At dusk the men whose names Sevchenko was charged with obtaining met at Colonel Rahama’s house, in the diwaniya. But there were no refreshments served and no social niceties observed. Some of the conspirators were not there, had already fled.
Faraj was the youngest man there, and the lowest in rank among the officers. He deferred politely to the senior officers and older men for as long as he could manage. But after an hour of hearing their plans for fleeing the country, he couldn’t hold back any longer.
“Colonel Rahama, sir.” Faraj addressed Rahama because he knew the man was an old friend of Madari’s family. And he was powerful. Many people had said he would command the regiment soon. Or they used to say that, before the coup.
“Colonel, what are we going to do about Major Madari?” Everyone in the room turned to stare at him. Faraj felt their eyes on him, felt heat rise in his face.
“Do, Captain?” Rahama asked.
“To help him, sir, to get him out.”
“Faraj…” Rahama said. Stopped and looked as if he was collecting his thoughts. “There is nothing we can do to help Major Madari now. Don’t you understand that?”
“We can’t abandon him!” Faraj cried, shocked.
“What do you suggest, Captain?” Another officer spoke. “A… a commando raid on Security Police HQ?”
Faraj looked at him and then back to Rahama. “I would lead that, if you can get me the men.”
“My god, he’s serious.” Faraj heard someone mutter. He frowned. Of course he was serious.
“Captain, come here.” Rahama said. He took Faraj’s hand, led him away from the other men, into the corner of the room. The others went back to talking among themselves.
“It is over, Idris,” Rahama said, his voice quite gentle, still holding the younger man’s hand. “I don’t know how. Perhaps we were betrayed, perhaps they simply got suspicious of Faris, I don’t know. But now they have him he will give them our names. You have to think of your family now, your son. Take your family to safety.”
“He will not give them our names!” Faraj barely managed to keep himself from shouting. “How can you suggest that he will betray us?”
Rahama stared at him, astonished. “He’ll have no choice, they will torture him.”
Faraj winced, felt sick with horror, and more determined than ever to help his commander.
“He won’t give them our names!” Faraj insisted. He shook his head, disbelieving. He pulled his hand away from Rahama’s. “How can you abandon him? You’re his friend.”
“Yes, and I…” Rahama’s voice faltered. His eyes shone in the dim light. “I mourn for him. But he is gone, Idris. Accept that. Save your family and save yourself. The fight can go on and we need men as brave as you to be part of it. But get out of the country as soon as you can.”
“I will not run!”
“If you don’t run then I will have to mourn you too.”
Faraj bowed his head to Rahama, said, voice strained and tight. “I must go.” He turned.
“Faraj.” Rahama’s voice was almost pleading as Faraj turned back to him. “Don’t make me mourn your family as well.”
“Ahmed!” Madari cried as the electricity ripped through him. His body arched off the metal table he was strapped to. “Help me! Ahmed!” The current stopped and he collapsed down sobbing. Insane. My mind is gone. I’m screaming for a dead man. How can Ahmed help me now? Strength. Yes. His strength. If I can have even a little of that then I can go on resisting.
“The names, Faris.” Sevchenko’s voice whispered in his ear. He flinched away, terrified by how close the man was. Madari had been blindfolded since being brought down to the so called “interrogation centre.” That in itself had become torture. The slightest touch, that might only be someone’s clothing brushing against him, was terrifying. He never knew when a blow was coming his way. He never knew how many people were in the room, how many people were looking at him. He couldn’t know what they were about to try on him next.
“Fuck you.” He gasped out at the Russian. “Fuck off and die, you fucking whore’s bastard.”
He’d sworn more since being brought here than he had in the whole of his life. Words he was barely aware he knew came out of his mouth and shocked him.
He felt Sevchenko move away and waited for the next lighting strike of electricity, his body tense as a bow string. But then he felt his wrists and ankles being freed. He was pulled up to his feet, a man on each arm.
“Put him against the wall. You, fetch the cane.”
Cane. Oh no. No.
How long have I been here? Days now surely?
