off his belt and wrapped it around his leg. He pulled one of his shooting gloves off and rolled it into a ball, placed it against his femoral artery, and tightened the belt around it as tight as he could make it. Then he fell back with his head against the floor of the house.
Outside, it had grown quiet. London and Stalder are still out there, he thought suddenly. But he found he had no more strength to get up and check on them. The world was becoming very hazy for some odd reason. Before he could stave it off, he lapsed into unconsciousness.
London felt chunks of brick strike his helmet as bullets danced against the wall behind him, but amazingly he remained unharmed. After what must have been less than a minute, the shooting ceased. London raised his head from the ground and realized that he was alone in the alley with a dead man.
Only that wasn’t quite true. Two men materialized through the smoke just over thirty yards away, AK-47s at their shoulders. London pulled his sidearm, but it wasn’t very accurate over any great distances. Their AK-47s had the advantage here. The first man spotted him, and called out in Arabic. Then, both of them had their weapons trained on him.
“I’m a noncombatant!” London shouted, tossing the pistol aside. “A medic. Doctor.”
The men moved forward. He kept his arms raised, let them see the red cross patch. They ignored it and instead, the larger of the men circled around behind him as the first kept his AK-47 pointed at London’s chest. The man behind him grabbed his right hand and pulled it back, followed by his left. The man wrapped plastic cord around both his wrists binding them tight.
The man who had tied him stepped to one side and then jerked London to his feet. He looked at Stalder’s body and his SAW and quickly picked up the weapon, putting the sling over his shoulder. Then, he picked up the body.
Gunfire erupted behind them. The first man gestured with his AK-47: move. It was toward the gunfire.
London suddenly realized that it must have been Bravo team shooting. He might be able to make a break for it.
The man beside him had other plans. He kicked the door to a house open and pushed London in. The second man followed, still carrying Stalder’s body. They made their way through the empty house, and got to the front. London could see three other men with AK-47s there in the front yard. They were taking pot shots down the alley. One of them had an RPG too, but apparently had used all his rounds.
The first man pushed London away toward a van that was parked in the back. He then yelled something in Arabic, and two of the three men rushed back. They looked at London in a surprise that quickly melted into something akin to a wolf staring at prey.
The first man pushed London into the back of the van. Stalder’s corpse was thrown on top of him. Then, the remaining terrorist who must have been providing cover fire made his break for the van. Seconds later, they were speeding out of the alley and onto the main streets.
Once the van was moving, one of the men pulled off his turban. He wrapped it around London’s face as a makeshift blindfold. The cloth was hot and sweaty, but London held his repulsion in check. Never a religious man, he found the sudden need to pray.
Lieutenant Jamison Orion, leader of Bravo team, eased down the alley toward where Alpha had been ambushed. He was flanked by his men, and all of them were nervous. The attack had apparently been a quick hit and run. The terrorists knew they had no advantage in a prolonged firefight, so they used lightning fast tactics instead. Still, the situation was always volatile. It wasn’t over until it was over.
Orion reached the T intersection. He could see evidence of the fight all around him: impact craters from the bullets on the bricks, small blast craters from the grenades, brass casings. At one part of the alley there was even blood that stained the ground crimson.
“Alpha, this is Bravo.”
Still no response. Orion was worried now. The shooting had stopped a few minutes ago as the terrorists had fled. The city streets offered too many avenues for them to seal all of them off. But Orion’s bigger concern wasn’t that they’d escape but that they’d come back, this time with a vehicle bomb.
Orion crouched by the bloodstain, his M-4 shouldered. There was a sudden thump at the entrance to one of the houses. Orion shouldered his carbine and aimed it at the house. The door opened and an Iraqi woman appeared, her hands upraised. She looked terrified, but she waved for the soldiers anyway.
Orion hesitated. The woman said something in Arabic. None of the soldiers with Orion could speak the language, however, and she apparently didn’t know English either. She motioned again in a universal sign: come here.
“Cover me,” Orion whispered to the man on his right. Then he started forward, his weapon still at the ready. The woman pushed the door open a little further and Orion saw the camouflaged leg on the floor. It was US camouflage, and it had been stained red with blood.
He remained cautious, lest it be a trap. He moved another step to examine the house rather than focusing on what he assumed was a dead body. He couldn’t see anyone in the shadows. Still, he knew it was a risk going further into the open.
