The steel door banged open, illuminating the cell with fluorescent light from the corridor outside. Tal, the younger prisoner, lay facing the wall. The other, Bane, looked up at the guard with swollen and bloodshot eyes. The guard spoke in a stilted manner.
“You’ve been given every chance to save yourselves, but refused to co-operate. Do you have anything to say before the death sentence is passed?”
Bane shook his head. The guard looked at the other prisoner, who appeared to be asleep, but Bane knew he was awake and listening.
“Then you’ll both be executed in the morning,” said the guard in his monotone. “But another choice remains open to you. One of you can walk free tomorrow.”
The striplights behind the guard flickered for several seconds.
“I will return at nine o’clock in the morning with a doctor. If the doctor certifies one of you is dead, the other will live and walk free. Who dies and who lives is entirely up to you.”
The guard let the words hang in the air for some time.
“If you’re both found alive, the two of you will be killed immediately. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Bane with deliberation.
“The General is merciful. He has ordered you be brought anything you ask before then, except weapons or communication devices.”
The guard turned on his heel and slammed the door behind him, plunging the cell once more into semi-darkness.
Tal turned and stared at Bane in the dim light.
“Was that a joke?”
“I’m afraid not. Zaiko is well known for these things.”
Bane heard Tal’s breathing quicken.
“I do feel for that guard. Imagine having to deliver those lines with a straight face,” said Bane, trying to soothe the younger man with humour.
“What are we going to do?” said Tal in a cracking voice.
“Let me think.”
For some time they sat in silence, facing each other on the wooden bunks. Bane felt Tal’s terror, palpable in the air.
“What if we just talk?”
They normally took care to speak quietly, almost in whispers, but these words erupted as if Tal had suppressed them for some time.
Bane fixed him with a stare. He moved over to sit beside Tal, adjusting his position several times before leaning back against the wall. In addition to the cameras, four microphones were hidden in the cell. Bane knew where every one of them was. Keeping a shoulder blade firm against the tiles between which the closest microphone was embedded, Bane spoke in a low, quiet voice.
“Do you understand what will happen if they hear you saying that? If they think we’re close to breaking? They’ll torture us a thousand times worse than before. Until we die.”
Tal’s eyes were glazed with fear, but the older man knew how important it was to make himself understood.
“And you know what will happen if we do talk?”
Tal remained silent.
“They’ll kill us immediately afterwards. We won’t even live until dawn. We just die sooner, and we die as traitors.”
“Then what are we going to do?” whispered Tal in a trembling voice.
“Just let me think for a while.”
Bane tried to strip his thoughts of emotion, focusing on the thin orange filament inside the tiny bulb above. From the corner of his eye he saw Tal twitch. At once he saw his cellmate staring at him in a very particular way. It was a look Bane knew too well. He had seen it up close on men’s faces, against them in combat. He silently forgave him, but decided it would be wise not to turn his back towards his fellow prisoner for one moment.
He got up and pressed the button by the door, eyes on Tal the whole time.
“What are you doing?” hissed Tal.
“Don’t say anything,” said Bane. “Not a word. Just let me do the talking.”
They sat still as the guard’s footsteps echoed down the corridor, growing gradually louder.
Less than one hundred metres above them, General Zaiko was busy in his pleasure palace. He had Esmerelda, his favourite concubine, kneeling on an Ottoman as he thrust into her from behind. His breathing grew shallower and harder. A string of saliva escaped the corner of his mouth, swinging loosely before pooling in the small of Esmerelda’s back. Some of the other girls watched, reclining on chaise-longues and the variously sized beds lining the outer walls of the chamber. Close by stood the eunuchs, holding dishes of food, glasses of champagne and bowls of pharmaceutical drugs.
The General released a languid grunt as he climaxed despite himself. Irritated, he rose up, shuffled backward and flopped onto a chaise-longue. Esmerelda slowly rearranged herself and sat upright, drawing her knees together on the Ottoman. Zaiko looked at her for some time, muscles clenching in his cheeks.
“Fetch Astor,” he said to Elman, the head eunuch. Elman wore a similar red robe to the other eunuchs, but with white trim. All the eunuchs’ clothing was designed to match the furniture of the pleasure palace.
Astor, the strongest and most athletic of the eunuchs, was sleeping, having been on duty the previous twelve hours. Elman returned with him. Astor was slender, tall, shaven-headed like the other eunuchs but with uniquely striking features. He had high, sharply defined cheekbones and preternaturally smooth skin, in some ways resembling a magnificent porcelain doll.
“Your eminence,” said Astor.