As the sun rose the morning after Madari’s arrest Faraj, in civilian clothes, walked though Az-Ma’ir airport with his wife Janan and his three year old son, Mehdi. He glanced around, watching for any obvious security police. No sign.
He glanced at the departure board. The early flight for Paris was on time, scheduled to leave in less than an hour. Faraj led his family to the check in desk and presented their tickets. The clerk handed over boarding cards and the family walked to the security desk.
Faraj lifted up his son and kissed him. “Be a good boy, Mehdi.” He said, hugging the child tight. “I will see you soon.” Then he handed the boy to Janan. Too young to understand this was anything other than a holiday the boy smiled sleepily and snuggled against his mother’s shoulder.
“Idris.” Janan said, her face agonised, her eyes frightened. “Please, come with us.”
“I can’t,” Faraj said, though his heart was breaking as he spoke. “I have my duty.”
He waited at the airport until he saw them get on the plane and then he walked back to the car lot. As he pulled out, turning for home in his Mercedes, he felt tears start in his eyes as he thought about Mehdi waving to him as Janan carried him though the security checkpoint. Would he ever see his son again? Shouldn’t he have gone with them? No. They are safe. Duty, honour held him here.
Now he had to carry out the task that duty obligated him undertake. Major Madari was his commander and his friend. Faraj would not leave him to suffer and die at the hands of the enemy.
Sevchenko looked down at the trembling naked man curled on the floor. Blood, dirt and wounds covered Madari’s body. He whimpered whenever anyone got near him. He sobbed like a child at even the smallest blow. And he screamed when he was whipped or caned or electrocuted. But none of those sounds were any use to Sevchenko.
He glanced at his watch, turned to one of his men. “I will be back in half an hour.” he glanced down again. Madari had stopped trembling. His body had relaxed, his breathing was even. “Keep him awake.” Sevchenko ordered. As he walked out of the room he heard the men shouting at Madari, heard slaps and kicks, heard cries of pain and pleading for it to stop. But he didn’t hear any names.
Svidler, Haque and Turaif were in Svidler’s office along with several more Arabs whose names Sevchenko had no interest in learning. There was only one set of names he wanted to hear now.
“Fifty seven hours.” Turaif said as Sevchenko came in, without even saying good afternoon or shaking hands.
Sevchenko was aware of how long it was. He was also very aware he himself had only had five hours of sleep in that time. He dropped into a seat. He saw Svidler look at him with concern and speak into his intercom. Sevchenko rubbed a hand over his face.
“Fifty seven hours.” Turaif repeated. “You said no more than forty eight.” He glanced at Haque. “We should have used my men.” Haque nodded in agreement.
Sevchenko wanted to sneer. Your men? Your men still wouldn’t have got him to admit his name and address by now. A man came in with tea that Svidler must have just ordered over his intercom. Sevchenko smiled gratefully at his friend.
“He is stronger than I thought he would be,” Sevchenko admitted after a long drink of the refreshing tea. “But it won’t be long now.” Everybody breaks by the third day.
“Not good enough,” Turaif said. “Men we suspect of being in the conspiracy are leaving the country.”
“So arrest them.” Svidler said. “We’ll get the names as confirmation later.”
“It’s not that easy.” Haque said, dropping several cubes of sugar into his tea. “Many of them are powerful men, rich families. If we make a mistake, arrest the wrong man, it could backfire badly.”
Too much respect for money. Sevchenko thought, sharing a glance with Svidler. Ties their hands. He sat with his eyes closed as Svidler argued with the Arabs. He wasn’t dozing. He was fuming. How dare this man Madari make him look foolish in front of these idiots. How could he be so much stronger than Sevchenko had estimated? Sevchenko was too good, too experienced to make such a mistake. He’d read every word of the man’s file. There must have been something missing. And looking at him, assessing him, Sevchenko had been so sure the arrogance, the strut, hid only weakness.
He opened his eyes as he heard the Arabs leaving, complaining loudly. Svidler glared after them and came around his desk to sit on an armchair near Sevchenko.
