The Tapestry - part 2
by Mona Morstein
Author's warning: Mona Morstein adamantly states that any reader MUST be over 18 years old to read her stories and if someone DOES read her story they are agreeing to that point and ARE over 18. If you ARE over 18, ENJOY; if you are NOT, then
other authors have stories you can read and enjoy.
Steed slept very little, afraid of dozing, sickened by what happened to Adam, and when he did doze lightly he started awake fearing the return of the dogs and the sun. He wondered if the screeching crash he heard somewhere had really happened, but indeed, though didn't care if it had. It hadn't happened to him and he had enough to worry about solely regarded to his situation. The pain in his face was so excruciating he could not keep from moaning, although there was no one and nothing in the world to hear his distress. His headache had lightened a little in the dark, but he knew innately that it would begin again as soon as the first rays of the hot sun landed on his head. At some point, he felt the day warming and knew his implacable solar enemy was rising. His thoughts were clearer from having had ten sunless hours of relief, but he had no false pretensions that he would not become addle-pated again once the deadly invisible rays melted his rationality. Steed hoped he would die quickly once the sun was in the cloudless blue sky. He turned his roasted head to the side and waited for the agony to worsen, when he heard movement above him, coming down the hill. It was too heavy to be dogs, and he heard voices.
Good. It was people. Either help or a bullet. He welcomed either.
He heard them talking in Arabic, in a dialect that was not too different from the standard Arabic he knew, and therefore, luckily, quite comprehensible. They first commented on the crash of a Jeep, and then noticed Adam's head and discussed the likelihood that dogs or vultures had eaten his body. A moment later they were by his side. Through the slits of his eyes and his blurry vision, he saw a man dressed in khakis kick him lightly, like checking the air in a tire. "He's dead" floated down to Steed, and so, to either be killed or be saved quicker, he turned his head slightly, the movement bringing agony to the reddened skin of his neck. Someone cursed and knelt down beside him, feeling the pulse at his neck, confirming to the others that Steed was still alive. Then, it was a miracle, someone lifted up his head and poured water over his mouth
"Don't swallow," the voice said in Arabic. "Just swish it in your mouth and spit it out."
That was easier said than done. His body craved the water, pleaded with him to swallow it, but already Steed could feel the great amount of sand being loosened by the liquid, and it made sense to first wash out his mouth before drinking. Still the water was like the gentle touch of a lover and only reluctantly did Steed spit it out. Once he did, though, more was slowly poured into his mouth and that he drank in heavenly sips. It stopped much sooner than he wanted and he murmured, "More, please."
"Not at once. You'll get sick. Little by little, that is the way to drink. Can you stand up?"
"Can't," Steed whispered. "Can't move. Paralyzed."
"Paralyzed?" The man put Steed's head down, and then lifted up Steed's arm and watched it flop back to the ground. He stood up to discuss Steed with the other three people there. Steed was barely able to make out two youths and two men above him. He heard them mention the Colonel, and then agree that they would take Steed back. A man knelt down beside him again, pulling his wallet and his passport of out his jacket pockets, and opening them up to study them.
"Yes," Steed rasped, barely able to talk. The little bit of water he had drunk already seemed evaporated from his body.
"No. Look, either kill me or get me out of the sun."
The man grunted. Another question followed. "Casement?"
"Yes. Joshua Casement."
The Arab stood up and directed the others to lift up Steed. They carried him over the hill putting him into the Range Rover, sitting him on a seat, leaning against the car door. Someone put a mufti on his head--the traditional cloth covering--and lasso'd it into place to keep the merciless sun off him. They gave him more water. Then, two got in the Rover and drove off, and two followed in the Jeep they had used to reach the hill.
They drove for twenty-five minutes, coming to a stop beside a small cement building. Steed didn't care where he was, he had kept his eyes closed the whole trip, he just wanted to be inside somewhere given a great deal of water. He said nothing when he was lifted up and moved, only his head telling him he was being carried somewhere.
Steed was taken inside and laid down; his eyes opening only briefly to see he was on a narrow bed in a cement house. He then allowed himself to not care about what was done to him. Now that he was out of the sun the pain in his sunburnt face took precedence over anything else. The burning agony seemed to penetrate down to his bones and he couldn't help a few groans from slipping out now and then. He was given more water on a regular basis. His eyes were washed with water to cleanse them of the irritating grit that was still in them, his face and neck were washed and then wet, cool cloths were put over his face, and some salve was applied to his broken, torn, chapped lips. At some point from the sounds, he believed he was undressed, perhaps washed, and he heard the words "doctor," "sutures," "dog bite," "catheter" spoken; even if he opened his eyes the towels on his face prevented him from seeing anything. He had no knowledge of what was done to him, not being able to feel anything but the misery from his neck up. In his fatigue Steed was able to appreciate how ironic it was that such a small portion of his anatomy was causing such intense pain, while the rest of him was completely numb. He would just trust that for right now, anyway, these Arabs had the intention of helping him and keeping him alive, although Steed did not believe that they were so innately good-hearted to keep up this beneficent behavior.
After a number of hours of regularly receiving water, some a little salty, Steed actually felt re-hydrated, but, even still, that pleasure, combined with the cooling towels covering his face, did not allow him to doze much during the day. He regretted that Adam's head had not been buried; he wondered how he would tell his family what happened if he returned to England; he thought of his paralysis and how it ended his life, ended his work, his women, his horses; he feared what the people of this village might do to him. Only because he body was so exhausted was he able to drift into a light half-sleep at times, waking at the least sound. He heard people in the room at times, and the towels were occasionally re-wetted and replaced on his face. They didn't decrease his burn pain much, but did help alleviate his headache. It was late afternoon when he heard a door slam in a room off the one he was in, startling him alert. Slammed doors never boded well. When a door slammed upon a person's entrance, the noise decried power to the one who slammed it and powerlessness for the one who heard and waited. When a door slammed as a person left, there was a finality to the sound that diminished the person behind, ripping out his sense of being in control of his life. Nothing good, nothing kind, came when a door slammed. A few seconds later the towels were ripped roughly off his face. He saw a medium sized man, burly build, dark short hair and two of the most evil eyes he had ever seen staring down at him. He was uniformed as an Iraqi Army Colonel. Three other men stood behind and to the side of him. An elderly woman and two younger girls, stood further back against the wall opposite him.
"You are Joshua Casement? An Englishman?" the burly man asked, waving Steed's passport in the air. His Arabic accent was more standard, not the dialect the other man had spoken earlier.
"Yes," Steed answered, fear growing in him. The whole affectation of the man was a menacing danger, a violent threat.
"I am Colonel Saddam Hussein. Have you heard of me?"
"You will one day, when I rule this country with an iron hand, and begin convincing my Arab neighbors to join in my beliefs or be run over by them. Are you a spy?"
The sun's rays or a bullet is what Steed had wished for; not this, not what this was leading to.
"No, I'm not a spy. I was working with my friend, an archaeologist, who was killed by the mortar shell. I represent the foundation that is supporting the funding of an archaeological dig outside Karbala."
"I think you are lying," the man said, simply, in a tone that chilled Steed through the heat of the room. He handed Steed's passport to a man behind him. "You do not look like a mere foundation lackey to me. Look at all the scars on your body; you did not get them behind some desk. What were you doing this far south?"
Steed had expected that the evidence of his active life written on his skin in numerous scars would have betrayed his oral statement of not being associated with an intelligence agency. The idea to defend himself by claiming they were all garnered from his time in the War passed through his mind but seemed specious and he let that comment go, deciding to just maintain his declaration of innocence as best he could. "We were told that there was a newly discovered archaeological site seventy miles southwest of An Nasinyah, and we were going there to examine it."
"An archaeological site in the desert? Who would live there, so far from the Euphrates? There is no water east of here. Do you take me for a fool?"
Steed said nothing, realizing the fool that he himself had been. Ali. It must have been Ali. Was Darius a double agent, or merely ignorant? Steed was sure it was the latter, but none of that mattered now.
"And you are paralyzed, you say? You cannot feel a thing? Except here, hmm?" He tapped Steed's face.
"I can't feel a thing, except there," Steed answered, wincing at the pressure on his sunburnt skin.
"Let us prove that to ourselves," the man said and then he nodded to a man behind him who took Steed's right hand from under the thin cover that lay over his body, which he didn't know was naked or not. The Colonel stood in front of Steed staring down at him, blocking off Steed's view behind him to what the man was doing to his hand. Panic rushed about inside Steed and his heart took off racing, filling his throat with pounding beats.
"What are you doing? Look, I can't feel a thing," he stated, anxiously.
"We are cutting off your fingers," the man said, calmly, as if he reading aloud his shopping list.
Steed's mouth and eyes opened in shock. It hurt so much to use his lips, but he couldn't keep from imploring, "There's no reason to do that! I can't feel a thing! Poke me with something sharp to prove it! Why cut off my fingers?" He almost added, "Please don't do that," but some level of dignity inside him wouldn't allow it and he cut himself off, screaming inside, to whatever religious or spiritual force might care about people on Earth, "Oh, no, oh, no, not this. Please don't do this to me."
The man shrugged. "Spies do not deserve the use of their hands."
Hands. Plural. Was he going to cut off all Steed's fingers? Sweat rolled down Steed's brow and he knew that if they started on his left hand he would not be able to control himself from begging them to stop. He felt light-headed and close to fainting. He managed to croak, "I'm not a spy. Don't do this."
The man who held his hand said, "That's one." One finger gone. Which one. Pinky, thumb?
"Again," he heard the Colonel order.
Steed closed his eyes tightly, holding in his desire to scream out loud his anger at the Colonel, the sun, his paralysis, this assignment in Iraq. This was truly the most helpless Steed had even been in his whole life. He held in his scream, the tension building in him until he had to clamp down on his jaw to prevent any outburst. His breaths became jerky and irregular, coming one right after the other in a jumble of dismay. There was no way he could admit to being a spy; all his training, all his years as an agent, all his loyalty to Britain prohibited it. And, besides, if they knew he was, what worse things might they do to him?
"That's another one," the man said. Two. How many more? Steed turned his head toward the wall closing his eyes, not believing this was happening, trying to will himself to die. The man added, "Should I do a third?"
Hussein didn't answer right away and the silence grew terrible to Steed. All his gentlemanly calm attempted to keep him quiet, but words leaked out of him anyway.
"Stop," he said, forcing himself to speak slowly and clearly, and not ramble in rush of pure fear. "I can't feel anything. Aren't you convinced now?"
"All right, that's enough," the Colonel said. He waved his hand, "Remove them." Turning to Steed he said, "So, then, if we wish to get information from you we will have to, well, cut off your ears, or nose or eyes. You would feel that."
Steed took threats from interrogators seriously; more than once what they had threatened they had done to him. And, knowing what Hussein had just done to him, he acknowledged that such an attack on him was well within the realm of possibility. He should have acted demure, and strove to not rile the Colonel, but the outrageousness of Hussein's statement hit the limit of his tolerance of mindless, cruel abuse. Turning to face his tormentor, anger poured out of him. He growled, "If you begin mutilating me that way you better kill me. Because I've got nothing to tell you and if you do that to me and leave me alive, I will find a way to kill you."
"Oh, you will, will you? We shall see. There is no rush right now, though. I'll wait. If your feeling returns, then we will torture you properly; if it doesn't, then on Saturday we will offer you to our Soviet friend. If he wants you, fine, if not, then you will die like the pathetic dog you are now." Without another word, Colonel Hussein and the two men left the room, slamming the front door closed in their wake. Steed was alone with the old woman and the teenaged girls. He faced a dead-end street of possibilities: if he could feel, he would be tortured; if he didn't he would be killed or turned over to the Soviets, who without much work, would figure out who he really was. But that was all in the unknown future, and now, now he had to contend with that fact that they had cut off two of his fingers
"Mina, clean and wrap his hand," the old woman said. The girl bowed her obeisance and went to Steed's side.
"Which fingers did they cut off?" he asked, hoarsely, the most horrible question he had ever had to ask in his life. The young girl held his hand from where it hung down off the bed, below Steed's line of sight. The young girl did not answer, but instead shyly bent to her task.
"Will you show me my hand?" Steed requested, not really wanting to see it. The girl looked to the woman and she came over to Steed.
"Here," she said, lifting his hand up, and he was amazed to see it was perfectly intact, though his index and middle fingers were covered in blood. The woman spoke further, "They did not cut off any of your fingers. He was testing you by saying that. Wondering if you would break down and admit you were a spy. Making sure you really couldn't feel. They put nails under your fingernails to the cuticle. It is bloody, but there is no serious damage." She gave it back to the girl who went about cleaning and bandaging the fingers.
Steed nodded, relief so intense at the fact he still had all his fingers he almost wept. He had to hold himself together; keep his nerves strong. He took some deep breaths to settle himself down. The old woman lifted up Steed's head and gave him several cups of water to drink. She spoke as she did so. "We've washed you and Korany, who is a terrible doctor, removed the piece of shrapnel and sewed up the wound in your thigh. He used a rubber tube as a catheter to empty your bladder. He said he would do that morning and evening to prevent it being damaged from getting too full. He did not do anything for the dog bite but put a stitch or two in the deeper teeth marks and a bandage over the whole area. Hopefully the dog was not rabid, but we do not know for sure. Probably it was. For your sunburn we have nothing but cool towels; for your lips a healing salve."