The General pointed to Esmerelda. “Use your tongue. Don’t stop until she is satisfied.”
Astor stood still as if processing the instructions, then bowed his head, went to Esmerelda and knelt before her. Her knees slowly parted as she pulled up her silk gown. Within minutes her demeanour switched again. No longer did she seem shy and self-conscious, there in the middle of the pleasure palace, surrounded by the attendants and the other girls. Her eyes closed and her mouth opened as Astor went to work. She rested a hand on his large, bald head, which undulated softly between her legs like a buoy in a calm sea.
The General watched with intense focus. Esmerelda’s hips moved almost imperceptibly at first, then thrust back and forth with increasingly violent movements. Clutching Astor’s head with both hands, she pulled him in hard. At length she let out a long moan.
The General summoned a eunuch with a tray, reached inside one of the bowls, lifted a pinch of white powder to his nostrils and took a huge sniff.
All the other girls were watching now. Astor shifted as if readying himself to get up, but Esmerelda hadn’t finished. She moaned deeper and louder, then gave a loud cry which echoed around the pleasure palace. Her scarlet nails dug into the back of Astor’s skull.
The General twitched in his seat. Elman, standing close by, threw his master a nervous glance.
“That’s enough,” said Zaiko, but the General could barely be heard above Esmerelda’s cries. Elman stepped towards the Ottoman then stood still as if unsure what to do next.
“Stop,” roared the General, rising to his feet, his face purple with rage. Astor pivoted to one knee in an attempt to rise, but Esmerelda held him down with such force that even with all his strength, he struggled. A rivulet of blood ran down the back of his heavily scratched head.
“My lady,” he breathed in desperation, but Esmerelda was in another realm. Her eyes rolled back in her head, her cries grew louder, and still she held his head tight. Finally Elman stepped forward and prised them apart. Astor fell back and his long body flopped across the floor. He gasped as if saved from drowning. The chief eunuch helped him to his feet.
“That was entertaining,” said Zaiko cheerfully. “Now put him to death.”
“Your eminence, please,” said the chief eunuch.
“You want to defy me?” said Zaiko.
“Your eminence, show mercy. He didn’t intend wrong.”
“Do you want to live?” said Zaiko, addressing Astor directly.
“Yes, your eminence,” said Astor.
The General moved close to Astor and studied him from head to foot with narrowed eyes.
“He wants to live,” said Zaiko seemingly to himself. He looked across to Esmerelda, who had apparently regained awareness.
“He wants to live,” repeated the General to his favourite.
“Spare him,” said Esmerelda, her palms pressed together.
“You hear that? She wants you spared,” said General Zaiko to Astor. “But let’s be honest, she would say that, wouldn’t she!”
The General shrieked with laughter. Esmerelda bowed her head.
“Alright, alright. Let him live,” the General said, waving a hand.
“Your eminence,” said Elman, lowering his head.
“But remove his tongue.”
Astor cried out as he was hauled away by two guards. He didn’t resist, but his feet dragged across the floor as he was removed from the pleasure palace.
Back deep below a guard left cell 215, slamming the heavy door behind him. Tal and Bane looked at what the guard had left behind on the cell floor; a black plastic box and on top of it, a gold coin and a digital wristwatch. Bane picked up the watch and studied it.
“We can’t do this,” breathed Tal. “We can’t. We can’t do this.”
“You know the options,” said Bane in a calm and clear tone, putting the watch round his wrist. “One of us dies, or we both die.”
He picked up the coin and turned it around in his fingers. “This is the only fair way to do it.”
From afar came sounds of creaking, slamming and murmuring.
“Do you want to flip it, or shall I?”
“Let me do it”, said Tal.
“As you wish.”
Bane sat back as Tal took the coin with trembling hands. He made the sign of the cross, closed his eyes, then flipped it up into the air. The sound of the coin hitting the concrete floor, spinning for a moment then settling seemed deafening. Slowly Tal opened his eyes. Seeing the result, his head sank into his hands.
“What now?” said Tal.
“We still have time,” said Bane, looking at the watch. “So we wait.”
And the two men waited. Neither fell asleep, but Tal’s head dipped time and time again. Just as his chin touched his chest, he would abruptly sit up straight again before repeating the cycle. Bane sat still with his back against the wall, feet up on the bunk. Every now and then he glanced at the watch. Save for the occasional sound of distant doors closing and the even fainter murmur of voices, they were shrouded in silence.
“It’s time,” said Bane finally. “Are you ready?”
The younger man nodded. They stood up together.
“When?” said Tal.