Finally he glanced down at the body and realized it was Lieutenant Hawkins. The man’s chest rose and fell; he was still alive. Orion moved into the entryway. The woman backed into the corner, still scared. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, his voice flat and emotionless. Then, he radioed for a medic.
The van pulled into the warehouse twenty minutes later. Abdul-Khaliq al Kateb could hardly believe his luck. They had meant to prepare a trap for the Americans, but Safwan had almost ruined everything by running down the alley before they were ready. But in the end, it hadn’t mattered because they had killed at least one of the American pigs, and they had captured a second man.
Abdul hadn’t counted on capturing one live. He hadn’t planned for Allah’s bounty, but that hardly mattered at this point. They had everything set up and ready to go. They had used most of the equipment just a month ago on Boulos, the traitorous dog who had tried to pass off information to the Iraqi police. Boulos had learned his lesson. They had videotaped the entire thing and forced his wife and three children to watch what they had done to him before they slaughtered all his seed too.
They had practiced. And now they had one of the greatest demons of all, an American soldier.
Abdul stepped out of the van and opened the back doors. He pulled the living soldier out, and forced him over to the corner where Boulos had been chained. Abdul used the same restraints and he wished Boulos’s blood was still on the metal to frighten the American more.
Oh well. Allah never promised you everything.
Abdul walked back toward the van. One of the men had already dumped the body of the dead soldier onto the floor. They were taking turns kicking the corpse. Abdul let them for a while, then realized the turban blindfold was still on the living soldier. He moved back to the prisoner and read the nameplate on the man’s jacket.
“London.” Abdul knelt and pulled the turban off. “I lived in London for two summers.”
The American showed surprise. That was good, Abdul thought. It gave him an advantage.
“Yes, I know English quite good. Not good as you, but better than them.” He gestured toward the others who had taken off their sandals and were slapping the corpse with them. Then Abdul pulled out a knife from the sheath on his belt. “I think you should see this.”
Abdul turned and said something in Arabic to the others. They stepped back from the body and Abdul smiled. “Take off his shirt,” he ordered in Arabic. Firas, the youngest of them at seventeen, immediately did so. Abdul moved over to the body, turned back and made sure London was watching. Then, he plunged the knife into the dead man’s abdomen.
London looked away. “No!” Abdul shouted. “You look!”
London refused. Abdul gestured to Hatim, and the strong man who had hauled the corpse in all by himself moved over to the American. Hatim smiled grimly, grabbed London’s chin, and pulled until he was looking toward Abdul again.
“If you close your eyes I’ll have him squeeze them out,” Abdul said. He gave London a second to let it sink in before he moved back to the knife. He cut upward through the abdomen until there was a fourteen inch incision. The intestines of the pig—Abdul couldn’t think of this thing as a man—slid out onto the concrete floor of the warehouse. He helped pull out as much as he could until the pig had become an empty vessel. Then, Abdul motioned for Firas to bring him the box from the corner.
Firas did so, a smile on his face. He was eager, the young man was. Abdul smiled back and then opened the box. He pulled out the plastic explosives and packed them into the dead container beneath him. When it was full, he pulled the skin back together and used a heavy thread to sew it shut.
Abdul stepped back from the body. Firas redressed it as Abdul waited. When Firas was finished, Abdul glanced back over to make sure London was still watching. The prisoner was.
Good. Abdul knelt and put the knife at the dead body’s throat, slicing deep into the neck. His arms jerked up and down with intense passion until finally the head was severed. Abdul kicked it over into the corner of the warehouse. Then he lifted the headless corpse and, with the help of Firas, moved it into the van.
Abdul stepped back. He was sweating now. That was good. Allah didn’t like a lazy man. He liked diligent workers, and Abdul fit the bill perfectly. He motioned to Safwan and then stopped, a new idea formed.
Abdul walked back to London. In Arabic he told Hatim, “You can release his head now.” The man did so, and London rotated his head on his neck, probably popping a vertebrae or two.
“You have identification?”
“Yes. In my wallet.”
“Good.” He motioned for Hatim to lift London to his feet. Abdul took London’s wallet from his pocket and opened it. Some pictures fell out, family no doubt. Abdul ignored them. Instead, he picked up the military ID card and tossed it toward Safwan. The card landed in the intestines that he been left on the floor, and everyone broke out into laughter at that.
Except for London, of course. Abdul turned back to the American. “There is just one problem,” he said, his hand resting on London’s right arm. “They may think we found your wallet instead of capturing you. How can we prove we really have you?”