"Thank you," Steed said, still shaky and weak from what had just occurred. He had been in hospitals before, been cared for before, and decided he could either be terribly embarrassed by the need for a catheter or simply acknowledge it as a consequence of his injury. He rationally choose the latter option. He was desperate to hold a normal conversation with this woman, to keep get his thoughts stable. Human contact could work wonders for a person so helpless and, he admitted to himself, afraid.
"Do not be insincere. Why thank those you hate?" the woman said.
"I don't hate you." And he didn't. Steed never been one to negatively typecast a whole racial or ethnic group based on the behavior of one or several individuals belonging to it.
The old woman was silent as she helped the girl bandage up Steed's fingers. He could see the blood leaking through the first layers of the cloth.
"Where am I? What village is this?"
"What's your name?" Steed asked the old woman. This touch of kindness, of friendly connection to another person was as life-giving as the water he had just drank. He wanted to promote their familiarity as best he could. It was calming to him, and it never hurt to have a friendly relationship with someone when surrounded by brutal despots.
"What does it matter what our names are?" the woman responded, her voice heavy and slow. "You will be tortured and killed or killed without being tortured. Our time together will be brief, Englishman."
"Well, it can still be courteous. You're helping me right now. I'd like to know how to politely address you."
The old woman dismissed the girls, who left the room. She dipped the towels the Colonel had taken off Steed's face and thrown on the floor in some water, and then wrung them out. Avoiding the dirty part she lay them back on Steed's face, allowing an opening for his eye's, nose and mouth.
"My name is Farah. My grand-daughters are Mina and Sara."
"Your grand-daughters. They're pretty, but shy. How old are they?
"Fourteen and sixteen."
"Are their parents alive?"
"No, they were killed years ago like endless others in these endless battles men fight to gain power and prestige. Tribe against tribe; guerillas against innocents. It is just them and me."
"I'm sorry," Steed said, and he meant it. He recognized he had a common trait with this old woman living in a world entirely foreign to his--a weariness that she carried like a sack of tombstones as a result of seeing too much violence and having it enter one's life too often, bringing death and sadness. Farah looked at him studying her face as she finished covering it gently with the towels.
"Are you hungry?" she asked.
"No, but I don't know if I'd feel it if I was."
"I will bring you some soup and cous cous later."
"That's very good of you. Thanks. I suppose I should eat, to keep up my strength for the torturers."
"You joke at a time like this?"
"Well, it's not too funny, really."
"No, it's not." She put his hand back under the covers. "You shouldn't have come here, to this area," she said. "Colonel Hussein is a madman, who cares for no one but himself and his plans of ruling the country. You are nothing to him; less than a flea."
"I know," Steed agreed.
"You'll just be one more dead man by the end of the week."
"And what of your wife and children? Do you risk your life to leave them widowed and fatherless."
Steed was silent for a moment. It seemed his whole life always came back to this, lately. "I've no family of my own."
She looked at him. "Why not? For what else are we put here on earth but to marry and procreate? Even Sara is being courted to marry, at her young age."
Steed frowned. "I married a job. A career."
"What?" the old woman asked, her voice rising. She waved her hands around. "This? You married this?" She shook her head back and forth. "That is very sad. Very sad. And now you die, with no one to honor you or miss you. That is the saddest death of all."
She left the room, leaving Steed alone, under wet towels that barely cut into the pain he felt in his skin, and didn't touch the growing pain in his emotions at all. The echo of "No big deal" reverberated throughout his brain like a foghorn warning of danger too late to save the ship.
Early Wednesday morning, Ali called his village, and the general store manager had his son run to get Ali's aunt. She told Ali that his uncle had never returned after leaving early the day before and she was worried about him. Ali told her to put his cousin on the line, and he told him where he should go look for his father. His cousin Anwar warned Ali that if anything had happened to his father and it was Ali's fault, he would spill Ali's blood with relish.
The cousin took one son from each of the men who had accompanied his father and drove into the desert in the store manager's old van. They found the destroyed Jeep at the bottom of the valley, and the bodies of their fathers, eaten to pieces by the scavengers of the barren land. They buried their fathers individually and then vowed to kill Ali Tikriti. Kissing their mothers good-bye, they drove off to Baghdad in the late afternoon. They arrived in the evening and stayed at a small inn outside the city, with plans to locate and murder Ali the next day.
Darius Mahdi, meanwhile, drove to Karbala very disturbed, and with a gun in his dashboard, a gift from John Steed twelve years ago that he had never had cause to use, and never had expected he ever would. He had not been able to contact Steed for two days, nor had Steed maintained the daily communication with Darius as he said he would, and Steed was notoriously reliable. No one Darius had contacted--at the dig, the University, or the hotel--knew the location of Steed or Adam Willis. Ali had not returned his calls, either. Darius knew something was wrong, and as he drove to Karbala, he reasoned out the events of the last few days.
Darius was a sociable man, and had earned his keep from Britain by becoming friends with professors in the political departments of the University, who were all aligned with the military in some way or another, either supporting, or at times, denouncing the men in power. Darius particularly had snaked his way into the supportive factions, lying about his Baa'th proclivities, and, as a result, had, over the years, earned the trust of several high level career military men who used the deep tombs in Darius' archaeology sites to hide biological warfare products. As a result, Darius was well informed as to the situation with the government that was occurring in Iraq, including the stock-piling of all manners of armaments. This information is what he regularly sold to Britain, through coded messages an an archaeological colleague--a first son of a high-ranking Iraqi general, and therefore beyond suspicion. However, the son worked at Oxford University, and had been turned to Britain's cause quite easily in the freedom of the Western world and the money, large house and women offered to him. Now, however, the military was beginning to use a few sites in the north to hide the components needed to create a nuclear bomb; that was what Darius wanted to discuss with Steed, as well as the instability of the government and predictions for future rulers and their political agendas. It was more intricate than a coded note to Oxford would allow.
Darius grew angry when he thought of confronting Ali Tikriti at the Sumerian site. Something was wrong, very wrong, made even more so by the fact that the doctor had not been able to find any bacteria in his wife's intestines, and wondered, with some of the odd other symptoms she exhibited, if she had be poisoned. Darius had laughed at the doctor's absurd suggestion, and then went home. Putting talcum powder on the handle of the refrigerator and the jug of herb tea in it, Darius lifted off several different sets of fingerprints. He matched her wife's to some, after making ink impressions of her fingers, and found his own and all four of his childrens--who thought it all a fine joke to have their fingers darkened with ink--on the door. However, one set stood out, and he was at a loss to identify it. Then his mind became to whirl; what an unusual coincidence that just when Steed was arriving, his wife may have been poisoned, which would get him out of the way for several days at least. That would enable someone else, like Ali Tikriti, to lead Steed and Adam Willis into danger, considering that Darius had told Steed Ali was entirely trustworthy, and that Ali had been more than happy to pick them up from the airport and take care of them whilst Darius was by his sick wife's side. A sinking feeling had set into Darius as he had wandered to the University late the previous night. Letting himself into the deserted archaeology department using his master keys, he had compared the unknown set of fingerprints with those all over Ali's desk in his private office. The set matched perfectly. Darius realized what must have happened.
Steed had warned him when he had recruited Darius into working for Britain that at any time a friend could turn out to be an enemy. However difficult it was to accept that sort of betrayal--and Steed had emphasized there was none worse--it had to be viewed logically. Feelings had to be put aside. One's survival could depend on it. Darius and Ail had been friends for years; Darius not infrequently invited Ali to his house for dinner. And all along Ali had his own agenda, had been using Darius, manipulating him, not befriending him. Somehow, Darius realized, Ali knew that Steed was an agent, and had contrived to have Darius out of the way long enough to have Steed kidnapped, for whatever purpose Darius didn't know. Darius had allowed that to happen, in fact, had played right into Ali's hands. His wife had almost died, his unborn child had almost died, and knowing the methods of Iraqi interrogators, if Steed had been kidnapped and wasn't dead already, he certainly soon might beg to be. Darius was sure that Steed would assure the kidnappers that Adam Willis truly was an archaeologist and knew nothing of importance. Although that might save him a great deal of pain, it might also hasten Mr. Willis' death, or his release. One never knew in Iraq the moods of men with guns.
Darius arrived at the archaeological site in the late afternoon and met Ali, calmly asking him where Joshua Casement and Adam Willis were. Ali told him that the two Englishmen had decided the day before to go driving a bit south, to sightsee the marshes near Iran, and that they assured Ali they would be back the next day, though had not returned yet, so far. Darius saw through Ali's lie immediately. Steed would not have acted like a tourist in Iraq, and he would certainly have been waiting for Darius to arrive as scheduled today. He wanted to pull Ali aside and question him more pointedly, but a group of high school students arrived. They were enrolled in a special summer program of spending time at various occupations, and today was their day to inspect an archaeological dig. Ali was in charge of instructing them for the rest of the morning and afternoon.
Darius had no intention of making a scene. Although he knew Steed's life might be at risk, he decided to wait one more day. He thought of contacting the Ministry and alerting them as to the potential crisis here, but he did not want to do so, yet. Everything, he had to admit, was mere speculation at this time; he needed to confront Ali and learn the facts before sounding a red alert in England. After all, it was not like England could just send a dozen armed men into Iraq looking for Steed; no, it was up to Darius to find their best agent, as he had indirectly been the cause of Steed's disappearance. Darius was proud to work for the English, and was enamored with the country. If he could have brought his family anywhere, it would have been to London, to crumpets, polo, and rain. Steed and the Ministry had treated him well over the years, and if his spying had so far been a thing of ease, now he was prepared to do whatever he had to do. For the first time in his life, he was glad Steed had given him a gun. He had never yet killed a man, but he would do so to rescue the two Englishmen.
Darius spent the rest of the day at the site, and then returned to the hotel, speaking with the manager and letting him know that Mr. Casement and Willis would be returning and asking him to not let their rooms. He thought of going to Ali's apartment, but it seemed that waiting until tomorrow and confronting him at the site, where it would be hard to run away and catch a plane, unlike in the city, was best. He had a light dinner--his appetite minimal--and went to bed, lying down and finally experiencing the insomnia that Steed had warned sometimes plagued a spy.
Steed slept in short, light catnaps throughout the day. Aside from his thoughts of Adam and Adam's family, his paralysis, and the severity of the pain in his face and neck, he now had to add in the return of Colonel Hussein and further injury to his immobile body, and his imminent death, all of which played havoc with his ability to sleep. His meditative attempts were futile. In the early evening he was spoon fed like a baby, which greatly decreased his interest in eating. A little cup of soup and some spoonfuls of cous cous was all he could garner the impetus to eat, much to the disapproving "Tsk-tsks" of the old woman serving him. The doctor came and Steed closed his eyes while the physician attended to his urinary needs; thankfully it didn't take much time before the man, silent during the whole process, left the room. He dozed lightly a little more, until he thought he heard a door slam in the next room and he awoke suddenly, trying to move his body, get off the bed, out of Iraq. But, no movement occurred and when he realized he had dreamt the sound, he relaxed and lay his head back down on the pillow. He knew that sound would haunt him, that door slam, as it seemed interrogators always came to cells, to prisoners, in the exact same, predictable fashion. The same heavy steps in the hall, the same creaking of the cell door, the same solemn, grave entrance into the cell, the same nod to the guards to lift him up and carry him back to where he would be interrogated again Hussein would return, Steed was sure of it, and would slam the front door to the old woman's home first He listened like a cat for that ominous sound, glad that he couldn't feel his intestines and that sour, sick, nauseous sensation that settled in them when he was captured and at risk of being ill-treated.
The towels on his face were dry, so he turned his head suddenly to the side and they rolled off, falling onto the bed beside him. His face was still acutely painful, and his eyes still almost swelled shut. To pass some time and try to concentrate his mind elsewhere aside from his discomfort, he decided to examine the room he was in. The first thing he immediately noticed was that he was, strangely, on a bed, not the floor, where Arab people generally spent all their time, eating, socializing, sitting and sleep.
He looked around more--the walls of his room were made of tinder blocks of cement, and the floor was cement as well, covered with heavy wool rugs. On the windowless walls were some framed pictures, one with the phrase "There is only one God and Mohammed is his prophet" written in the artistic display of Arabic calligraphy and the other a picture of geometric pattern of squares. There was a wooden door to his right, which was cracked open, allowing a line of light against the edge of the door to enter. Smells of some roasted meat wafted pleasantly to his nose. A smoky kerosene lamp was the only other light in the room, and it sat on table by a chest of drawers against the far wall of the room; a line of soot stained the wall behind it and smeared the cement ceiling black above. There was a chair in the room as well; another oddity. He heard voices in the other room, a man talking to Farah, and he could just barely make out his request to marry Sara and Farah's response that she was yet too young, telling her eager suitor, named Selim, to wait another two years.
He rested his head again on the pillow, his face burning like it was a stove on which meat could cook, his mind full of dreadful images and worries, all of which he knew would prevent him from sleeping well through the night, even though, in some innate way, he could sense the exhaustion of his body from lack of rest. When he heard footsteps approaching his room, his breath stopped for a moment, and through the slits in his eyes he was relieved to see the old woman enter. She was about five feet five, and wore a long dress of all black. She was plump, but Steed imagined that she was also strong and hardy as she was probably around sixty years old, a very respectable age for rural Arabs. She walked barefoot and her feet looked calloused enough to jump on glass shards without tearing. She had a black scarf over her grey hair, tied under her chin, leaving her wrinkled face fully visible, as the more liberal Arabs in Iraq did. She had a dark mole on her chin, and her brown eyes showered Steed with the power of her intelligence and a softness illustrating what he hoped was compassion.