Bane looked at the watch, then put his ear to the cell door. In the distance he heard several voices, footsteps, a heavy door opening and closing. He knew it was the first cell in the row, down the far end of the corridor. They were checking them one by one. He closed his eyes as if calculating something.
Tal turned his back to Bane, then once again made the sign of the cross. Bane wrapped an arm round the younger man’s neck and firmly pulled tight. Tal’s whole body tensed, relaxed, tensed again, then struggled. Tal’s fingers now prised at Bane’s arm, but he applied more pressure still. Tal’s weight pulled Bane’s arm downward as his legs gave way. He held tighter still, until Tal stopped moving. The noises from outside were much louder now. They were two cells away. Bane released his cellmate, and he fell motionless to the ground. It was nine o’clock.
The cell door opened, and the guard entered with the doctor. Another two guards remained outside.
“Stand back,” said the guard. Bane moved away as the doctor knelt down beside Tal. He felt his wrist, his throat, then ripped open his shirt and put a stethoscope against his chest for what seemed a very long time.
Finally the doctor looked up at the guard and nodded.
“Do you wish for a priest?” said the guard. “No,” said Bane immediately. There were many things he could have said to the guard, many things he could have asked him over time, but somehow he felt it unnecessary, even pointless. Over the course of all the small interactions, the hundreds of checks, cell visits, the scripted lines he was ordered to read to the prisoners, Bane had carefully observed the man assigned to watch them. Behind the unchanging expression which seemed to give so little away, Bane nevertheless saw the eyes were not those of a tyrant, nor of a bully.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said the guard. Bane nodded in acknowledgement, then flipped the black case open. He removed the lubricated defibrillator pads, placed them on Tal’s bared chest and activated the current. Tal’s body jolted violently. Bane looked up at the guard, even as he pressed the trigger repeatedly. The guard watched in silence.
Tal’s body shuddered each time only to immediately fall limp again. Without taking his eyes off the guard, Bane pressed again and again.
On the fourteenth attempt, Tal twitched violently and made a retching sound.
Bane was fully prepared to be shot on the spot. And yet somehow he knew that the man standing over him would simply carry out his orders to the letter. No less. And no more. The guard dismissed the doctor from the cell.
“I must report to his eminence,” said the guard. Bane slowly nodded as he held Tal’s head in his arms. The younger prisoner released several loud, rasping breaths, his arms now flailing weakly.
General Zaiko sank back into the huge leather chair in the main study. He stretched out an arm before him, opening and closing his fingers. He grunted in frustration. His hand was cramping from hours of signing death warrants, and it was getting difficult even to write his own name. The papers lay in two piles on the mahogany desk; unsigned and signed. The pile of unsigned warrants was still the larger one, despite the progress made.
Close by stood Hanso, the General’s secretary and chief administrator. Across the study, reclining under the large bay window was Esmerelda, playing on a mobile phone.
“Tell me something,” said Zaiko. “Why do I have to sit signing these day after day like an idiot?”
“Your eminence, they require your authorisation,” replied Hanso.
“But why can’t I just tick them off instead of signing them? My hand is killing me.”
“For proof of your authorisation, your eminence. To prevent mistakes or forgeries.”
“So isn’t there an easier way? Like a seal. I want a seal!” cried the General. “A signet ring to make wax seals. Like in Roman times.”
“At the very least a stamp. There you go, a stamp. It’s obvious really, if you think about it. So why didn’t you?”
“We’ll have one made, your eminence.”
“What use are you to me, when it comes down to it?”
A guard approached and spoke quietly to Hanso.
“He’s here,” said Hanso. “Do you want to see him now?”
“Of course,” said Zaiko. “Bring him in.”
Bane was escorted in, a guard either side of him.
“I’m done with this for today,” said Zaiko pointing at the piles of documents on the desk. “Take it away, and bring a chair for my guest.”
Hanso summoned an assistant, and together they cleared the desk and left the study chamber.
“Please, sit down,” said the General, studying Bane closely.
“Have my men mistreated you?”
“No,” said Bane, thinking of the head guard, who he was fairly sure had a wife and children.
“Simply looking at you tells me you’re not being honest. But I’ll believe you. I like to think those working for me are more than common thugs.”
Bane stared at the General in silence.
“Don’t be afraid to speak. Don’t you have any questions?”
“Where’s Tal?” said Bane immediately.
“Your compatriot? We freed him.”
“Yes, freed him. He was driven two hundred kilometres from here and released with a bag of provisions. I’m told he was in good physical health.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“I’m sure you’ll see the proof soon enough.” The General leaned back in the leather chair. “That was very clever, what you did back there. With the defibrillator. How did you come up with that?”