It was a rhetorical question of course, but Abdul enjoyed the way the prisoner’s eyes filled with fear as he wondered what Abdul would do next. Abdul decided not to let him wait.
He grabbed London’s right wrist and simultaneously drew his knife against the base of London’s thumb. London screamed and jerked his arm, but Hatim helped hold it still as Abdul cut into his hand. The knife found the joint and slipped through it. Then the thumb was off.
Abdul released London and held the bloody thumb up at the prisoner. “This ought to prove we have you,” he said cheerfully. Putting the thumb together with London’s ID, he gave both to Safwan and gave the man instructions. Safwan nodded and jumped into the van.
Abdul turned back toward London. It was amazing, he thought. After a while you didn’t even notice the screams the pigs made as they were slaughtered.
The pain was worse than anything London had experienced before. Even as it racked his hand, his mind was contemplating. No sir, couldn’t turn off that brain of his. He mentally calculated the odds that he could get the thumb successfully reattached. Given his current position, chained to a wall and in enemy custody, the odds were roughly equivalent to the odds that he would spontaneously combust. Even if soldiers marched in right there, and even if they had stopped the van and had his thumb in hand (so to speak), the odds that it could be reattached were still low.
How could he do his job without a thumb? He had wanted to be a surgeon after his stint in the Army was up. But that wouldn’t happen now. Not unless he got really skilled with his left hand.
The man who had cut his thumb off was busy setting up a video camera. London felt a shudder travel down his spine. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We have to survive before we can learn to use a scalpel with our left hand.
Abdul turned on the light above the camera. Everything appeared to be in working order. He smiled at London as it whirred next to him. “You threw away your gun in the alley very fast,” Abdul said, his tone slightly above mockery. “They have such cowards in a professional army?”
London bit his tongue against the pain of his missing thumb. “I’m a…noncombatant,” he managed. “A medic.”
“Ah.” Abdul waved his hand dismissively. “You are a coward. Just like a woman.”
“I’m a medic. I’m wearing a red cross on my arm. You are committing war crimes here.”
Abdul laughed. “War crimes? There is no crime in war. There is only survival and death.”
“You will be prosecuted.”
Abdul laughed again. “Arrogant American. You always think your cavalry will show up and rescue you.” Abdul stood. “Enough talking.”
“I said silence!” Abdul screamed. The sudden shift in his voice startled London. “If you speak again, I shall have your tongue.” He waved his knife at London’s face for confirmation. After a second, Abdul turned toward Hatim and nodded.
Hatim pushed a table over next to London. Its legs squealed against the concrete floor, a sound not unlike running a fork over a chalkboard. The table was bare except for a vice clamped to the side. Hatim calmly turned the screw, opening the vice’s gaping maw. When he judged that it was open wide enough, he stepped back and let Abdul return to the camera frame.
London swallowed hard as he looked at the table. The vice was an angry mouth, and he feared what the terrorists planned to do with it. The main terrorist—London began to call him Knife-man—was making a speech to the camera, gesturing with the knife and shouting Arabic slogans. The only thing London recognized was the occasional Allahu akbar. Each utterance of it filled him with terror.
Knife-man finished his speech and motioned toward the Big Bruiser. Bruiser grabbed London by the shoulders and pushed him toward the table.
My head! The thought shot through his mind as Bruiser forced his head toward the vice. “No!” he shouted. “Not my head!”
Knife-man kicked him in the ribs. It drove the air from his lungs, but Bruiser was too strong for him in any case. He fought for as long as he could, but in less than a minute his head was in the vice and Knife-man was tightening it.
The pressure was immense. It felt as if his sinuses were about to collapse. London lay across the table, face down, his head in the vice. The two metal plates were positioned just over his ears, and they burned as they were crushed into the side of his head.
Knife-man knelt by him, patted him on the back of the neck. Then, he jammed something cold and metallic against London’s teeth. He tasted blood from his mashed lips, heard the terrorist command: “Open.”
The metal smashed into his lips again, and he opened his mouth. It was a pair of tongs, and Knife-man pried his jaw open as wide as he could. London jerked on the table, but Bruiser sat on his back to let him know if he jerked too hard he could snap his own neck.
Knife-man switched the tongs to his other hand and pulled out a pair of pliers. He pushed them into London’s mouth, caught the man’s tongue.
“I told you to remain silent,” Knife-man said. He jerked London’s tongue down at that, then he released the tongs. London was forced to keep his mouth open now to keep from biting his tongue. It was pulled out further than it ever had been before and he had to suppress the urge to gag. Knife-man turned toward the young terrorist and said, “Firas!” He followed it with a command in Arabic.
