Scott Adlerberg lives in Brooklyn. He's written Spiders and Flies, a crime novel set in the Caribbean, and the noir/fantasy novella Jungle Horses. His short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, All Due Respect, and Spinetingler, and he contributes pieces to Criminal Element, the LA Review of Books, and Literary Hub. Each summer, he hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series in Manhattan. His new novel, Graveyard Love, a psychological thriller, is out now.
In his domain, the gray room, the cell with the concrete floor and stone walls, he had been king. Armed with the tools he needed for his job, using the truncheon or the hose or the electric cattle prod, he had applied himself with diligence and seen to it that people talked. Secret policeman? Inhuman torturer? He in fact had never been either; no, he was simply a man entrusted with a job that meant very much to the president. His work had a bearing on the country's stability. If it hadn't been him doing the work, somebody else would have done it, and at least with him, prisoners knew that he always tried conversation first. He would appeal to a prisoner's reason before applying pain. Nobody could call him a sadist, nobody who knew him (and not many did) could say that he was one of those thugs who liked to see people suffer. When he received a person, any man or woman, and had his assistants strap that person into the metal chair, he would look down into the eyes, the face of fear or defiance, and tell the person in a soothing tone that all would be well and all pain spared if the name he sought was revealed, if the enemy's plan for a bombing disclosed.
"Just speak and speak truthfully, or I'll have to do what I don't want to do," he'd say.
Was it his fault so many of them were stubborn?
Yet he had to admit that as an interrogator he did enjoy one thing. Again, and most emphatically, he would challenge anyone who called him a sadist, but nothing could compare to having that feeling of power in the room, knowing that before him he had a person whose fate depended completely on him. In the cavernous cell with the one dim bulb he was untouchable. Though he might be a little man otherwise, a man who took the city bus, paid his taxes, and stood on line when he bought bread, there in the room that smelled of old blood he was a ruler with absolute power, an arbiter of who lived and died. In this authority lay his pleasure, his reward for having the job, and the pulling of fingernails with tongs, the burning of testicles with a torch, the dunking of a prisoner's head in excrement—these were merely the incidentals that went with his position of power. Whether bullying a person verbally or inflicting the pain that elicited screams, he loved to snap a prisoner's resistance. He savored the moment when he knew he had broken a person's will. Less pleasant was when someone died in his custody, but the silver lining there was a death meant food for the dogs outside. He'd feed them in the alley as they barked with delight. If it seemed cold to treat a body like that, it did save the state time and money. Plus, the dogs needed to eat.
But would they, if they caught him, treat him as he had treated others? When the enemy forces took the palace, they had issued their first decree; they'd legalized the capture of government supporters, the imprisonment of those who for money or power had done the president's bidding. The president himself was gone, his private jet had carried him off to exile, but still in the country and hated by most were his faithful lieutenants, the ones who until the army's collapse had helped keep the president afloat by doing the unseen dirty work. Had they deserved this betrayal, the president's abandonment? Had he, a friend of the bastard since childhood? There had been people drinking, laughing, and shooting off fireworks that made the city sound like a carnival, and even before the TV broadcast news of the enemy's triumph, he'd run home through the city's crazed streets to pack a knapsack in his apartment. In the confusion that came with the celebrating, he'd managed to leave the city. Now he was walking due north, cutting across the green highlands, and at the big river that marked the frontier, he hoped to be able to cross the border. Actually, he didn't expect to have any problems once he got to the border; the trip itself was the difficult part.
His legs felt heavy, his neck ached, the rucksack filled with clothes and canned food had become an oppressive weight. And since he knew the enemy patrols were watching every road, he was slogging through bush and swamp, using his compass as a guide and his machete for obstacles. Thorns had pricked him, branches like claws kept scratching his arms, and despite the rubber soles on his boots there was swelling in his feet, slowing his walk. The world of his escape was a dense green hell, a humid hell swarming with flies, and once or twice during the trek, he had been tempted to find a road and turn himself over to the enemy.