“You don’t know it was my idea.”
“Of course it was,” said the General. “Who could have pulled that off, other than he who came up with it? Can’t have been much margin for error. Were you a doctor?”
“All the more impressive. You solved my little challenge, and now your friend is not only alive, but free. You saved him. Still, we had no reason to keep him. He wasn’t much use to us. You, on the other hand, are something different.”
Zaiko stood up and waved around him. “What do you think of my library?” He walked across the large room. “This section is devoted to the ancients. I lose myself for days here. The wisdom of Aristotle. Cicero, Plutarch. That great chronicler, Thucydides. It’s hard to explore these accounts of great civilisations by such great men, and not feel we’ve gone backwards. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes,” said Bane.
“If you only knew how starved I am of intelligent conversation. What depresses me most is the lack of curiosity these days. You’re very quiet.”
“What should I say?”
“It’s always the way. The wisest speak the least. The silent buddha is the ultimate embodiment of wisdom. I’m flattering you now, I know. But you impressed me. I truly didn’t expect what you did.”
General Zaiko continued walking around the study.
“I know what they say about me in the news. I’ll be honest, it hurts me. They say I take inspiration from bad Hollywood movies, as if I have no culture, no originality at all. No mention of any of this,” said Zaiko waving towards another wall of books. “This section is devoted to the East. You see these here?” He pointed to one shelf lined with particularly ornate books. “I personally commissioned them. Newly translated, hand-written volumes of the Thousand and One Nights. You know them well, probably?”
“Of course!” said the General with delight. “As if I needed to ask. I’ve read every single one. Go on, test me. I can tell you what happens in every volume.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“I take inspiration from all over, but I do love these stories,” said the General. “And now you’ll recognise that I have cast you in the role of Scheheradze. You know, people think I create these little tests out of pure sadism.”
“Surely not,” said Bane.
“Unbelievable, isn’t it? But why bother explaining that I’m hunting for treasure? Nobody understands me. I’m looking for cream, so I try to create scenarios where cream rises to the top. It almost never does. You’ve been a pleasant surprise in that regard.”
“Men thrive under pressure, don’t they? My aim is to coax out human ingenuity, creativity in its purest form. In turn, I like to think my little trials are themselves highly creative acts.”
The General returned to his chair. “Tell me, as one cultured, intelligent man to another. What could I do better? I value your opinion.”
“I don’t think you want to hear it.”
“Please, don’t be so modest.”
Esmerelda adjusted her position on the chaise-longue beneath the window, and both men looked over at her. She smiled at Bane. Bane had not seen a woman for years. In Esmerelda’s beauty, her softness, her elegance, he saw not one woman, but all of womankind in one embodiment. In her he saw his own beloved wife.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” said Bane.
“I think she likes you. Her name is Esmerelda. Say hello, my treasure!”
“Hello,” purred the General’s favourite, waving a hand softly.
“I can’t promise I have others more beautiful than her. But they come close. I’m a man of taste.”
“What do you want?” said Bane.
“Your answer, obviously. Will you do it?”
“Work for me,” said the General in apparent surprise. “What else?”
The silence hung in the air before Bane finally answered.
“I’d rather die.”
The General rose to his feet. “This is disappointing. It took me so long to find you. And you did so well. Your friend is alive. You’re alive. And I’m offering you the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“Go to hell.”
The General stared at Bane for some time. His expression changed, and his jaw muscles clenched. His chest rose and fell quickly.
“Have it your way,” said Zaiko, removing the pistol from his side holster. “You might want to look away, my treasure,” he shouted in Esmerelda’s direction. He raised the barrel and pointed the gun directly between Bane’s eyes. His hand was trembling. Bane stared into the General’s eyes without blinking. Zaiko’s hand trembled more still, and his jaw clenched furiously. He inhaled sharply and pressed the trigger. Esmerelda gave a sharp cry and jolted as the shot rang out, echoing around the library.
Several guards ran into the room, machine guns primed. General Zaiko stood looking down at Bane’s body as the men slowly lowered their guns. “What the hell are you morons staring at?” shrieked the General. “Get out!” The guards slowly backed out of the library. Esmerelda sat upright, a look of horror on her face, eyes fixed on Zaiko.
The General fired the remaining shots into the wall and then hurled the pistol to the ground. He sat at his desk for several minutes, then in one violent movement, swept the ornate lamp, glass paperweight and marble inkpot from the desk, sending them crashing to the floor. He inhaled deeply, then roared out loud like a wounded animal. When his breathing had returned to normal, he pressed a button to summon his staff.