“You look exhausted, Vassily.”
“I’m sorry about this, Victor. I really thought forty-eight hours would be enough.”
“Ah, it’s all their fault. If they hadn’t made his arrest into a public performance you’d have had time to do the job properly.”
“These things can’t be rushed.” Sevchenko said, nodding.
“Well I want you to get a few hours sleep, Vass.” He held up a hand to silence Sevchenko’s protest. “Your men can keep on working on him in the meantime. You need rest, or you’ll be in as bad a state as the major.”
They both laughed.
Weeks. Was it weeks? Was that how long he’d been here? Had he ever not been here? He’d not heard Sevchenko’s voice for a while. Where was he? God, make him be dead. Make him be dead and in hell. Hell where he came from in the first place.
Was there any place in the world but this place? If weeks had passed were the others safe now? Had they all fled?
And what if it wasn’t weeks? What if it was hours? No way to tell. No time, no day and night, only darkness. No meals to count the time with. No, wait that helped. He’d not eaten, but he wasn’t dead. He was hungry, but he was alive. But a man could go for weeks without food couldn’t he? They were giving him water. Not enough, but some. But he couldn’t remember how often they were giving him the water. Just that sometimes in the haze of pain water trickled over his lips.
No! No! He cringed and curled in a ball in the corner as he heard Sevchenko’s voice again. And how long he had been away meant nothing now, nothing, because he was back.
“Bring him to the table.” Sevchenko ordered. Madari tensed, waiting for them. The men grabbed him and dragged him, legs trailing, over to the table. They sat him in the chair and he almost fell out of it, too weak to sit up unaided.
“Take the blindfold off.”
Madari cried out in pain as the thick black cloth was pulled away from his eyes, and a bright desk lamp was shone into his face.
“Hold his arms on the table. Keep his hands flat.” Madari could hear Sevchenko but not see him. His arms were forced onto the table, hands pressed down flat. At least four men were surrounding him now, two holding down his arms, two holding him in the chair. “This is your last chance, Faris. What I do next you will never recover from, I promise you that.”
Madari wanted to spit at him. Another thing he’d been brought up not to do, yet only his mouth being too dry prevented him.
“Fuck you.” Madari gasped. It was still there, the shred of defiance. The last atom of his pride and honour.
When Sevchenko spoke again, his voice sounded as if he had turned away, he must be talking to one of his colleagues. He said one word.
“No!” Madari cried, at once starting to struggle against the men holding him down. “No, please! You can’t! You can’t!”
But it was no use. The pliers gripped the first of Madari’s fingernails. The index finger on his left hand. And pulled.
Unspeakable pain. Unspeakable. His scream was inhuman. His body thrashed, causing the chair to crash over backwards. He fell onto his knees, arms still held in iron grips.
Ring finger. Right hand. He shrieked so hard he thought his eardrums would burst. He heard one of the men holding him curse in a mutter. Let me black out, merciful god let me black out!
Right hand. Thumb. Madari vomited, what little was in his stomach, over the shoes of the man on his left. The man grabbed him by the hair, pulled his head back and called him vicious names, before punching him in the side of the head. Madari saw stars and prayed for the whirling blackness to engulf him. Beat me unconscious, please, do it. Kill me. Smash in my skull. Anything. Just make it stop.
But Sevchenko warned the man off with a harsh command. Then he spoke to Madari again. “You know how to end it, Major. You know what I want.”
“I can’t.” Madari gasped, barely able to speak any more. “Can’t.”
“Seven to go, Faris.” Left hand, little finger. “Six.” Madari heard him say, under the sound of screaming.
“The King’s Men.” Madari whispered.
“What’s that?” Sevchenko asked.
“What we call… the conspiracy. Please.” He whimpered, then shrieked as he lost the nail of his left thumb.