With night coming on, he stopped to rest. He knelt on the grass next to a stream and threw off his bag to settle himself. Stirrings in the underbrush told him of animals, boars maybe or wild turkeys, and up above the trees the moon was a silver disk. He opened a can of black beans, crawled to the stream and drank some water, and when the noise from the crickets began, a relaxing noise, he decided that he would try to sleep. Exhausted in every bone and muscle, he was dying for a sound sleep, but what had happened last night came to pass again on this one. The second he dozed off, faces appeared in his mind, faces contorted with horrible pain, blanched and blood-smeared faces, the faces of the helpless prisoners he'd tortured. Was this guilt? Did he, the hard one, feel remorse? For years he'd done his job without qualms, inflicting pain and then going home, sleeping well in his bed, so he could not account for why the symptoms of regret had struck him. He still had a long way to go to reach the border, and if he could not get enough rest, he would collapse from fatigue.
At dawn, glad to have put the night behind him, he continued. He pushed on through mile after mile of sweltering forest. In one area beside a lake he came upon a village where he would have liked to rest, but he assumed that the people living in the huts backed the enemy and their cause. A man on the run like he was, a man traveling alone through the bush: they would certainly suspect that he had been on the government's side. They'd want to hold him for the enemy leaders or execute him themselves. Pity—beds were there in those huts, bed and hot food and kettles boiling over with coffee, but all of these basic enjoyments had for now become unattainable. In his isolation he might've been a man scarred with leprosy, and today, to make things worse, the images from his atrocious night wouldn't stop haunting his mind. The tree trunks looked like twisted human torsos; in a cloud pattern crossing the sky he could discern two eyes and a mouth with that mouth open to scream; a rock formation by a small cascade had the shape of a petrified body. With each passing second, he was losing his grip, struggling to retain his bearings, and he feared that his death might come about from his terror at these delusions.
Twilight fell, grey and cool, and once again on a bed of grass he sat down hoping to sleep. He ate his dinner, another can of beans, and then lay back with his eyes closed. More than anything else he had to relax, and like a man doing meditation he tried to make his mind a blank. He listened to the crickets and the quiet wind. But as he expected, his conscience intruded; along with the real noises around him, he heard a voice inside his head. Imagined though it was, the voice rose in volume, and somehow it sounded like a woman's moan, the soft crying of a woman in pain.
"Oh my God … Oh please … Please."
He heard the kind of beseeching words anyone tortured by him would have said, and although he envisioned no face with the words, he took the voice as one more sign that he was going crazy. If he could only sleep, black out, turn his brain off for a while, he felt sure he'd recover his mental balance.
The voice was still there, murmuring, begging.
"Help me … Somebody help me. Somebody please come and help me …"
At once, feeling a jolt, he stood up. That voice in pain was no voice in his head but the voice of a real woman. Somewhere nearby, out in the dark, a woman badly needed help.
He picked up his bag and walked with cautious steps toward the voice. It would fade and rise, go silent and begin again, and he stepped as gingerly as he could through the foliage and bushes. He wondered whether he should call to the voice, tell the woman that someone was coming, but then he thought he'd better not. Smarter would be to look first, see what was wrong, and then give help if all was safe. Though the woman herself might pose no threat, he had to consider that he was in a region long controlled by the enemy. Their six man units, hunting for escaping people like him, could be anywhere.
By now he'd reached the forest's edge. Beyond he saw an immense grassland lit a silvery color by the moon. This surprised him, the change in the landscape, and he stared hard at the low wooden hut before him. Nothing else was around except a primitive well, its rope-hung bucket rusted with age, and he reflected on how odd it was that anyone should live in this spot, so far away from the nearest village.
Machete in hand, he ran across the grass to the house. He stopped when he came to the front wall and stood without breathing to listen again. Yes, he could be sure, the woman inside had to be alone. Even at this close a distance he could hear nothing but her voice. And now, despite his held breath, he was beginning to smell something: through the open front door came the rich scent of blood.