She came over to him, removing the towels from the mattress and putting them on the table above the bed. "You're still awake?" she asked.
"Yes. It's rather difficult to sleep."
"I have no way to help you rest."
"Don't worry. I'll just spend the night counting camels leaping over a fence."
"Another unfunny one." She stood there watching him and he decided to try to hold another conversation with her, to pass the time and establish a rapport. It hurt his cracked lips to move them, but he was able to converse like a ventriloquist, barely making use of them. "I am curious about lying in a bed. Quite unusual, that, in a rural Iraqi home."
"My father built it with railroad ties from a railroad track that the government stopped using. My mother told him it was a waste of good wood, but he did do a good job carving the headboard behind you, which you cannot see."
That was true. Steed made a slight effort to tilt his head enough to see in back of him but his burnt neck resisted and he stopped trying. "Did he make the chair, too?" he asked.
"It's lovely. Who usually sleeps in the bed?"
"No one. I sleep in this room on the floor, and Mina and Sara sleep in the big room of the house. However, as a Westerner, it seemed correct to put you in the bed."
"Makes me feel like I'm right at home," he smiled.
"You are either insane, or an idiot, to make fun of your situation."
"Well, I'm not an idiot," he rejoined. "Where will you sleep now? Here, on the floor, with me?"
"Of course not. That would not be proper, an unmarried man and a widow in the same room."
"I don't think you'd have to worry about me trying to take advantage of you; I can't even sit up."
"That isn't the issue. There's propriety to observe. I will sleep with Mina and Sara in the other room. Besides, I don't favor listening to you moan all night long."
Steed knew that a few grunts had fallen from his mouth here and there, as a shot of pain darted throughout his face, but it hadn't known it would have been audible in the other room. That embarrassed him.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to disturb you and your house."
She pinched her lips together and spoke after a few moments. "It was I who was just rude to you, Englishman, and who owe you an apology."
"You don't owe me anything," he assured her.
"You're a strange man."
"I'm a gentleman."
"That is strange, here." She tucked his sheets in around his torso like he was her child.
"Well, good-night," he said, smiling briefly.
"You should not have come here," she said, standing straight again, repeating her statement of earlier in the day. "Didn't your other scars warn you of doing so? This is a dangerous land."
"Actually, none of this was in the game plan when I agreed to make a supposedly quick visit to Iraq. Bad luck, I suppose."
She stared at him a little more and then turned to go, first moving to the kerosene lamp across the room. She made to blow it out when Steed spoke up.
"I'm terribly sorry, and I know this sounds rather childish, but I would prefer keeping the lamp lit, if you wouldn't mind."
She turned to him. "Are you afraid of the dark?"
This was no great secret. It was in his psychological report, Mother had known it, Father had known it, his colleagues knew it. It was something Steed was a little ashamed of, but gave himself the allowance to acknowledge based on how and when that fear had developed in him.
"A little bit, actually, yes," he admitted. Prison cells could be very, very dark. His fear of dark rooms was as much an emotional scar of his time in them as were some of the cicatrices on his skin. There was no use acting courageous and watching the light be blown out and then laying awake in terrible anxiousness until he might be lucky enough to fall asleep.
"There is not enough oil in the lamp for the whole night."
"Well, as long as the light lasts would be helpful."
She turned the flame down lower but left it on. "Is that satisfactory? It should last for about five hours, but sunrise comes early and we are up then and open the front door to let the light in."
"And the chickens?" Steed had heard a bit of occasional clucking throughout the day and rough words spoken to chase them outside.
"Yes, and the chickens."
"Is that what you raise?"
"That, and goats, and sheep. Sara is the one who cares for the animals; she has loved them ever since a toddler. Mina and I will be your care-givers while Sara is outside with our herds."
"I raise horses myself. Thoroughbreds. We've got something in common. Of course, I don't eat my horses, but, then, you probably don't saddle your goats and ride them over hedges."
"I doubt we have much in common. I, for one, am sane."
"I have my days of clarity, too, you know," he smiled. "The light is good," he said, very touched by her acquiescence to waste the oil required for all night use. "Thank you."
"Again you thank me. I care for you because I was ordered to, and only so that you will be alive to be tortured further or killed. That is nothing to thank me for."
She stood across the room from him, as the light of the small flame flickered over her dark form. Steed spoke earnestly. "Following one's orders is one thing; going beyond them is another. You've treated me better than you had to, just to keep me alive. It's for that expression of humanity that I thank you."
"I've done you no favors. If I had let you die, you would have no more suffering."
"And no more hope."
"What hope can you have? Paralyzed, alone among your enemies. Do your friends know where you are?"
"No." It was not a happy thought. There must be numerous small towns in the area if they began a search and even knew where to start. He doubted they could find him by Saturday.
"Then what chance of rescue can you have? Hope. I spit on the filthy idol of hope," she scoffed, her emphasis on the word "spit" actually close to enacting it.
"Well, I can't spit. It's not gentlemanly," Steed said. And he smiled again. "So, I guess, however insane it is, I'll have to keep hoping." Steed didn't know whether he was trying to convince Farah or himself with his words.
She grew silent and then without a word left the room.
Steed lay awake for some time, watching the light of the flame dance around the walls. He listened to the soft voices in the other room, until the extra light that came from there was turned off and the three woman there fell asleep. It was just him, now, alone with his burned skin pain and fear. He thought about his home and the people he knew; he wondered if Darius was looking for him, or if he had contacted the Ministry back in England that things had gone dreadfully wrong. He wondered what would happen to him tomorrow when Hussein came back to see him, as he was sure the man would. He held back the utter despair regarding his paralysis, by having the hope that somehow, someway he would regain the use of his limbs. He drifted in and out of sleep. Just when he the light sputtered out in the lamp and he was in the total dark, the frightening dark, his exhaustion overcame him. As he imagined he felt a bit of tingling develop in his fingertips and toes, he sank deeply asleep.
Thursday morning, Anwar and the other sons drove to the University and went to the archaeology department. There, Anwar left the others in their car and, finding the Archaeology Department, spoke with the secretary, Maha Azim, asking to speak to Ali Tikriti, an old friend of his, as he as thinking of joining the University to garner an archaeology degree himself. Was he around? No, she replied, he was at a dig outside Karbala, and she gave him the directions, assuring him that archaeology was a fascinating field of study. Smiling, Anwar left, and promptly set off in the car to the Karbala.
Ali had thought of running back to Baghdad, but decided that acting as if he was innocent of Casement's and Willis' disappearance was best, and indeed, in a way he was. He had no idea who had captured the men, or what had happened to them there in the desert. Things were getting messy, yet Ali was not quite panicking. Only Maha knew he had approached the two Englishmen, and she would never tell on him. There was no way, therefore, for him to be connected with the Englishmen's absence. He just had to act concerned, and hope the two were killed and never heard from again to protect Darius from learning that he had set them up.
Darius, meanwhile, as he drove back to the site, decided he would beat the truth out of Ali if he had to, but he would find out that day what Ali had done with the Englishmen.
Anwar and his cohorts arrived at the site. Three of them went to find Ali whilst one stayed at the van to be ready to drive away quickly. Hiding their guns under their tunics, Anwar and company walked casually through the site looking for Ali. At that moment Darius drove up and parked, walking onto the grounds of the ancient ruin searching for his assistant. The fatherless men found him talking to a student and when the student left with the fragment Ali had identified, Ali turned directly into the three men. His eyes widening in fear he put his hands up and begged, "Anwar! No!" as several guns shattered the quiet of the contemplative site, the sounds of the bullets firing echoing through the ruin and startling all the students. Ali, shot numerous times, convulsed a few times while standing and then flopped to the ground to lay still as his blood flowed into the dusty dirt, which absorbed it entirely. Students nearby screamed and scrambled away from the site.
The men turned and found themselves facing a shocked and stunned Darius Mahdi. Immediately he raised his hands.
"Don't kill me. He was no friend of mine. Tell me why you killed him," Darius implored. "I'll make it worth your while. Two thousand dinars for a few questions answered. Then you can go, with me giving the police fake descriptions of you." Two thousand dinars was more than the three men made together in a year. It was an immense sum.
"Two thousand dinars? You lie," the trigger clicked back. "No one has that sort of money."
"I do. In fact, I have the two thousand dinars on my right now." It was true, as Darius had followed another bit of advice Steed had given him; when trouble is surrounding one, have cash on hand. As much as you can.
"Then we will take it and kill you."
"Then you will not get another two thousand dinars after helping me."
The men looked at each other, and then Anwar said. "We must leave this place. Come with us. We'll talk in the car."
Darius had a wife and four children and one on the way. He loved them very much, but he had a responsibility to Steed and Willis he could not deny. Fully aware of the danger, he agreed and drove off with them south to the desert.
They stopped at a café fifty miles away and inside, seated on the floor around a table, were served lamb stew with flat bread. Darius handed over the money, and Anwar, an honorable man, told about Ali's failed plan using his father to kidnap two Englishmen. The deaths of four healthy men, four fathers, necessitated the death of the instigator.
Darius asked where exactly this had taken place and Anwar answered. Then Darius told Anwar that if he helped him recover those men, Anwar could name his price, and it would be paid. Just think how many weapons he could buy with money, how much food for four fatherless families could be supplied. Ali was a fool, and had mistaken those two archaeologists for two British spies; Darius had exchanged information with those men for years. Darius was a respected man in the Baa'th party, he assured them. He would never have welcomed spies into his site. Ali was reckless and stupid. It had gotten four good men killed. It would also look bad on Darius' family, who was in charge of caring for the archaeologists, if any harm came to them. Darius was willing to pay for Anwar's help. He came from a wealthy family. He had money.
"The men my father lay in wait for were not spies?"
"No, that is the travesty. They really are archaeologists."
Curses on Ali's dead soul sprang from the mouths of the four men. "Ten thousand dinars, total," Anwar stated, beginning the bargaining process of negotiations the Arabs thrived upon. That was an outrageous sum and Darius lowered it; bids flew back and forth, until compromise figure of six thousand dinars, total, was reached.
"Done," Darius agreed, confident that the British government would reimburse him the measly two thousand pounds that translated into.
They left after lunch, and began driving in the direction of the dirt road that ended at the stand of rocks which had a man's profile. There were numerous villages along the road, and Anwar and his friends had allies in some of them. Anwar was confident of tracking down the captured two Englishmen.
Darius prayed to Allah to have that be so.
Steed woke in the morning. Looking around through still slitted, puffy eyes, he heard the old woman and her grand-daughters talking in the main room of the house. The door separating the rooms was wide open, allowing bright light to illuminate his room, ridding his surroundings of all traces of the disliked dark.
Suddenly, a myriad of sensations ran crazy through Steed's mind, jumbling up his brain so that rational thought was impossible for a few seconds. Aside from the expected burning of his face and neck, Steed felt a pressure in his bladder, he felt the covers over his body, he felt the pain of the shrapnel wound in his thigh, of the dog bite in his side, and the terrible aching of his fingers where they had been impaled with nails.
He could feel. He couldn't believe it. Was it a dream? Was it real? It seemed real. It was real. He could feel again. He was astounded. He had no idea how he had healed, how his nerves had somehow regenerated, what sort of injury he had had that fully paralyzed him and then went away. It was amazing. It was miraculous.
He felt his heart begin racing as he then, naturally, decided to see if he could move, as well. Struggling, he had to hold in a cry of joy when he found that he could move his right arm a little to the side, and his left arm, and putting a grunt of effort into it, he was able to incrementally lift each leg off the bed. Those movements exhausted him, though and he rested after the tiny procedures.
He might be able to walk again, one day. Or ride a horse. Or dance. Or play polo. He might be able to grab his life back with two, powerful hands; to chase it down and capture it with two, strong legs. Steed was on the verge of yelling to the old woman when the doctor, Korany, entered the room. Then, suddenly, the awfulness of his situation hit home.
He could feel. If Colonel Hussein learned that, he would be promptly tortured, using methods that Steed was sure would be fairly unbearable to endure. He was still too weak to protect himself, to defend himself, to escape into the desert. There was only one thing to do. He would have to try to hide his recovery from his Arab captors.
He watched in silent horror as Korany approached his bed, with a bowl in hand, the top of a thin rubber tube protruding from a pocket in his army trousers. It was perfectly unsanitary, and now that Steed had gotten some sleep and was more alert, and could feel his stomach, he felt sick at the upcoming procedure he had to endure in complete silence. Turning his head to the side and breathing deeply, but not too deeply to arise suspicion, Steed clenched his teeth against the harsh application of Korany's technique. When the sound of his bladder emptying ended, Korany yanked out the tube and left, the filled bowl in hand. Steed allowed a long, low moan to roll out of his throat. This was not going to be easy. Not easy at all.
A few minutes later Farah and Mina came in; Farah carrying a tray with a bowl of food, bread, and tea on it and Mina with some fresh bandages for his fingers, which were now aching terribly. Steed began to think that being numb wasn't that bad a condition at times. He still a puffy, hot, stiff face which hurt in and of itself; feeling all his other wounds was not a welcome additional burden.