“That’s very good, Faris. ” Sevchenko’s voice was gentler now, like a teacher with a slow pupil. “You’re almost there. Now the names, tell me the names of The King’s Men.” He paused a moment and when Madari didn’t answer at once the pliers tore out two nails in quick succession, left ring finger and middle finger. The grip on the forearm and hand loosened and the hand was held up so Madari could see it in the bright light. The end of each finger and the thumb was a gruesome pulpy mass that poured blood.
Madari’s head spun and then he heard it. His own voice, hoarse, cracked, barely more than a whisper.
“Rahama…” His voice caught in his throat. His friend. A mentor after Ahmed was gone. The man who brought him into The King’s Men. “Sharif Rahama.”
“Very good, Faris, go on.”
Madari’s eyes were fixed on the blood running down his hand and arm.
“General Bhai. Colonel Jumale.” A man on the left was writing the names down. “General Rasham. Sheik Fatah.” The list went on, each name a painful gasp.
When Madari stopped and put his head down, sobbing, Sevchenko waited for a moment.
“All of them, Faris.” He spoke quite softly.
Madari looked up at him. How could he know? How?
“There’s no more.”
“Really?” Sevchenko picked up the bloodstained pliers again.
“No, no please! There’s no more!” He struggled wildly, but they were too many and too strong for him. And he screamed as the right index finger’s nail was ripped out. He screamed a name. The last one. “Faraj!” He screamed. “Idris Faraj, Captain Idris Faraj!”
“Very good, Faris. Very good. Now you see if you’d told me all that,” he paused, presumably checking his watch, “sixty-five hours ago we could have avoided all this unpleasantness.”
Again he had the urge to spit at Sevchenko, but not the means. Yet Madari had tears, if he had no spit. He rested his head on the table edge, didn’t even try to prevent the sobs of shame and disgust that shook his body.
“Nine.” He vaguely heard Sevchenko mutter. “That’s such an ugly number. Might as well make it even.” And he tore out the nail of the right hand middle finger. As Madari finally passed out he heard Sevchenko say “much neater.”
“Well done, Vassily.” Svidler shook Sevchenko’s hand, when Sevchenko, cleaned up and in fresh clothes, came into his office.
“Thank you, Victor.” he sat down, shaking his head. “I just wish it had been sooner.”
“The Arabs are out arresting the names now. Let’s hope at least some of them are still in the country.” He saw Sevchenko shrug and he smiled. What went on outside of the interrogation room really didn’t interest Vassily.
“What are the plans for Madari?” Sevchenko asked. “Are they going to shoot him?”
“No, send him to jail. That camp up north. Same with the others, send them to various prisons.”
“Ah.” Sevchenko nodded, “Still all that respect for money.” He smiled.
“Capitalist fools.” Svidler said, smiling. He got up and found a bottle of vodka in his desk, poured them both a glass. “I’ve been ordered home to give a report on the situation. I have to leave momentarily. I’ll make it very clear whose blundering it was that forced your hand on the interrogation.”
“Thank you, Victor.” Sevchenko looked thoughtful. “He was an interesting subject. In fact I think there’s more he can tell me, much more. Is there any hurry to move him to prison?”
“Of course not.” Svidler said, waved a hand. “You hang on to him for as long as you want.”
“Seventeen days, I think.” Sevchenko said, quietly. Seventeen? Svidler frowned, then smiled. Ah, one day for each hour over the deadline. Almost poetic. He checked the time and got up.
“All right, I have a plane to catch.” He picked his briefcase off the desk. “Enjoy yourself, Vass.”
Faraj groaned as his bruised body protested about the potholes in the road,
“Quiet!” the guard snapped. Faraj gave him a haughty glare and made a fruitless attempt to get comfortable on the floor of the truck. He had no idea where they were taking him, no-one had bothered to explain when they smashed their way into his apartment, beat him up and dragged him out.
Rahama had been right. Faraj could only thank god that he had at least had the good sense to get his family out. Madari had given up their names. Faraj could have wept as he thought what his commander must have had done to him to force the information from him.
And now he’d given up that information he was no more use to them. Faraj knew what that meant. That meant that Rahama was right about something else.
Madari is dead.