"Is somebody there? Please … I need help."
She'd heard him, it seemed, despite his caution. Well and good, he could see no danger here anyhow, and he let himself start breathing again as he turned with his bag and his machete and ducked his head to get through the door. Inside was a lamp hanging from a hook, and he saw in its sickly light why the woman needed help, why in the absence of doctor or midwife he would have to squat by the bed in the corner and help the woman deliver her baby.
Neither he nor the woman spoke. The look he gave her seemed sufficient, told her she could trust in his hands, and after that it was simply a matter of her pushing with all her strength and him doing what he could to calm her. He brushed a thick black strand of hair from her eyes and after going to the sink with a cloth, he wet her cheeks and brow. Such a young girl, twenty at most, with clear tan skin and coal-black eyes, and he could only wonder where in hell the father was, what sort of wayward guy had left her all alone like this. Perhaps the father was a rebel gone off to fight, his commitment to a cause stronger than his commitment to a person, or perhaps there was no longer a father because the man had been killed in the fighting. Could he himself have killed the father? What if he'd had the guy in his dungeon and made him scream till he died of the pain?
In his job as an interrogator he'd learned much about human anatomy—how the nervous systems works, exactly where each of the organs is—and he had become skilled at using various types of cutting instruments. He had a deft touch with them, and no squeamishness, and probably with a bit of study he could become an excellent surgeon. In exile—why not?—he might be able to do that; he could be someone admired and respected if he avoided everyone connected to the fallen regime. While they'd bemoan their loss to the rebels and organize plots to regain power, he would go off on his own and live without hurting people. It seemed a feasible thing to plan for, and he knew he would like prolonging lives instead of reducing people to agony.
But first things first. He had a baby to deliver, and out of the blue the woman addressed him, saying she could feel the moment approaching, feel her child moving through her, and oh God you didn't know the pain till you went through childbirth. The lantern on the hook shone down on her face, red as an apple and slick with sweat, and to keep herself from thrashing too much she gripped both sides of the bed. She had her gown pulled up and her legs in position, and he hunched close to get himself ready even as he fingered the scissors he'd found lying on her dresser.
"Almost," he said. "Almost. Come on."
And at last he saw a thatch of hair, a round shape, the baby's head. It emerged slowly and he took a gentle hold, and as she gave a final effort, shouting with all the air in her lungs, the whole baby slid into his hands, moist and soft and lacking a face.
This time he yelled, shocked by the sight, and he nearly flung the monster down. Though perfectly formed in every respect, the baby had a face blank and gray, made up of nothing but smooth skin. No eyes, no mouth, no features whatsoever, and he didn't want to show it to the woman and mar her life with the trauma. But wait, he looked again—and with his second glance he saw that he had just panicked. The infant's face was covered by a caul. That meant good luck, if you were superstitious, and he smiled as he lifted the pair of scissors, laughed as he cut the umbilical cord.
"You're a mother," he said. "And your baby's fine."
He slapped it on the backside, heard the crying, and pulled the membrane off. Then he did see the eyes and mouth and stared into its true face.
He told himself that no face at all would have been better than this one.
Its blood-red eyes blazed at him, its lips spread wide to reveal sharp teeth. He could hear its mother cackling away and the glee in her voice.
"No mercy," she said. "No second chances."
And already he knew it was too late to run. Already the thing with its barbed nails had climbed up the length of his arm. Attached to his shoulder, it slavered on his neck, and he could barely keep from retching because its body smelled like rot. He spun through the room and tried to push it off, but it grabbed his hair with one hand, clawed at his eyes with the other. He felt the searing heat from its breath, and just before it bit into his throat he remembered the cell where he had been king, where as king he'd been the monster.
"Eat, my baby," the woman said. "I know you're hungry. You need to eat."
Copyright © 2016 Scott Adlerberg.