Farah put the tray down on the table by the bed while Mina uncovered Steed's hand from the covers and then stood by it waiting for directions to begin dealing with Steed's fingers.
"Did you sleep well?" Farah asked, bringing a chair to his bedside and sitting down it in holding a warm bowl of chickpea porridge and flat bread. The aromatic smell drifted to Steed's nose and he found himself starving; he had only had that little bit of soup and cous cous in two days.
"It took awhile to fall asleep, but I finally did when the lamp ran out of oil. I just woke up, as a matter of fact." It hurt to talk, as the deep cracks in his lips, partially healed during the night, opened up at the slightest moment of his lips, and he licked a drop of blood that trickled out from one in his lower lip.
"I know. We've been checking on you all morning; Korany told us you were awake. It's near ten o'clock. You've probably slept for six hours."
"That's not bad."
"I have food for you."
"It smells wonderful. Thank you."
Steed knew he had to suffer the humiliation of being fed like an infant, but now that he had begun the return of movement, it grated on his refined nature even more. Yet, it was either be fed that way or not eat at all, so he ate, and more heartily than the previous time, but still, stopping well before the bowl was emptied to not create suspicion in Farah's mind. Farah fed him with a spoon, a utensil Arabs usually didn't use, preferring their fingers, ladling large globs of the porridge onto his mouth. She then broke up the bread into small pieces and fed those to Steed. He shook his head with half the bread left, indicating his was done. Farah put the bowl down and grabbed a cloth from the tray.
It was then that Steed's whole plan of subterfuge fell quickly apart. Steed closed his eyes at the absolute indignity of having his face wiped clean of stray food particles and at that moment, for whatever reason, Mina made the decision to grab hold of Steed's injured fingers. Since she believed Steed couldn't feel anything, she was not gentle at all, pressing down hard onto them as she pulled off the old, bloody bandages.
Steed instinctively opened his eyes and yelped at the pain that shot from his fingers up his arm. If he could have prepared himself, like he had with Korany, he was sure he would have been able to control his reaction to her probing, rough fingers, but taken by surprise as he had been, before he could stop himself, he had demonstrated his ability to feel.
Everyone froze in the room: Steed due to fear, and Farah and Mina from shock. Mina started and dropped Steed's hand at the sound of his exclamation and it fell laying to lay over the wooden edge of the bed.
Doom. That was the word that entered Steed's head. Doom. A bit melodramatic, but nonetheless the most succinct way to describe what would soon happen to him. The food that he had just eaten seemed very close to being thrown up, and he choked it back down, glad he had not finished the whole bowlful.
"You feel," Farah said, speaking first.
There was no way he could deny it. "Yes." He winced as he spoke; his little outburst having stretched his lips and worsened the cracks.
"Yes, all over. I woke up being able to feel. I don't know how or why."
"You were trying to hide it from us."
That was obvious, and for an obvious reason Steed didn't feel the need to explain. "Well," he smiled, "my plan lasted all of thirty minutes. Foiled by a pretty young woman with a very firm grip."
Mina bowed her head at that.
"Can you move as well?" the old woman inquired.
"Just barely." He inhaled deeply and displaced the covers a little by the feeble movements of his arms and legs, one limb at a time. "That's it. But, maybe that will recover normally like my feeling did."
"I doubt that will happen before you are killed."
Silence descended on the room and Farah lifted up Steed's head, placing a cup of tea, strong and sweet, by his lips. "Drink. You must be thirsty having had no liquid for so long."
He was thirsty and even though the tea seemed barely able to squeeze into the almond sized stomach that organ had shrunk to inside him, he drank the two proffered cups.
"You hid it well from Korany," she said, putting the cup back on the table. "He had no idea."
"Well, I wasn't taken by surprise with him." He didn't care to avoid the main topic hanging over them like the sword of Damocles. "Will you please give me some time to compose myself before you tell Colonel Hussein?" he asked.
"Mina, change his bandages, lightly, now," Farah directed, as she picked up the tray. "I'm not telling anyone anything, and neither will Mina or Sara. We were ordered to care for you and that we are doing. Whether you can feel or not is no business of ours. We were not ordered to report on it."
Steed had not heard anything so beautiful since the moment many years ago when he had received news the War had ended. He couldn't think of any other favor any other person had done him in his life that equaled what this old woman was offering to him. He felt his eyes moistening and blinked rapidly to stop that from happening.
She continued, "It will be up to yourself to continue to hide this fact from the others. I wish you luck."
The words came from Steed softly and very sincerely. "I know I sound like a broken record, but thank you very much for your silence. I never expected it. I don't know if I will ever have the chance to repay you for all you've done for me, but I hope I do one day."
"You will be dead by Saturday."
"Well, maybe I can think of something by tomorrow." It was levity to break the mood and at least Steed needed to lighten up the tension in the room. And, to his pleasure the woman shook her head back and forth as one might subtly appreciate a bit of fun.
"You and your jokes. Are you done, Mina?"
"Do you want the wet towels on your face today?" Farah asked.
"No, please don't bother."
"They didn't help too much, did they?"
She nodded and then the two women left the room. Alone, Steed ignored the suffering of his body and kept prodding his enervated limbs to move, little by little, more and more, always listening for the slamming of the front door.
It slammed four hours later.
Colonel Hussein and two men were in Steed's room within seconds, malevolent expressions darkening their faces. Steed froze into immobility, his mouth becoming dry, his heartbeat increasing, fighting his inclination to pant by consciously keeping his breaths deep and slow. If he hyper-ventilated, that would give him away. If he cried out in pain, that would give him away. If he moved an inch, that would give him away. He saw Farah enter the room behind the men, standing against the far wall, and her presence was supportive to Steed.
It happened quickly, without any introductory pleasantries. Hussein pulled down the sheet from Steed's torso; he was naked from the waist up. His only clothing was his underwear; otherwise he was bare. Steed stared up into Hussein's chubby face, and saw eyes that could only be described as demonic. Steed had long ago given up trying to figure out what made some men able to inflict dreadful pain on others with no moral or ethical compunction. In the War he realized that such men existed, and he had come up against them a few times since then. It was mystifying and inexplicable to him, for even during his worst and darkest years, when violence had so often been a part of his life, and he had thought nothing of fighting or killing someone, he had never been able to descend to the hellish depths of this type of raw brutality.
Hussein took a long, thin knife from a sheath attached to his belt. A holstered gun sat on his other hip. He put the sharp point of the knife against Steed's lower right flank.
"You still deny you are a spy?" he asked.
Hussein nodded a few times. "You still cannot feel anything?"
Steed held Hussein's stare. "No. Not a thing." He could feel the point digging into his skin, hard enough that a little blood was forming. He knew what was going to occur, and with a nonchalant attitude, closed his eyes, turned his head away to the wall, and blandly said, "Do what you will to prove it to yourself."
Steed wondered that Hussein couldn't see the pounding of his heart against his chest, didn't notice the sweat forming in his armpits. Steed went deep inside his mind, burrowing protectively like a fox sought by hounds. He concentrated on England, glorious in the summer; on his thoroughbred horses; on Carmela--thoughts swam passed his mind, and he rode the wave with them as Hussein's knife sank a little deeper into his skin and sliced slowly down his torso. It was the most difficult thing Steed had ever had to do in his life, act as if he was not being cut by a knife, as if he couldn't feel the stabbing, sharp pain, or the blood spilling down his side. Allow one agonizing infliction to prevent the untold agonies that being formally tortured would entail. He kept himself breathing naturally and fought off his abdomen's desire to retract away from the sharp blade. He prevented his eyes from spasming closed, and a loud groan from erupting from a throat geared to scream. He felt the knife lift up from his torso, although the pain and bleeding continued. A sudden terrible idea that maybe he would slash him again made Steed turn and face the monstrous man.
Hussein put the knife down on Steed's left flank, near the punctures of the dog bite, and Steed had the insight to know that this was a threat he could break by keeping his eyes poised on Hussein, and answering the caveat with an even, steady voice.
"Go ahead. I can't feel anything," he said, in voice filled with disdain. It was only a miracle that his words didn't cracked to pieces.
The Colonel pursed his lips together and narrowed his eyes. Then he removed the knife from Steed's skin, wiped it clean on the sheet and in an abrupt move left the room, the two men tailing after him. Farah spoke to him as he passed her.
"He will need the doctor to sew him up."
Hussein grunted and left the room. Steed heard the front door slam behind him. He waited a few seconds, until he was sure the Colonel wasn't returning and then his face convulsed into a tight grimace, and the groan that had been held inside him rolled out like a low boom of thunder as he writhed on the bed. When that passed he opened his eyes and lifted his head to study the wound in his side--it wasn't very long, only four inches, nor extremely deep, only penetrating through his layers of skin and not into the viscera beneath. Still, it bled freely, and had already soaked the bedclothes underneath him and pooled in the middle of his abdomen. The old woman called for Mina to bring some cloths, and the teen appeared immediately, as if she had been waiting just outside the door. Farah pressed down a folded cloth over the injury, stemming the blood flow as much as possible until the doctor arrived.
Steed's breathing was out of control, irregular and too fast. He had to get his respiration normalized soon, before the doctor arrived, although a certain level of hopeless despair overcame him at the thought of Korany sewing him up without anesthesia, which of course he wouldn't use, as Steed couldn't feel anything and why waste valuable and no doubt, sparsely supplied medicines on an English captive? A thin layer of sweat broke out on Steed's skin. He had no confidence that he would be able to covertly conceal the reactivation of his sense of feeling while he was sutured by a man with the touch of a gargoyle. And, later would come another catheterization, and then tomorrow another test like this, and more catheterizations, until he was either found out and tortured or merely put to his death. Steed was struck with the futility of his no-win situation, and he lost the heart to proceed with his subterfuge. Everything seemed to hurt already; his face, his fingers, his thigh, his left side, and now his right side. He had no more reserves to handle an increase in agony.
"I can't do it, Farah," he said. "Not with the suturing. You may as well tell them I can feel."
She pressed harder. "I'll not be the messenger of your torture," she said.
"Now or later? What does it matter? I might as well face up to the fact it's going to occur. Korany will tell them." He paused for a moment, then spoke as earnestly as he ever had in his life. "Listen, there was a good deal of money in my wallet. I don't know where it is, but if you can find it, keep it. Buy something nice for yourself and your grand-daughters. It's the only thing I have to give you in thanks. I can also give you address of someone in England and a code word. If you write him using that word and request money, he will send it to you. Let me make your life easier for you, at least financially. Can I give you that address?"
Steed had set up a system with his investment broker that if the broker received a letter containing a certain word in it, he was to liquidate the amount of money asked in the letter and wire it to the person who wrote it. It was to help allies, mainly, and to help himself, if he wound up hiding from his enemies under an assumed name, and every other safety valve was not available. He had never had cause to use it before.
"Englishman, you sound hopeless now, as if you are already dead."
"I am. I won't be able to hide from Korany. Please, hurry, let me give you that address. Do you have something to write with?"
"I can neither read nor write. Nor do I want your money. I have chickens, goats, and sheep. What else do I need?" she asked. Nodding to Mina to take over holding the cloth, Farah got up and left the room. Steed didn't know if he had offended her. It was ten minutes later that Korany entered the room, carrying a little black medical carrying case that was scuffed and torn in places. Right behind him was Farah, oddly carrying a tray with a bowl of food on it. As Korany pushed Mina to the side and lifted the cloth, examining the wound, Farah put the tray on the table by the bed and brought the bowl and spoon over to Steed, sitting down next to the bed.
"It's time to eat," she said to Steed, her eyes boring into him in a pointed manner, as if they were sending him some sort of secret message. Something was going on, but Steed didn't know what. He had no appetite at all, had just eaten four hours before, and it was bizarre that Farah would think he would want to eat now with what was going to happen to him.
"I've made this specially for you and it would be an insult to me and my mother's memory, as this is her recipe, if you refused to eat it," she continued, lifting up some heavily spiced meat and vegetable mix.
Steed tore his eyes from hers to notice that Korany was arranging his needle and suture thread on his stomach, not even bothering to cleanse the wound first. Pulling one end of the wound together, Korany thrust the needle into his skin, and just as Steed opened his mouth to shout loudly, Farah thrust a spoonful of the food into his mouth.
It was vile tasting; absolutely odious and unpalatable. Whatever spices and components she had mixed together merged into a flavor that was just one step above what he imagined decayed worms and squirrels would taste like. It was truly the most offensive substance that Steed had ever had in his mouth. He reacted accordingly. The spices stung his cracked lips like acid was poured into them. Gagging and twisting his head back and forth he looked for some place to spit it out, when in a stunning mental flash he realized what Farah was doing. She was feeding him this hideous food so that Steed could react wildly to it, safely hiding his reaction to the pain of Korany's suturing. It was a brilliant plan, guaranteed to work. Steed threw an anxious glance her way, nodding his head briefly just once, trying to have her realize he understood her strategy. And then, fighting against his body's reflex instincts to refuse this galling, acrid bolus, he thrust it down his esophagus where it caused havoc in his stomach.