London couldn’t tell what was going on anymore. His eyes watered from the sting of the pliers on his tongue. Knife-man spoke softly: “Did I ever tell you Firas was a first rate football player? He could kick a ball a kilometer.”
To prove it, Firas turned and kicked London’s jaw as hard as he could. The blow struck London’s chin and knocked him out cold, but not before his teeth clamped down on his outstretched tongue, severing it.
Abdul watched the prisoner go slack. Blood poured out of his mouth, pooling on the concrete floor. Even so, Abdul knew he could get more of the tongue with his knife. With the prisoner unconscious, he’d be most cooperative now.
Abdul pulled London’s mouth open again and then pushed his knife into the man’s mouth. He cut with sharp, jerky motions, not caring if he jabbed a section of London’s uvula out too. He only finished when he was satisfied he had as much of the tongue as he could get.
Only then did he go back to the camera and turn it off. He would let the prisoner regain consciousness on his own. In the meantime, they stripped him down naked and tied him face-down on the table. When he woke up, they’d roll him over. But they didn’t want him to drown on his blood while he was unconscious. That would be uncivilized.
Safwan drove the van through the streets careful to bring as little attention to himself as possible. As he drove, he picked up the cell phone and dialed a number. A few seconds later, the connection went through:
“Hello Rafiq,” Safwan said. “I have another story for you.”
On the other end of the line Rafiq took down the information. When he hung up the phone he scratched his chin for a moment. In his hand he held a news bulletin he had received just before the phone call.
The United States Army was missing two soldiers. They offered $20,000 for information leading to the return of their soldiers. Rafiq ignored the number on the bottom of the bulletin and called a separate number. If he played this right, he would be very rich soon.
London slowly came to. His mouth was on fire, yet it felt strangely…empty. He ran his tongue over his teeth, but couldn’t feel any of his teeth at all. The fire burned stronger and he realized that they must have jerked his teeth out.
Even as he thought that, his chin flared in pain and he remembered the kick. He had bitten through his tongue on impact. It wasn’t his teeth he was missing at all.
He jerked his head up, realized he was strapped down. Pain erupted from his wrists and he tried to curse, but all that came out was an “Uuungh.”
“Look who’s awake,” Knife-man said. He stepped over to the camera and turned it back on. “I was beginning to wonder if we needed to get some smelling salts for you.”
London said: “Uungh.”
The man laughed. London dropped his head again; the effort of lifting it hurt his neck too much. He was hanging off the end of a table, and he could see his hands chained to the table legs too. There were manacles, but they didn’t look right. In fact, he could see blood dripping from them, and he realized suddenly what it was.
With his thumb cut off, his right hand would have slid right out of the manacle. They had fixed that problem by bolting the manacle through his wrist. He looked at his left wrist and saw they had done the same there too, although they hadn’t cut any fingers off that hand yet.
London screamed again, his voice reduced monosyllables punctuated with gutturals from the back of his throat.
The Knife-man had stopped moving now. London felt the man’s hand grab his thigh then, and he realized his legs had been bound so he was spread-eagle across the table.
“You said you do not fight, just like a woman,” Knife-man said. As he did, London heard the sound of a metal blade sliding past another metal blade. “I guess a woman won’t need these then.”
London screamed again, but there was nothing he could do. Fiery pain erupted, and the world seemed to spin white for a second. He couldn’t say anything, couldn’t even think. All he could do was scream.
It felt like an hour had passed, but it was only seconds. Knife-man returned and dropped his testicles on the floor in front of London’s face before he stomped on them.
London’s tears streamed down his face. Knife-man grabbed his chin and pulled his head up, looked into his eyes. “Now you have a reason not to fight.”
He dropped London’s head and motioned for the Big Bruiser. The Big Bruiser held something in his hand and as he stepped toward London, he let the end of it drop.
It was a whip. London tried to plead—he couldn’t get used to not having a tongue. Bruiser didn’t even laugh, he just looked methodically down at London, drew his arm back, and let the whip go.
Abdul watched Hatim whip the American and counted the blows in his head. When Hatim reached twenty, he raised a hand. The American’s back was raw now. Blood ran down the sides of his ribs, pooled on the table.
“Turn him over,” he ordered in Arabic.