Throughout the next twenty-five minutes, Farah completely nauseated Steed with the food. Each mouthful sent him into a fit of grunting and gurgling. He made all sort of inarticulate sounds of disgust, tossing and turning his head back and forth as he somehow compelled himself to continuing swallowing the disgusting comestibles. Korany found it humourous and told Farah that the English have no appreciation of good food. He never figured out that Steed would have been acting the exact same with each separate suture that he used to sew up the wound. When Korany was done with his substandard suturing--it was uneven and poorly tied--Korany told Farah to clean off the blood, and then he packed up his belongings and left. Farah put the bowl on the table and Mina entered with a bucket, clearly in on the plan. Together they lifted a grimacing Steed up and over the edge of the bed; that extra pressure on his protesting stomach, combined with the additional pain bending over brought to his flank enabled him, after another one or two gags that felt like they were splitting apart his throat, to vomit up the food into the bucket. They gave him water to drink and told him to spit that out as well, to cleanse his mouth of residual flavors. Then wiping his face clean, they rested his head back on the pillow, and gently washed his body of the perspiration and blood that covered it, adapting to Steed's restless movements which tossed him around as if the bed was trying to buck him off. A disharmony of moans and groans spilled from his mouth like the vomitus he had just expelled, just as distasteful to him and just as unavoidable. Steed was less nauseous having voided the food, but his insides were still riled up, and he felt tremendously bloated. It was just more thing to add to the list of infirmities he had already racked up. It took many minutes before he was able to settle down, relax, and control his breathing enough to get a breath of air to speak.
"What was in that?" he finally asked.
"Lamb meat, rice, soap, a quarter a cup of cardamon, a little bit of the bitter herb wormwood, and a touch of shoe polish."
"Shoe polish! I hope that's not poisonous; I'd hate to die before I'm killed. That would be rude."
Farah ignored his comment. "I didn't see any warning symbols on the container. However, since I told you I can't read, if there was some dangerous chemical in it, I would not have known."
Steed doubted anything too caustic could be in shoe polish. "Your mother's recipe, eh?" Steed smirked. Then he grew serious. "You saved me," he simply said.
"I fed you, nothing more. Your mealtime just happened to coincide with Korany being here."
"But, that was brilliant, what you did, putting together such a foul meal. Why did you do it?"
Farah and Mina finished drying him off, and then applied some gauze around the wound, taping it in place. A nod from Farah and Mina took the dirty cloths out to the other room.
Farah looked at Steed. "It saves you nothing, but two days."
"It means more than that to me. It reaffirms that for all the cruel people in the world, there are a thousand decent human beings like you. The end result doesn't matter. But, what you did They would have dragged me off to be tortured by now. One more day of respite means everything to a prisoner like me."
Farah said nothing.
"Look, will you take my money? Let me give you that address. You can ask for enough money to make you and your grand-daughters wealthy women."
"I am an old woman. What do I need with wealth?"
"You could use it to leave this village and escape the violence that surrounds you."
"This village is my home. I have lived here all my life," she said, collecting the tray. "Did it ever occur to you that I do what I do without thought of personal gain?"
"Yes, of course it did, but--" Pain shot from his wound expanding outwards in a haphazard circle. Steed cried out and bent forward, then tried to roll to his side. He gasped, "I'm sorry. I never meant to offend you. Just to repay you a little for how kind you've been to me. The money is all I have to offer. Would you please help me turn on my left side? I think it would relax the tension in my skin."
"First we will change the bedding. It's soaked with blood."
She called Mina back into the room, and together, they sat Steed up, which made him light-headed, and removed the sheet from the top of the bed. They laid him back down and pulled the sheet out from under him, lifting up his legs to do so. Farah put a towel down over the blood stain in the mattress, and then, with Mina's help, put a new sheet on top, again having to sit Steed up to arrange it at the top of the bed. Steed was too weak to disagree with their actions, and could not hold in his cries of discomfort being moved so much. Afterwards, the two women helped him to turn on his side. He was able to direct his body a little and assist them. He curled up and held his hands in front of his abdomen. Mina left again. Farah stood over him, though he now couldn't see her.
"You didn't offend me," she assured him. "Now, rest some more until Korany returns tonight. I've not given you much water today to keep you from needing to urinate earlier on your own, so your bladder will be full for Korany."
"Yes, I thought so."
"If your stomach settles down, I will give you something to eat later, too."
"That's very kind. I'm glad my offer didn't insult you." He felt the need for solitude, to process the additional pain, and because he was entirely exhausted by what had just happened to him. All the conversations had torn anew the cracks in his lips. He hurt too much to talk, to think, to eat, but not to worry. Anxiety seemed to be travelling through his arteries, not blood.
She left him, leaving the door open just a little. Steed lay on his side, rocking his lower legs back and forth under the covers, trying to make fists with his hands. A brief second of elation overcame him when he found himself able to lift his left arm and tightly grip his right side with his left hand, trying to crush the pattern of miserable torment that radiated from the wound. He imagined himself a choir director and his various pains the instruments he used to make dissonant music with in some sort of demented march: tubas blaring from his side, violins wailing from his face, trumpets roaring from his thigh, a high-pitched flute crackling from his lips, a staccato drum pulsing from his fingers. Boompa-pah, Boompa-pah, tarata-tata, tweedle-boompa the pain rang out amplified, echoing off the walls, filling his ears, shaking his body; it was conducted by gloom, applauded by despondency.
Steed had some hours of rest until Korany returned to catheter him. He hoped his could stand the procedure as he had in the morning, but he was loosing his mental resolve and his physical capacity to maintain his charade of paralysis. There came a point sometimes, that one just couldn't care what happened anymore, when all one's determination and purpose crashed down like a curtain at the end of a tragic opera. When his death was no longer just not a big deal to anyone else, but was no longer a big deal even to himself. Steed had not reached the end of that tether, yet, and he allowed his solitude and the knowledge that he had an ally in the next room to soothe him, aiding in rebuilding breath by breath his shattered defense against failure and defeat. Steed was famous for a vigorous opposition to accepting his downfall, therefore though his body was as vulnerable a baby's and his mind was chaotic and fearful, Steed was still determined to fight to live.
Steed spent a perfectly miserable night after having had a little contact with Farah the rest of the day. He politely turned down her offer of food; the thought of putting anything else in his abused stomach was out of the question. When Korany came late, he left none the wiser about Steed's recovery. It was a huge victory for Steed, and his success at handling being turned to his back roughly and dealt with by the coarse physician with an unruffled and placid aplomb, brought a brief smile of self-satisfaction to his face after the man left, immediately transformed into a grimace that claimed not merely his face, but also a large chunk of his will and soul. It had been a very long time since Steed had been in so much pain without any medication to alleviate its worst excesses. He couldn't help moaning, he couldn't lie still, he couldn't avoid the pathetic clutches of self-pity.
Again, he lay awake, watching the flame in the lamp produce lurid shapes of mythical creatures undulating against the walls. He dreaded the next day and thought of a thousand things to try to sink himself into the release of rest: the lethargy of a sunny summer afternoon, the languid nature of a rainy Sunday morning, the excellent relaxation following an orgasm. Finally, many hours into the dark night, his exhaustion simply overcame his pains and worries and he fell asleep.
He had that dream again, the tapestry, but the mood of it was slightly different than it had ever been permeating the essence of the dream in a most disturbing fashion. A sense of loss, of futility, arose when the center event filled his vision, and frustration that with just a little urge, a little luck, the wispy middle would coalesce into a clear picture of that event which apparently was so vital to his life. It aggravated him in his dream that it seemed so familiar, yet was still so murky and unknown.
Steed awoke with a start. Farah was in the room, sitting on a cushion on the floor knitting. She put her needles down at the sound of his awakening.
"Did you have a bad dream?" she asked, standing up to get some water from the table.
"I had a dream. One I've had before." He took inventory of how he felt and checked off the box marked "appalling." He was chilly inside, a sign he was a little feverish. His eyes were no longer so swollen and he could nearly open them fully, but slowly putting a hand to his face, he perceived it was puffy. His lips were in terrible shape--dry, cracked and peeling, bits of skin hanging off of them. When he felt his thigh wound through the gauze with his left arm, it was sore all around the suturing, a probably sign of it being at least slightly infected. The dog bite was a solid, relentless aching. He didn't dare to touch his knife wound; it shot white hot surges of pain with every breath he took.
"Your wound from yesterday is becoming infected, as is your thigh, though lesser so," Farah said. "Again you slept late; again it is near noon. Korany has come and gone, and I've examined his incompetence of yesterday. He has some antibiotics but has been ordered to not waste them on you. I have already placed a hot poultice over the wound from the knife, and will do so again later. Some pus is forming."
It was not as nice a way to wake up as having some woman beside him make welcoming overtures of intimacy, but it was the truth, and there was no use hiding from it. He had expected an infection to set in, and worried about his bladder too with the blatantly unsanitary procedures Korany employed. Although he had never had a whit of bladder problems, there was a slight irritation down there that Steed wondered about. It wasn't bothersome, just unusual. All in all, he was a mess.
Farah called for Mina to bring in Steed's breakfast. Then she said, "Now, tell me about your dream."
Steed grinned at her, careful to not tear his lips open. "Are you one of those wise old women who see the future, understand portents, and can unlock the secrets of dreams?"
Farah lifted up his head and gave him a few cupfuls of water to drink. "Actually, yes. Tell me."
Anything to get his mind off his body seemed a good suggestion to Steed, although usually he was utterly loathe to share personal things like that with anyone. He described the tapestry, the outer edges, and how the middle--the central focus of his life--was unclear, unformed, intangible.
"I don't know which particular event fits the center. I have had a rather eventful life. I can't quite seem to pick out the defining moment of it."
"How do you know it is an event?"
"What do you mean?"
"The needle writes the events with ease, but stops at the middle, hanging in the air uselessly. Maybe it doesn't have the ability to create that core picture because it isn't an event, but a symbol, or, more likely, a person. Is there no one perfectly special person you would say was the definitive person in your life, even though you never married?"
Steed suddenly lost all interest in pursuing this conversation, and he was very glad when Mina came in with some food. He was hungry. He was also very curious as to how well his limbs were recovering. Steed generally healed quickly; no agent would last long in the field if they didn't. He wanted to learn how far his limbs had returned to normal strength. Farah raised an eyebrow at the lack of response to his question, but Steed had other subjects to discuss aside from an old and mysterious dream.
"Is it safe now? Will Hussein come soon?" he asked, his appetite lowering with just that voiced inquiry.
"The Colonel has gone to meet the Russian Captain and bring him back to the village. He will be gone all day in Baghdad. You have a reprieve, Joshua, for today."
A reprieve. What a glorious thing to hear.
An attack of conscience struck him. "My name really isn't Joshua."
"Of course it isn't. But, let us leave it at that."
She was wise, he had to agree. "Will you help me sit up to eat? I want to see if I can eat on my own, and then walk, once I've gotten some food in me."
Farah stared at him and then nodding to her grand-daughter, they slowly moved Steed's legs over the edge of the bed; they naturally hung down as they lifted him to a sitting position. There was dizziness and enough pain from all over his body throbbed in unison as if all of him was one enormous wound. But, he was up, and able to keep himself balanced on the wooden edge of the bed, the sheet covering his lower half. Farah told Mina to stand watch at the entrance of the bedroom, in case someone entered the house unexpected. She then gave Steed one bowl to hold, full of falafel, diced up tomatoes and cucumbers, and peanut sauce on top. He held it in his left hand, and used a spoon to slowly and deliberately feed himself, a motor pleasure he realized he would never take for granted again. While he ate he looked around the part of the room he had been unable to visualize laying on the bed. He saw the carved headboard, full of curls and a crown of dome-shaped carpentry at the top. He noticed the door in the wall to his right, which he imagined was the bathroom, the way Farah and her grand-daughters had wandered through the bedroom occasionally throughout the day, temporarily disappearing into it. Finishing the food, he put the spoon in the empty bowl and handed it back to Farah.
"Much better than your mother's recipe," he said, allowing a tiny smile to lift his lips. The food was hot, and tasted very good, the sauce a little tangy. When he was done with the falafel, she took the bowl and gave him another with rice in it, covered with chopped almonds and dates. The almonds were crunchy and fresh, the dates sweet. He had always loved dates and had eaten buckets of them after the war when he had flitted around a number of Arabian countries. When he was done with that bowl, he was given tea in a glass, as was the custom, and he drank two glassfuls. He felt marvelously satiated, but once the food was settled in his system there began a gurgling in his lower intestines. He would need to use the bathroom soon.
"Now, I, uh, wonder if you might have my trousers somewhere If I can put them on, then I'd like to try and stand up, if you would please help me to do so. I am rather embarrassed to admit that I have need of your bathroom. It's through that door, I suppose," he said, nodding to the right.
"Yes. But, it is nothing more than a hole in the ground with a bucket of water by the side. Are you sure you will be able to manage? And why dress beforehand?"
This was getting into an area Steed had no desire and even less ability to discuss. "I'll manage," he said curtly. About dressing, he was able to additionally mutter, "I, er, may need both your and Mina's help walking, and, er " He didn't wish to walk about in his underwear in front of a young teen-age girl, and hoped his anxious glance to Mina was enough for Farah to understand. Apparently it was, as she let the subject thankfully drop. Being shirtless did not bother him.
They brought his clothes, torn but cleaned, and placed them on the bed. Steed saw a pocket of his jacket bulging from his handkerchief and he took it out, not exactly Arabic enough to settle for the water in the bathroom as a cleanser, though grumbling to himself that it was fine silk and a shame to ruin. Farah took the trousers in hand and without a word she squatted down and slipped them over his feet and up his legs to his lap. She handed them to him and then, in a motion more strenuous than he would have given the woman credit for, she grasped the sides of his upper chest and pulling back Steed came to his feet, lifting up the trousers to cover his groin as he did so. He was able to zipper them, but left them unbuttoned for his trip to the bathroom. They all stood wondering if he would fall down, but he didn't. Looking at his feet, with supreme effort Steed was able to shuffle his right foot forward about six inches, and then some long seconds later, move his left foot the same, pitiful amount.