Hatim bent and released London’s left manacle from the table. He fastened it to the loop the right arm was in, then released the right arm. He pulled it back across until it was in the left loop. London lay there, his arms crossed.
Hatim went to the other end of the table and released London’s right foot. “Hold this,” he snapped at Firas. The teen obeyed, and Hatim released London’s left foot from the table. He picked it up and said, “Turn him now,” to Firas.
They did so, pulling London over to his side and then onto his back. London screamed in agony as the open cuts raked across the table. He arched his back and Hatim slammed his fist into the American’s solar plexus.
“No, Hatim,” Abdul ordered. “See to the irons.”
Hatim frowned but obeyed.
Abdul looked at the American. He had no head support, but he was trying to keep his head up. Abdul could wait until the American gave up. With his back in pain, it didn’t take long.
Now the world was upside down. London could feel his body going into shock. He felt cold, tried not to shiver. Each shiver sent a spasm of pain through his body. He knew he was losing a lot of blood too. If this continued much longer, he could simply die from that.
Knife-man had a glass vial in his hand. It looked like a test-tube of some kind. London wondered if Knife-man had gotten a biological agent of some kind. Maybe anthrax or something. Whatever it might be, it couldn’t hurt more than this.
There was a sudden snap. Knife-man had broken the vial. London watched as the man knelt by Stalder’s intestines, which were still unceremoniously dumped on the floor. Knife-man poked and prodded them with the broken end of the glass tube. Then he stood back up and looked over at London once more.
“You must be thirsty.”
And he was. It was the loss of blood: his body needed to replace the fluids. It was also getting very hot in the room. They had built a large fire in the corner where Big Bruiser was currently working. Even so, London felt another shiver course down his body.
Knife-man stepped next to London and put the vial down on the table top. London couldn’t see it now, it hurt too much to raise his head. He could hear Knife-man at work though. Seconds later, Knife-man returned with a jug of water. He grabbed London’s head and pulled it up, then tipped the jug toward his mouth: “Drink.”
London felt the water rush into his mouth. It sloshed around and he gagged as he tried to swallow. Without a tongue his mouth felt completely different, but at least he couldn’t taste the horrible Iraqi water. It would have been worse this time because it was tinged with his blood too.
He managed three swallows before he started to choke. He coughed, shook his head. Knife-man pulled the jug up and gently lowered London’s head once more. Then he moved back to the other side of the table and picked up the vial once more.
“Tell me, my American friend, did you ever learn about a man named Tycho Brahe?”
London couldn’t answer. If he could have said something, he would have said that the name was familiar but he couldn’t place it. Knife-man seemed to tell that already.
“He was a scientist from Denmark, a true infidel. He drank beer constantly. He was a decadent swine, an American before America was founded, you see?”
Knife-man walked back to the front of the table where London could see him once more. “Do you know how he died?”
London shook his head. Knife-man continued his trek out of view once more, moving toward the end of the table where London’s feet were.
“He was at a banquet, and he drank too much beer again. After a time, his bladder was quite full. Yet he felt that it would be…impolite to leave too soon. He held his bladder so long it burst. It was a very painful way to die, don’t you think?”
Knife-man didn’t give London a chance to respond. He had moved back up to the side of the table once more. “There are many ways to make it so someone cannot urinate. An infection, for instance, could cause swelling which will block the urethra. And there are several ways to get an infection too. This is just one of those ways.”
Knife-man grabbed London’s penis in his left hand and pushed the glass vial into it with his right hand. London screamed and tried to jerk away. Knife-man gave the vial a quick twist, then snapped it off, leaving the glass inside the glans.
He returned to the head of the table. “Are you still thirsty?” he asked jovially.
Safwan stopped the van in the lot. He picked up the package that contained London’s thumb and ID. He glanced back at the corpse in the van: it was starting to stink. He’d be glad when the body dump was finished.
Safwan saw Rafiq’s car in the designated place. He would give Rafiq the information to air on Al-Haqq news, and then be on his way. When dark fell, he’d drop the body of the dead soldier and wait for it to be discovered. When the Americans showed up, or if they were unlucky and it was just the Iraqi police, he’d detonate the C-4 in the corpse, hopefully killing several of the infidels. But that wouldn’t be for a while.
Safwan exited his van and quickly trotted over to Rafiq’s car. Rafiq rolled his window down as Safwan approached. “You have it?”
“Yes,” Safwan said, glancing around. He passed the package to Rafiq.
“What are your demands for the Americans?”