"I'll arrive at the bathroom by 2005 at this rate," he said. Then he added. "I don't understand what happened to me. Why I was paralyzed and now can feel, but still can't move normally. I've been injured a lot, and seen a lot of men injured, but never anything like this. It confounds me."
He shuffled like a snail, slowing getting the feel of movement. It was tedious taking such tiny steps, and he worried that he would reach the bathroom as soon as necessary. Finally Farah and Mina silently stood on either side of him, and each wrapped one of his arms around their shoulders, supporting him in his ambulation. They took him into the bathroom, a tiny 4 x 4 square space also built of tinder blocks, but surprisingly odor free, as a result of the dry climate. There was a window in it covered with cloth, that one could lift up to allow light in. They left Steed and ten minutes later he came out, leaning on the doorway to push himself into the room. He waved aside their offers of assistance and shuffled to the chair, sitting down in extremely slow increments. The chair was wooden, thick, with wide arms, gorgeously carved, with ornate patterns along the whole back and down the arms and legs. A thin cushion was placed on the seat. It was a chair fit for a king. Steed leaned back in it.
"Not bad, eh?" he asked, happy with his progress. He had even been able to squat in the bathroom and stand up on his own shaky legs, holding onto the walls for resistance.
"You should get back into bed. If someone finds you here, like this, it will go poorly for you."
Steed wanted to protest, wanted to uncover a masterful argument for the safety and rationality of being able to stay in the chair, bending his arms and lifting his legs up to strengthen them, but what Farah said was true. Although Hussein was gone, he may have arranged for other men to check on Steed--(though please not to test him for paralysis)--and even though it felt delightful to be sitting up, it was smartest to return to his sick bed. Besides, he did feel pretty poorly, with all his injuries. A day of pure rest would set him up better to deal with whatever would happen tomorrow, which he strove not to think about.
Leaning forward, using both legs and arms, he was able to stand up, feeling as if that movement tore the stitches out of his side. He allowed Farah to help him to the bed.
"Do you mind if I leave my trousers on?" he asked. They made him feel less vulnerable and Farah and Mina could have dressed his immobile form on their own.
"No. Now lay down and let me put another hot poultice on your side."
He got back under the light sheet after brushing his feet off, and laid down, not really that upset to be back in bed. It was comfortable and he was tired. He closed his eyes, opening them when he felt tape being removed from his skin. Mina was not in the room. Farah took off the bandage over his knife wound and a momentary touch of curiosity as to what it looked like almost made Steed lift his head to examine it, but his realization that it didn't matter how it appeared, as there was nothing to be done for it but a hot poultice, kept his head laying on the soft pillow. Ignorance may not always be bliss, but it is better than knowledge occasionally. The warmth was soothing, and he could smell something emanating from the poultice. He sniffed several times trying to identify it.
"An herb used for infections," Farah said.
"Wonderful. Thank you."
"Do you always say 'thank you' so often?"
"Of course. I am a master of the social niceties. Lesson number one of being a gentleman."
"What is lesson two?"
"Knowing how to dress well."
Her thin lips branched upwards for a moment, and then settled back down into their customary frown.
Fifteen minutes later, she removed the poultice. "I'll do another this evening. Now, rest. I'll be working my loom in the other room; call me if you need anything." Suddenly a chicken clucked its way into the bedroom.
"The problem with leaving the front door open for light all day long," Farah explained.
"Well, at least you don't raise tigers and bears."
She turned and shooed the chicken from the room, as it protested with flapping wings and loud noises. Steed mused that if was a chicken, he'd be protesting his situation clucking in exactly the same way.
All day Thursday Darius, Anwar, and his cronies had gone from village to village, asking relatives or acquaintances if they had any information regarding Casement and Willis. No such luck occurred, but they kept on their search, eventually spending the night at a friends house in the village of Mirbat. Friday morning one of the sons--Ibrahim--took them to his second cousin in Saqqez, who was fervently committed to Saddam Hussein and his Baa'th philosophy. There they struck gold. The second cousin told them Hussein was visiting Behbahan, the base of his operations in the south. There was an injured foreigner there, the man knew, as Korany, the doctor there, was his brother-in-law, a disgrace to the family, and a man with a woman's gossiping mouth. Korany had told him of the foreigner, just two days ago at the birthday celebration of Korany's father, who lived in Saqqez.
Darius and his cohorts moved off to Behbahan, taking some morphine from Korany's relative, who had been given it by his incompetent brother-in-law to ease the pain of his late father's cancer. Ibrahim informed the others he also knew Korany. They formulated an immediate plan for Ibrahim to enter Behbahan and see which house Korany went to when treating the Englishman, as his second cousin had mentioned Korany was doing. By noon, Ibrahim, with a powerful walkie talkie in his backpack, bought at a general store, walked into the streets of Behbahan. The others, four miles away in the van hidden behind rocks off the side of the dirt road, waited for Ibrahim's report.
Not an hour later, Steed's bladder ordered him to return to the bathroom. His struggle to leave his bed on his own was titanic and several times he almost gave in to his urge to call for help. But, his pride prevented him from doing so. He rocked, pulled, pushed, rolled and nearly fell off the bed, but surprisingly enough, at some point he was again sitting on its edge and stumbling erect. He kept reminding himself he was not badly injured, just painfully so, and moving around was a benefit, not detriment. He took toddler steps to the bathroom and discovered unpleasantly it stung quite a bit to urinate. By the time he hobbled back to the bed, sitting down heavily on it, he felt the need to urinate once more. The sensation was urgent and uncomfortable and very odd. This had never happened to him before. But, he remembered a time or two when a woman he was with seemed to suffer similarly; in fact, hadn't Mrs. Peel needed to see a physician once for this very problem when they were vacationing in Italy? How many times had they made love that trip ?
Mrs. Peel. Her face floated into his mind, so lovely, those cheekbones, that smooth skin, the smile that could bring gladness and warmth even to a cynical, cunning secret agent. Steed aware of where his thoughts had drifted. He fenced off that forbidden territory closing the portal to the past, though with more hesitation than he usually did when, at times, Mrs. Peel sprang her lithe form and brilliantly unique self into his consciousness. His bladder was a help in chasing her away. It screamed for relief, and so he waddled back to the bathroom, a moot waste of energy, as he had no success in draining away anything, urine or the irritation, once he arrived there.
Lovely. Something else to cause him grief. It must be a bladder infection from Korany's crude and unsterile use of the catheter. Something else to bother him, something else to try to ignore, something else to make him think that if he was killed tomorrow it would be more a relief than an outrage. Steed made it back to the bed, stopping at the table where sat a ceramic jug of water and a glass. He poured himself several glasses of water, hoping that having some liquid in his bladder would ease the inflammation. This was turning into a marvelous day of respite, he thought, sarcastically. He was guaranteed to have endless rest and relaxation today, to prepare him for the travails of tomorrow, as a result of this new medical complaint. Nothing could have pleased him more then to develop a bladder infection; why, with luck, it would spread to his kidneys by suppertime.
Steed's mood crashed to the ground like an avalanche, and he sat down heavily on the bed, which brought a grunt from him as the jolt travelled through his wounds. He was just supposed to have landed in Iraq, spoken to Darius, and left the next day. He never did this sort of overseas work anymore. This was why. He was too old at fifty-one to think this sort of imbroglio was adventuresome and exciting; he was too old to want to have to figure out how to deal with interrogators, to be a prisoner in a dangerous land. He had played out many such scenarios in his life, and now just wanted to stop criminals and madmen in Britain, and then return to his chickenless home afterward, for a fine nightcap of Napoleon brandy, and a good night's rest in his king-sized bed. He was still plenty young enough for that, but far too old for this.
Once more his bladder demanded attention, but he had ignored worse pain than that, and so gritting his teeth and holding his side, he slid his lean form under the covers, committed to returning to the bathroom the fewest possible times.
It did not turn out to be that few. As the hours crept by, Steed wound up rolling out of the bed twice an hour to stumble awkwardly to the bathroom, and then drink some more water afterwards. It seemed better to have a flow of urine passing through him; at least the irritation was kept from worsening. After the sixth or seventh trip to the bathroom, Steed gave up the bed as too being too painful for his sides to get in and out of, and sat in the chair, putting his shirt on. He didn't alert Farah to this new problem, and when she came with food later, and saw him slouched in the chair, she raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. He managed to eat a little of the grilled chicken in yoghurt, but not much.
She noticed the water jug was empty. "You've drunken all the water? Are you feverish?"
Probably he was, but there was no reason to mislead her. "I've a little problem with my bladder," he admitted, hoping she would allow that to be the full extent of his explanation.
"Korany," she said, spitting his name out. "A physician fit only for treating dying dogs. I will get you more water. Drinking frequently is helpful. I can also make a tea that should soothe you."
That was decent of her, but before offering his 213th "thank you" to her, he had a question that had been preying on his mind since the day before. "Farah, I need to ask you a question. If I'm found, tomorrow, able to move and feel, aren't you concerned that they will find you guilty of hiding that from them? I worry that you will be punished."
"What can they do to an old lady?"
"Well, kill you."
"I am not afraid of death."
"Yes, but I'm afraid I will be the cause of your death. That would leave your grand-daughters orphans."
"Things will work the way Allah wishes them to. There is nothing to be done. If I die, Sara will marry Selim, and take care of her younger sister."
That was unacceptable to Steed. There certainly was something to be done, and Steed knew just what he would do to protect her, and her grand-daughters.
Farah put another poultice on his knife wound and then placed clean bandages over it. She brought him water and a tea that smelled like earth and seaweed. She told him to drink a glass of both an hour, and then left him alone again, telling him she had to finish the rug she was as the purchaser desired it tomorrow.
Steed drank as directed, if not more, having, with Farah's help, moved the chair against the table that held the water jug and pot of tea. Since he had had no rest the whole day, being up and down with trips to the bathroom, and then unable to sleep due to all his discomforts, extra steps to the table were inordinately exhausting.
He was leaving the bathroom for the millionth time as twilight fell and it would soon be necessary to light the kerosene lamp. He came out of the lavatory at the same time a young Arab man came into the room, calling "Sara? Are you there?"
They both froze, and a moment later, Farah dashed into the room, stopping by the youth's side, also staring wide-eyed at the standing Steed.
The youth's face changed to anger, but before he could speak, Steed said, "So, old woman, you finally catch me at my ruse. It was your ignorance that let me fool you for so long, and an unfortunate coincidence that has led to my being uncovered."
The youth stammered, "You, you can walk!"
"Shut up, Selim," Farah said.
"Grandmother, you didn't know? Can he feel, too?"
Steed jumped in. "Of course I can feel, and of course, she didn't know. She can't even read. I've been fooling stupid old women ever since I was a school boy."
"The leaders, they must know. I'll go and tell them," Selim said, excited. Before Farah could stop him he ran out the house.
Farah and Steed stared at each other. Finally Steed said, "I'm sorry for insulting you. I didn't mean any of it."
"I know." She paused. "Now you have saved me, Joshua."
"I could never have let them think you hid my recovery from them. I'm rather glad it's happened this way. Now you and your grand-daughters will be safe." He smiled. "Allah has protected you."
"Not Allah. An English gentleman. Let me help you to sit down."
"Actually, I'd rather be standing when the leaders come in. It's a bit better for the old dignity, you know?"
There was a loud sound of multiple voices and a door slamming shut behind them. Suddenly, four men poured into the room, all dressed in army uniforms, all black-haired and slim, all armed with either handgun or rifle.
Steed stood to the side of the chair.
"Good-day," he said, when they were in, watching him like an eagle eyeing a fish in a river.
One of them stepped forward, his eyes narrowing as he took in the whole of Steed's clothed figure.
"You stand," the man said. "You are no longer paralyzed."
"True," Steed admitted, fear pointedly growing inside him like icicles forming on the eave of a roof.
"You can, therefore, feel, also?"
"Farah and her grand-daughters did not know this?"
"No, of course not. They would have told you if they had. They were easy to fool, as were Hussein and Korany."
The man took his rifle butt and in a flashing move smacked it down on Steed's right knee. Steed cried out and crumbled to the floor, clutching at the joint. His lips opened widely at his cry and again the cracks tore anew.
"Not so easy to fool us now, eh, English pig? Tomorrow, when the Colonel returns, that blow will seem like a lover's kiss to you. Yusef, keep watch outside the house tonight. Let's go."
The four men left the room as suddenly as they had come in, the door slamming behind their exit. Farah called for Mina and five minutes later, once Steed was able to unfurl his body and help, they got him off the rug and dragged him limping to the bed. He sat on it and leaned back against the wall, his right hand still gripping his knee. He felt deflated, like an airless balloon, and turned his head to the side, closing his eyes.
"What time is it, Farah?" he asked.
"Almost 9:00 p.m."
"When is Hussein expected to return?"
"Around noon tomorrow."
That gave him fifteen hours to do nothing but think about what would happen when those fifteen hours ran out. If Steed had been given the choice of one supernatural power, he would have chosen the ability to stop time indefinitely, as he had numerous times in the past wished would actually happen. But it never did. It crawled resolutely forward, second after second, minute after minute, leading to hour after hour, until fifteen of them had passed, and he was face to face with Colonel Hussein, a man full of hate and violence, and entirely bereft of compassion.
A twittering attached to his blood, pumping a bit of anxiety all throughout his body and mind. The idea that he could shatter the ceramic water jug on the floor and then use a piece to rip open his carotid artery came to mind but he left that thought dissipate. He just was not that sort of fellow, and had not survived his life so far, and become who he was, to have it all end that way. No one might really care about his death, including himself if the pain grew too bad, but Steed did care about the way he died. He was an English gentleman and would strive with his entire English soul to die like one.
Farah sent Mina away and pulled up the chair closer to the bed. She sat down in it awkwardly, proving it was a piece of furniture she was unfamiliar with.
"Joshua," she said. "It's not yet time for bed. Tell me about England. Tell me about its beauty, its scenery, its history, its kings and queens. Tell me about the people, what they dream, what they live their lives to attain. Tell me about your house and your horses. Do you ride well? Is it very green in England, like I have heard, and as rainy? Do the English love their queen? Is she benevolent to her people? Tell me about your homeland."
Steed opened his eyes and looked at her. He knew what she was doing, trying to take his mind away from his pains, his worries, and have him talk about a subject matter that was most dear to his heart. Yet, in her questioning countenance, as she leaned slightly forward, he could see Farah actually had interest in England, in Britain, in all that he loved and served and protected. She stood and put his pillow behind his back and then sat down again.
"Will you tell me?" she asked.
"Yes. I'd love to," he smiled. Steed spoke about the history of Britain, from the druids and Stonehenge onwards, mentioning the famous battles, the famous kings, the Roman influence, the Norwegians, the German Saxons, the French Normans. His voice sank low for emphasis as he spoke of the dark middle ages, and the plague that ran rampant over the land and the fire that destroyed so much of London. He spent some little time talking about knights, their chivalry, their skill at fighting, their life dedicated to following their lord and protecting him, innocent people and the kingdom. Then he went on to the Enlightenment, how technology and inventions began transforming the nation into an industrial giant. He discoursed on the battles against America, Napoleon, in India, against the Boers at the turn of the century, when England ruled three-quarters of the world, mentioning the military heroes that still lived in the hearts of the British. Then he switched to the geography of his beloved Britain. He spoke of the barren and beautiful lochs and mountains of Scotland, the cold north of England, the lakes in the middle, the cliffs to the south. He spoke of the flowers, the hedges, the bushes, the ancient trees, of the stone walls bisecting the land, the bogs, the marshes, the fens, of cutting peat for energy, which he had done a few times when a boy visiting relatives. He spoke of his home, describing it to her, and the lush and gorgeous grounds, the willow tree his nephews climbed. He mentioned his horses, bred for racing and jumping, and how nothing soothed his soul like spending a day riding throughout the land near his home. He explained that the queen was not really the ruler any more, that the Prime Minister, Members of Parliament and the House of Lords ran the country, but yes, she was a beloved queen, and gentle with her people. He told Farah of the English character, their reserved nature, their love of justice and fair play, their inherent decency, their snobbery and superior attitudes, their adherence to propriety. Yet, he told her, the island abounded in eccentrics and he told her of some historical ones, and a few he knew now, leaving out, of course, himself. The English loved good beer, he said, and Shakespeare, and thinking they were right and were born to rule. And yes, Britain was as rainy as she had heard, but that made it beautiful, and so the rain was accepted as the necessity and blessing it was.
When he was done, it was very late, well after midnight. He had had to excuse himself a few times to use the bathroom, but otherwise, there had been no interruptions to his heartfelt narrative. A few times, Steed's eyes had gotten a bit moist, and he had paused to control himself before progressing in his monologue. Farah asked no questions, but allowed him to speak as he deigned, share what he thought was most illustrative of the people, their land and their history. She never yawned, never grew fidgety, but truly seemed enthralled with the clear picture of his world Steed was depicting. It was four less hours that Steed had to worry, four hours that had renewed for him all the reasons why he risked himself all the time in his dangerous career. It was for England, Britain, the land he loved, the land he would gladly die to protect. Although he was physically very tired now, he was emotionally a bit recharged, a bit stronger. He felt that he would be able to handle whatever happened a few hours later in his usual collected and accepting manner.
Silence sat between them for a few minutes, but it was the silence of companionship, and drew them together instead of pushing them apart.
Farah spoke first. "Thank you for telling me about England. I think you love it very much; your eyes shine like a little boy's when you talk about it. Will you be able to sleep, do you think?"
"I doubt it," he shared honestly, adding with a slight smile, "But, I don't mind napping through the torture tomorrow."
Now Farah's eyes grew moist. "I have met few good men in my life. I've been honored by knowing you. You should have married, had children. You should have passed your decency down to others; the world is sorely lacking in men of worth."
She stood up then as if she was an old woman, creaky and weak, and turned to leave the room.
"Farah, I've been honored knowing you, too. You've been hiding from me just like I've hid from Colonel Hussein. I see it now: underneath all your black clothes, you've been hiding a heart of brilliant gold."
She stood still a moment after hearing that, and then, without looking back at him, left the room after turning down the flame of the lamp to make it last as long as possible.
Steed lay down in the bed, watching the flickering flames, as second followed second, minute followed minute, and hour followed hour.
Ibrahim found Korany, and greeting him mentioned their distant family relations; that was enough in the desert to be offered the finest hospitality the poor family could afford. Korany's wife served him up food, and Korany gave him a cigarette to smoke while his son read to them from the Koran. Korany was a lout, loud and rough with his family, demanding and rude, but as the night progressed, and Ibrahim laughed at his disgusting jokes, and agreed with his assessments that Iraq should impose the strictest Moslem laws on its inhabitants, he was able to pry from Korany information about the foreigner he heard was in town. Talking about such matters bored Korany, who had many more jokes to tell to such an appreciative man, but Ibrahim did get Korany out into the cooler night air to show him the house in which Casement was a prisoner.
"The son of a whore will be tortured tomorrow," Korany scoffed. "Then probably killed. He says he is merely a lackey for a foundation that funds archaeology digs, but of course, we don't believe him."
"No loss there if he dies," Ibrahim agreed. "One less Western devil defiling the world."
Korany laughed and slapped Ibrahim on the back. "My brother, let us return inside for more coffee and entertainment."
Unable to leave without being unforgiveably rude, and sparking a bonfire of suspicion from Korany, Ibrahim returned with him to the two room house in which, as usual, lived a family of seven. Finally, after an entire evening of boring anecdotes and braggadio, Ibrahim was given a thin blanket and a pillow and sent to bed in a corner.
As soon as everyone was deeply asleep, Ibrahim slipped out of the house, and, evading the men patrolling the town, found a quiet place where he used his walkie talkie to relay the information he had found. Casement might be a Western devil, but he was worth six thousand dinars and with that sort of money Anwar, Ibrahim and the others could buy enough weapons to delight Hussein and allow their clan to crush Bebhaban under their ambitious foot. Yet, they were only five against a well-armed town. They would have to wait until to tomorrow to figure out how to save the Englishman.
Exhaustion claimed Steed near dawn, over-powering the images in his head that, if the fatigue had not been so extensive, would have never allowed him to sleep at all. Adam and the dogs, his own pains, which anxiety always worsened, memories of being tortured in Nee San, almost twenty years old yet --at times like this--fully alive inside him, making all his internal organs feel as if they were shrunken down to the size of one tight fist, the fist of an interrogator. He felt homesick for England, for the Thames, for his mansion, his horses, for people who respected and liked him and enjoyed his company, as he did theirs. Where he had full control over himself and his life.
Where no one would really miss him if he died. Where no one really loved him. Where his death, after the shock to his friends and relatives was over, would be no big deal.
The oddest thought entered his head. "Long, happy memory," she had said, in a wistful, yet welcoming way. It was night, in England. Steed wondered if Mrs. Peel was sleeping on her favored right side
Steed had fallen thankfully asleep, but awoke just four hours later from his bladder's urging. He put his hand up to his face. He had the stubble of a four day beard, which he disliked. He despised whiskers, because they most artfully symbolized he was in a situation where he couldn't shave regularly; he was a prisoner. The pads of his fingers discerned something else about his mien, a boiling cauldron of bubbling blisters breaking out all over his sunburnt skin--on his forehead, cheeks, neck. Blisters of dead skin that would peel off. He had expected to peel, but not in such a hideously ugly way.
Steed made to sit up, but the pain in his side was intense and rolled him onto his right side. He paused for a moment, breathing deeply, and then hung his legs over the bed, pushing himself up with his right elbow. The idea of checking to see what his wound looked like occurred to him, but he decided what was the point and didn't. He was weak and a little chilly and knew he had at a touch of fever.
He made it to the bathroom and back in his wrinkled clothes. His legs moved as if they had forgotten the automatic mechanics of walking and had to be constantly reminded how ambulation occurred. He had to limp due to the blow to his right knee yesterday, and his left leg wasn't really strong enough to bear the burden of his weight. He moved by holding onto the wall.
Steed drank some water from the jug, wetted his hair into place, used a cloth to wash his face and neck lightly so as not to pop the multiple blisters on them, and then settled himself softly into the chair, giving up trying to get out of the bed again. He wished for a shower; he was not used to being unwashed and markedly odoriferous.
Farah came in, carrying a tray with a plate with food on it and some tea. She carried his boots and socks by the shoestrings in one hand. Steed's head had been hanging down, his chin touching his chest as he slouched in the chair; he looked up as she entered and watched her eyes widen in horror as she saw his face.
"Not the usual response I receive from women," he smiled. "But, then, I may not be at my most attractive."
Farah placed the tray on the table. There was a hot poultice ready to be put against his side. Without speaking, Farah unbuttoned his shirt and then removed the bandage over his knife wound; Steed watched her face as she looked at the wound. The pinched lips, the furled brow, the grim affectation told him what he already knew from the stab of pain he experienced each time he took a breath. He felt no need to see what exactly was happening down there, himself. It was progressing much worse than his shrapnel wound or the dog bite.
"I guess there's no point bothering with the poultice," he said. "Thanks anyway."
She took gauze and tape and put a new bandage over the knife and dog wounds, silent and steady in her actions.
"What's the matter, Farah?" Steed asked. "Cat got your tongue?"
"When there is nothing to say, nothing should be said."
"How long do I have, do you think?"
"It's only 9:00 a.m. Colonel Hussein should not be back in the village for another two or three hours."
Two or three hours. He had a will made out at home. There was nothing he had to do in that time. Just sit, and wait, and worry, and hope that someone, somewhere, was coming to rescue him.
"That's enough time for a round or two of bridge. Got a pack of cards about?"
"And do what instead?"
"Do you believe in God? Pray for forgiveness, for your sins, for entrance into the realm above after--" She stopped speaking abruptly, and turned her head away.
"--after I've died?" he finished for her. When she didn't respond he thought for a moment and then said. "I haven't prayed too much in my life, but I have made a lot of jokes. I think I'll just stick with what I know best."
"Then you are a fool."
"No, remember, we've discussed this before. I'm insane, not a fool."
"I have wool to weave," she said, striding toward the door.
"Farah, stop. Don't be mad at me." He was happy to see she did halt, although she stayed facing the door. "This is a part of the life I've chosen; a terrible part, but an aspect of it nonetheless. I would give anything to not be here now, but here I am, unable to escape. I can hardly walk, and I'm weak, and tired. I can't prevent whatever is going to happen to me when the Colonel returns. I'm not a praying man, so that isn't a path I can make use of. But, I'm still afraid; I would be lying to say I wasn't, and I haven't admitted that to someone in a very long time. The jokes help, however out of place they seem."
"I'm not mad," she said.
"Good. Then let me say good-bye to you now, as who knows what will happen later, and thank you one last time for everything you've done for me."
She turned around, then, her head towards the floor. Slowly she raised it to look at him again, her face saintly in its empathy. "Good-bye, Josh--"
"--John. My name is John," he interrupted, smiling.
She nodded her head slightly. "Good-bye, John. I wish you well." And before he could say anything else, she strode rapidly from the room.
Steed put on his socks and boots and drank the herb tea she had brought for his bladder, and more water, and had to use the bathroom every forty-five minutes or so. The irritation there was constant, and nothing seemed to soothe it. By 10:30 a.m. he stopped drinking fluids, preferring the inflammation to having a full bladder when they came and got him.
He ate none of the food; he was already full on anxiety. It filled his stomach like a seven course meal. A passing childish compulsion to curl up protectively in a corner obsessed Steed, even though his was disgusted at the idea. He had fallen to that position more than once in Nee San. He would rather die than be reduced to that degradation in front of Hussein.
Time passed. No one came back into his room, and he just sat there like the prisoner he was, pale and slightly sweaty, listening to the odd household noises reaching from the main room of the abode, and--this enable him to grin briefly--the occasional chicken being once more chased from the main room. He waited for Purdey and Gambit to arrive, for Darius to arrive, but the morning passed without such a favorable occurrence.