“Free all our brothers and sisters from prison and give us eight million dollars, or the second soldier dies.”
Rafiq laughed. “You know they’ll never agree to it.”
Safwan smiled. “Just as we’ll never let the American live.”
They both laughed at that. “Here, let me get you your money.” Rafiq reached under the driver’s seat. As he did, Safwan turned to glance back up the road…and saw his van was gone.
“What?” he started. “My van!”
“Do not move,” Rafiq said. Safwan felt a stab of fear in his heart. He turned and saw the pistol in Rafiq’s hand.
He had left his weapons in the van.
“How could you do this?” Safwan shouted. He heard the footfalls behind him. He slowly raised his hands. “Allah will cut you down for this, infidel dog!”
Safwan spat at Rafiq. Rafiq simply smiled and watched Safwan was pulled to the ground and tied up. Only then did Rafiq grab his cell phone and dial the number he had memorized from the bottom of the bulletin.
“Lieutenant Orion? There’s a Rafiq from Al-Haqq on the phone for you.”
Jamison Orion nodded and picked up the phone. “Salaam, Rafiq. How are you?”
“Salaam, Yeshua. I am doing quite well.”
“Why do you keep calling me Yeshua? I told you my name is Jamison.”
“Yes, but you are a Christian, are you not?”
“Then why are you ashamed to take Yeshua’s name?”
“I’m not ashamed, it’s just not my name,” Orion said. To keep this from continuing, he quickly interjected: “But that’s not why you called.”
“Of course not. I hear you lost two men and are providing a reward for them.”
“And you have information, I presume.”
“You might say that.”
“Look, it has to be actionable information in order for you to get any of the money. Unless you have someone who saw the whole thing, you’re not getting anything.”
Rafiq laughed. “I have better than that, Yeshua. I have one of your missing men. He is dead, unfortunately. But I also have the man who delivered the body. He, my good friend, is not dead.”
This is too good to be true, Orion thought, but he couldn’t squelch the sudden hope in his heart. “Where do you have this man, Rafiq?”
Abdul stood next to Hatim and looked at the glowing metal. It was ready. He nodded at the big man, then said, “How would you feel about a little target practice?”
Hatim laughed. He looked at London, still screaming and writhing on the table. “His fingers?”
“Yes, Hatim. Let us use the .22.”
Hatim smiled. When they had tortured Boulos, this had been the best part.
Knife-man returned to the table. He held a metal device in his hand. London tried to pull away as Knife-man knelt in front of him, but it was difficult to move when you were bound flat on your back to a table, your arms stretched over your head. Knife-man grabbed his left wrist and unhooked the manacle from the table. Then, he pushed London’s fingers into the metal device. There were two rings with a metal shaft on one side. One ring rested at the base of the finger and one at the finger tips. They were splayed out at the top, so as London’s fingers travelled into the next ring his fingers spread out.
Knife-man did the same to London’s right hand, which hurt more because of the missing thumb. Then, Knife-man went to his feet and unhooked both of them from the table. As he did so, Big Bruiser grabbed both of London’s wrists. When Knife-man gave the word, the Bruiser dragged London off the table. The edge cut into London’s back, riding over the area that had been whipped. London felt his voice-box crack and he almost passed out. Then he was on the concrete floor.
Big Bruiser pulled him to his feet. London could hardly walk from the pain in his groin, but Bruiser had ways to convince him to move. In short time, he stood against the wall at the far end of the warehouse. Bruiser quickly ran a chain through the metal attachments Knife-man had put on London’s fingers. The chain ran through a pulley system. Bruiser used it to pull London’s arms up over his head until London was forced to stand on his toes. He felt like each of his fingers were going to pop out of the socket at any minute.
Knife-man had returned, along with Soccer Boy who had kicked him in the chin earlier. Soccer Boy held a contraption that looked like a piece of wood with small roofing nails in it, which was exactly what it was. He placed the board under the arches of London’s feet. Now the only thing keeping him from impaling himself on the nails were his fingers, held up above his head by the chain.
As he stood there, he realized that Knife-man had turned the camera around to film this spectacle too. London clenched his eyes shut for a minute. He wasn’t sure what the terrorists were planning, but he knew it couldn’t be good.
The terrorists had lined up behind a table about ten yards away from London. There was a .22 hunting rifle on the table, as well as a box of ammunition. Soccer Boy picked up the rifle first and put in a single round. He turned, aiming toward London.
Oh no, they’re gonna shoot me.
There was a pop and a chunk of concrete next to his left hand exploded, raining dust down on London. He looked up at the wall stupidly, and only then did he see the flecks of red blood and other crater impacts there.
They were going to shoot his fingers off, one by one.
To confirm this, Big Bruiser picked up the rifle next. He fired and London felt the shot tear through his left middle finger. He screamed again, that monosyllabic “Uuungh!”
The terrorists just laughed.
Abdul let the others shoot at the American. He watched disinterestedly as they slowly made their way through the American’s left hand, and then his right. When he only had two fingers left, they had both been pulled from their sockets, and his feet had been impaled on the nails. Still, the fingers held his arms above his head until the final shot by Firas tore half of his ring finger off and gravity helped rip through the flap of skin that kept him up.
When the American hit the ground, Abdul motioned for him to be brought back to the table where he had been earlier. Abdul had already reattached the vise to the table: it would be important that the American not be able to move his head, else he could kill himself too quickly.
Hatim tossed the American on the table. Blood poured freely from both hands, staining the concrete floor. Abdul held London down as Hatim tightened his head in the vise once more. This time, he was lying on his back, staring upwards.
“Look at all that blood,” Abdul said. “We don’t want you to bleed to death, do we?”
London sobbed. It was an unusual sound with no tongue, but Abdul was getting used to it now. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll make sure that won’t happen.”
He held up the red-hot iron. Hatim had already secured the prisoner’s wrists. Abdul set the burning iron onto the skin, cauterizing the wounds. Each time the scent of burning flesh rose into the air, reminding Abdul of cooking meat. It made him slightly hungry.
When all the finger stubs were cauterized, Abdul took the remaining poker from the fire. He climbed up onto the table, stood above London. “Have you heard of the expression, ‘In the world of the blind the one-eyed man is king’?”
London cried out something, tried to jerk his head but couldn’t move it because of the vice.
“Allow me to crown you the king of the blind.”
Abdul slowly lowered the poker toward London’s left eye. London screamed and tried to roll, but he was weak from his injuries and the vice grip was strong. “Shhh,” Abdul said. “We must be careful not to go into your brain with this.”
The poker got closer. The heat of it brought tears to London’s eyes. He screamed again and again, but Abdul didn’t flinch. He kept the poker steady and methodically lowered it centimeter by centimeter.
He heard the hiss as the water in London’s eye boiled away. Then, the poker was into his eye socket, smoke rising into the air. London screamed again, and Abdul carefully pulled the poker back out. Then, he climbed off the table and grabbed the jug of water. He sloshed it over London’s face, let it pool in the burned out eye socket. He poured the remainder of it down London’s throat.
Safwan sat in the cold, dark room. He had been handcuffed, but that was it. The interrogator had talked to him for several minutes, but Safwan refused to talk to the Iraqi pig. Safwan was Jordanian, but even so he knew that the Iraqis who helped the Great Satan were worse than demons themselves, the traitors.
The interrogator had conferred with someone and had left. Safwan could hear the footfalls as the soldiers returned. This time, they brought a stretcher with them.
“Get on there,” one of the soldiers ordered. The translator repeated the order in Arabic. Safwan didn’t really need the translator, he understood English fairly well. But he supposed it was better to obey only after he heard the translator to keep up the pretense.
Safwan lay on the stretcher. The soldiers strapped his arms and legs down. Then, they raised his feet up until they were higher than his head. He felt the blood rushing down; it gave him a slight headache.
“You are going to tell us where our other man is,” one of the soldiers said, and it was dutifully repeated by the translator.
“Go to Hell,” Safwan responded.
The soldier pulled out some cellophane. “You brought this on yourself,” he said, although the translator didn’t repeat that one. The soldier wrapped the cellophane around Safwan’s mouth and nose, then poked a hole it so Safwan could breathe through his mouth.
“Last chance,” the solider said. Safwan cursed in Arabic. The soldier simply reached down and picked up a jug of water. He poured it over Safwan’s face, into the hole in his mouth. Safwan jumped in surprise, felt the water rush into his mouth. He gagged.
They’re going to drown me! He tried to spit the water out, but couldn’t. It was pouring in too quickly. He thrashed, and after a lifetime the soldier stopped. He spat the water out and gasped for air, tears streaming down his face.
“You ready to talk now?”
“Yes!” Safwan shouted before the translator could say anything. “I talk!”
The soldier put the water down and tore the cellophane off Safwan’s face. He raised the stretcher so his head was higher than his feet again. “Good. Where is Sergeant London?”
Safwan gave an address.
Abdul-Khaliq al Kateb set the camera up one last time. The American lay moaning on the table. He had turned yellow, his penis swollen. While Abdul wished he could take the time to wait for London’s bladder to burst, he knew he couldn’t do that.
Safwan had disappeared. And that meant he might have been captured. He should have arrived earlier that morning, but there had been nothing. Nor had there been any word on the news about the recovery of the dead American soldier. There had been absolutely nothing.
And that had Abdul worried. So, while he would have preferred to take his time, he knew he had gotten as much out of this soldier as he could get. It was time to slaughter him.
Abdul pulled his knife out and stood in front of the camera to give his final speech.
Orion moved into position on the perimeter. He only wished he’d be able to take part in the actual rescue itself, but that had been given to the Delta boys. He watched as the inconspicuous van plodded its way down the street toward the warehouse.
Inside the warehouse, Hatim saw the van too. “Abdul, it’s Safwan!” he shouted back toward Abdul. Abdul cursed, knowing he’d have to delete that section from the video.
“No names!” he shouted at Hatim. Still, it was good news that Safwan had returned. That meant maybe they could wait for London’s bladder to burst after all.
The van stopped outside. Faris had already pressed the button to raise the garage door. The sun reflected off the windshield, and he couldn’t see the driver through the glare. He waved anyway.
Then the door was up and the van started forward. As it crossed by him, he realized that it wasn’t Safwan at the exact instant the soldier in the back of the van shot him.
Abdul jumped in surprise at the report. Hatim had turned for his weapon but the van door was already opening. Soldiers rushed out, guns firing. Hatim jerked as a bullet tore through his lower abdomen. He collapsed to the ground, screaming in pain.
Abdul rushed toward the prisoner, knife ready. He grabbed London’s head, raised his chin and pressed the blade toward London’s throat.
The bullet tore through his elbow and his hand went numb. The knife fell uselessly to the ground an instant before one of the Delta team struck him in the side of the head with the butt of his rifle. Abdul fell to the ground in a heap. He gazed up at London’s surprised eyes before the world faded to black.
Orion heard the radio: “We have package. Repeat, we have package. Veronica. I repeat, Veronica.”
Orion’s heart leapt at the news. Veronica was the code word meaning London was still alive. The radio continued: “We’re going to need a chopper for an immediate cas-evac.”
“Roger that. We have an LZ a block west of the warehouse. Whiskey Charlie Niner, secure LZ Alpha.”
“Roger,” Orion said into his radio. He motioned to his men. “Let’s go!”
LZ Alpha was nothing but an empty field. It was used by the children to play soccer, but they quickly scattered as the troops appeared. Orion crouched down and scanned the houses, looking for any shooters.
There were none.
He heard the chopper blades overhead. The wind kicked up from overhead as he saw the Hummer pull onto the field. The chopper dropped down quickly and the Delta troops moved the stretcher into the helicopter. It took off again quickly.
Orion fell back with his men, and they returned to their Stryker vehicle. There had been no shooting for this mission, and for that he was grateful. They had gotten London too, and that meant that Rafiq would be getting the full $20,000.
“Everyone give yourselves a hand,” he said. “Mission was a success.”
It was winter. Sergeant Mitchell London (Ret.) sat on the couch in the living room as the talking heads shouted at each other. Normally, he wouldn’t have watched any of it, but they were talking about Colonel Davis.
One of the Iraqi translators that the Army used had alleged that Davis had supervised the torture of inmates. He even had proof: a grainy, cell-phone video of waterboarding.
Davis had been court-martialed for it. London watched from his remaining eye as the media played a clip:
“We need intelligence to save lives. I did only what was necessary to save the lives of my men.”
The video of Davis stopped, replaced by the face of an analyst. “Chuck, I know the rationalization is that this saves lives. But the reality is that torturing prisoners of any kind, it’s just makes us like them.”
“That’s not fair!” Chuck shouted back. “We’re talking about waterboarding here. It doesn’t even cause physical damage.”
“It’s equivalent. If we accept this there is no difference between us and them.”
“There is obviously a difference. There’s a difference between something that causes no physical harm and the torture Al Qaeda does: eye extractions, limb removal—”
“I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for now,” the main talking head broke in. “A controversial subject to say the least. Is waterboarding equivalent to torture or not? Call in and give us your opinion.”
London would have done just that. But he had no fingers to dial with.