At some point a door slammed, and Steed suddenly heard men in the main room. A wave of panic brought back his paralysis for a moment, immobilizing him. It seemed as if he had become very small, and the room very large, and that his body was shimmering like a mirage in the distance, dissolving into a mindless wave of fear. But, then everything snapped back into place, and Steed struggled to his feet, tucking his buttoned shirt delicately into his pants, and once more plastered his wavy, brown hair back into place as best he could, allowing one strand of hair over his right forehead to keep falling forward. That strand was the most recalcitrant thing about him; it was a losing battle trying to get it to stay in place.
Four men came into Steed's room, all armed. Steed faced them calmly though his heart beat as if he was racing against a train.
"Come," one said. "The Colonel wants to see you."
Steed began walking forward as fast as he could, but it was not fast enough for the man and he was grabbed by the sides by two other men and pushed along more quickly. His legs could not coordinate themselves to keep up the pace, and Steed wound up being fairly dragged into the relatively empty main room, which he saw in a glance: rugs and pillows on the floor, stove, two larger windows covered with cloth, a large chest of drawers, a beautiful loom with stool by it, and Farah, Mina and Sara watching, solemn and grave. Then he was outside on the dusty street lined on both sides with similar houses, some with tile roofs, some of corrugated steel.
Animals barked and clucked and baa'd loosely here and there, running free and untethered. Woman were attired in long dark dresses with colorful scarves on their heads; men were in khakis or in loose tunics over loose trousers, all with mufti on their head. Many of them milling about stopped what they were doing and watched Steed as he was dragged down the street to one of the largest buildings in the town.
The sun beat down on Steed's unprotected head and immediately the heat drained him of strength. It seemed as if he had never left the desert, had not spent some days inside, the way the sun hit. It was as if he was being dragged through open flames. A slight headache began behind his eyes and sweat rolled down his forehead and the front of his chest. It was almost an absurd relief to find himself inside the building facing Colonel Hussein and a Russian Captain, with his two aides behind him, for at least he was out of the rays of the sun. There were Western chairs by a table, probably Hussein's concession to the Soviets. Boxes of rifles, mortars, shells, and grenades filled a wall of the room.
The two men by his side released him once he was standing ten feet from Hussein and he stood on shaky legs looking around at the hatred that surrounded him. Scowls deformed the faces of the numerous men in the building. Only in the Soviet's eyes did he see a curious expression, his head tilted slightly, his eyes narrowed as if Steed looked familiar to him in some hard to recall way. He didn't look familiar to Steed. Steed noticed with growing apprehension a large battery with electrode leads was sitting on a separate table, with other various vicious instruments of torture beside it.
Hussein wasted no time. Stomping over to Steed, he stood in front of his prisoner. Steed stood five or six inches taller than Hussein, but he was slightly hunched over from the pain in his side. Still Hussein had to glance up to Steed, which he did, once his eyes had roamed up his body from his feet to his hair.
"English pig, I see you are no longer paralyzed." He nodded to the man who had hit his knee with a rifle yesterday. "And I've been told you can feel. Is that true?"
"Yes," Steed said.
"Let me test you to be sure." Hussein's hand shot out faster than Steed would have given the pudgy man credit for; and with a strength that his soft body belied. Hussein grabbed hold of the skin around the knife wound he had inflicted on Steed and crushed it together, pulling it out and twisting it as he did so. His other hand came up around the back of Steed, pulling him toward him, closing the gap between them to prevent Steed from pushing himself away. Steed emitted a choking cry and his legs gave out crashing his knees to the floor, as his hands clasped onto Hussein's arms. The pain was beyond measure, exploding in his head and destroying all thought, and as Hussein bent over and clamped down even tighter, his mouth sneering in glee, Steed collapsed onto the floor where the air turned black as night, and he heard some poor chap screaming loudly somewhere in the distance
Water hit his face and Steed came to, immediately being pulled to his feet and held aloft by men holding his arms. It took forever for his vision to clear but he was more interested in trying to bend forward and protect his abdomen while the men holding him kept yanking him roughly upright. He was trembling and when he heard "English pig" and his head snapped to the side from a forceful slap, he gave up on relieving the agony in his side and focused on Hussein in front of him, watching his snarling countenance coalesce from several separate pieces that floated before his eyes. Farah was standing next to him, stony-faced with eyes that seemed lifeless.
"Tell me that this woman did not know you were able to feel."
He had expected this. He was prepared for this. Just needed to repeat his performance of the day before. Through raspy breaths Steed answered, "Why should I? What do I care what happens to her?"
A man to Hussein's side came forward and punched Steed in the face, causing his head to fly to the right and his vision to explode into light. Blood now trickled from the cracks in his lips and a cut by his left eye. Slowly he turned back to center and his eyes realigned his sight.
Hussein spoke again. "Did she know?"
Steed wanted desperately to lay down. He sagged between the men holding him up. "No, she didn't know. She's stupid, easy to fool. So are her grand-daughters. Ignorant peasants. Korany was harder; you were harder. Much harder than her."
His head fell forward yet still he felt the intensity of Hussein's gaze upon him. "For how long did you think you could fool us?"
"Not much longer," he gasped. "But, it saved me a couple of days before this happened."
Hussein snorted at that. He spoke to Farah, "Before you return to your loom, old woman, let us avenge for you his words calling you 'ignorant peasant.' Step aside and watch from over there. After that, for your pleasure I will allow you to be present when we torture him." Steed wanted to cast one more look upon her, but his head was too heavy to lift, so he just listened to the soft padding of her bare feet move away, thankful she was safe.
After being thrown roughly to the ground, rifle butts began hitting his back and legs. There was nothing he could do but instinctively curl into the tightest ball he could, as he had done so often in Nee San. The butts changed to vicious kicks that pummeled his body, pushing him forward across the floor... soon his ribs would break Suddenly the word "Stop!" resounded through the room. There was a Russian accent to the Arabic word.
The strikes ceased. Steed stayed curled up, a few blows to his kidneys having brought tears to his eyes. He took that brief respite to scrunch his eyes close, forcing the tears out to roll down his cheeks, whilst stopping more from forming. He wiped the salty streaks away before anyone could see them, acknowledging to himself that he would die in Iraq that day.
"Get a chair and put him in it," the Russian ordered. It was done, though Steed complained in grunts and groans about being lifted off the floor, staying bent over and crossing his arms firmly in front of his abdomen as he was moved to the chair. He kept his eyes closed and rocked slightly back and forth in his seat, too injured to sit up straight and take pressure off his badly bruised back. Suddenly a hand grabbed his hair and pulled his head up. His eyes fluttered opened to see the Russian captain staring at him as if he was a specimen in a jar in a museum.
"Yes, Colonel Hussein, I know this man. I did not recognize him at first, with those blisters over his face and the whiskers, but my memory has served me well. Who does his papers say he is?"
"Joshua Casement," Hussein answered, coming to stand before the Russian to hand him Steed's passport and wallet. The Russian glimpsed through them and then handed them to an aide.
"He's not Joshua Casement. He's James, no, John Steed. We have all been briefed on him. The best and most knowledgeable of all British intelligence agents. He is quite a find, Hussein. Quite a find. You are John Steed, are you not?"
Steed looked at the two men staring down at him, temporarily speechless at the irony of being recognized. It was one thing to be tortured by a brutal monster wondering if Steed knew anything; it was another to be tortured by the same brute who knew Steed knew everything. The absurdity of being identified by some obscure visiting Russian in some small village in southeastern Iraq was the last insult to Steed's nerves, and as some sort of emotional release valve snapped open inside him, a short "Ha!" came bursting out of his mouth.
"Yes, I'm Steed," he admitted, tired of the whole charade, tired of everything.
The Russian lifted his eyebrows at Steed's laugh. "You are renown for your debonair demeanor, Mr. Steed. I'm glad to see your reputation is completely accurate." He let go of Steed's head and Steed rested his neck against the back of the chair to watch what would happen next. Once a gentleman understands his death is imminent, the details can be of detached interest. It took energy to care about specifics, and Steed had no energy at all.
The Russian turned to Hussein, speaking quickly and earnestly. "Colonel, let me re-emphasize the importance of capturing John Steed. And here, where no one knows where he is, nor will be able to trace his disappearance. Colonel, you must let me take him back to Moscow. I can guarantee that if you give him to me, your weaponry supply problems will be over; make a list of all you want, and I promise all of it will be delivered. I also guarantee that you will have our full political support, so that within just a few years Iraq will be yours to do with what you will under our protection. I have the authority to make this bargain with you and will seal it in writing if you so wish. With Steed in our possession we will be able to learn inordinate amounts of information about British intelligence all over the world, and then, if he is still alive when we are through with him, we will trade him back to Britain in exchange for every one of our spies they have captured in the last ten years. Let me walk out of here with Steed, drive back to Baghdad and fly him to Moscow, and you will own Iraq, and we will break British intelligence."
There was not much to think about. Hussein immediately agreed.
Steed closed his eyes. He had more seconds, minutes, and hours until he would be tortured. More time that had to pass. The only problem was, this time, it would be done by the masters of the art. He had never fallen foul of the Soviets that way, never been to the Lubyanka, the Moscow Chamber of Horrors, and had considered himself a very lucky man as a result. Up until now. He should have been more relieved that nothing more would befall him in Iraq, but knowing the techniques the Soviets employed to their victims weakened his bones so much they became elastic. He could feel the blood dripping down his side from where Hussein had torn out some stitches, and the lingering agony of Hussein's grasp and the other blows from the rifles and all the other discomforts plaguing his body made him light-headed and nauseous, and he felt himself slipping out of the chair, unable to stop the slide
"Catch him!" the Soviet accent directed. "I don't want him further injured. Bandage that wound." Hands took hold of him, and caught him, sitting him back upright, and holding him there, as his head fell forward, and he spun around and around in the chair a million circles a minute. His bandage was ripped from his right side and a new one taped in place. Voices continued speaking around him like the buzzing of insects, and he didn't even try to make out what was being said. He no longer cared. At some point he was lifted up and dragged back into the sun, the broiling sun, and then he was put into a car and his hands were tied behind him and his legs were tied, and the sun hit him through the window melting his face, setting him on fire. Then there was movement, the car was moving, and he opened the one eye that was resting on the window as they left the village, the horrid village, except for her, Farah, who he saw watching him as a tear rolled down her cheek; she was a lovely woman, who dressed in black but had a heart of gold. Then his eye closed again. There was low buzzing between the men in the car. Someone should have stopped his bleeding better than the taped on bandage, as the blood was going down his side, and his shirt felt sticky. If he could have found his voice, which was lost, like the rest of him in Iraq, he would have mentioned it to the men, it was bad form to have him bleed to death before he arrived in Moscow. The sun seemed magnified through the window and soon he grew unbearably hot. Perspiration drenched his shirt and he hoped when night came the wild dogs wouldn't try to attack him again
Soon he began to lose all feeling in his arms from them being so tightly pinned behind his back, and when they were completely numb, he heard loud retorts. There was a sudden skidding stoppage of movement that shot him forward into the back of the seat in front of him. He bounced off as a terrible commotion began and he opened his eyes to see but it was all so blurry. There were men outside the car, which was stopped, and the men in the car were dragged out and gunshots were heard, and then there was just him. Someone opened the door next to him and Steed closed his eyes, waiting for a bullet to enter him, to kill him, the no big deal bullet, his no big deal death, only instead his hands and feet were being untied and someone was opening his shirt and undoing the tape to look at his gaping wound. He heard his name being called, but everyone knew his name, he was the best and most knowledgeable agent in British intelligence, everyone knew that, knew him, but the voice, it sounded concerned, it sounded worried, and he was being given cool, heavenly water. When he had drank as much as he could he was capable of opening his eyes and seeing something clearly, and there was the most beautiful sight he had seen in a long time, tall and gangly Darius Mahdi, his friendly eyes smiling down at him.
"It's all right, Steed, you're safe now," he said.
"Darius," he whispered.
"Allah on high, what happened to you? What happened to Mr. Willis?"
Adam was eaten by dogs. He had been fried by the sun and abused as a prisoner. It was all very simple, but Steed didn't have the energy to answer, except to croak "Adam's dead," so they wouldn't feel compelled to go searching for him, and would just take him back to Baghdad so he could go home. He desperately wanted to go home. He was lifted out of the car and carried into the back of a van, softly lowered onto a rug. There was no sweltering sun in the back of the van. No sun. Someone injected something into his arm, and all the pain went away, it just disappeared, and it was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful He didn't want to fall unconscious, he wanted to lay there feeling no pain, enjoying it, savoring it, but the drug was too strong and it pulled him far away from everything
Steed woke up in a bed in an apartment building, not a hospital. He was groggy, but not too groggy to realize that in a private home he would be much more difficult to trace than in a hospital. He was therefore safer in a private home, but not totally safe; probably Darius' home. He was still in Iraq and that realization brought the mind the urgent desire to leave Iraq, now. A touch of panic arose as he realized he was still in enemy territory, and now no doubt wanted by the most dangerous man obsessed with ruling it. It was day, and he wondered how long he had slept. He was in pajamas, and was bandaged underneath, and on his fingers. He felt his face and neck; the whiskers were still there and the blisters, although a few had broken up and he peeled dead skin off his face. He was still extremely enervated, and sore and achy; he was still helpless if trouble came his way again. He looked around for clothes to change into, so he could get to the airport and leave the country. He was in another bed, in a room with gaudy décor. He noticed the Arabic designs on the walls--a tapestry of Mohammed entering heaven whilst riding a white horse--the garish plastic molding on the ceiling in a paisley pattern, a couple of ornate chairs around the style of Louis XIV, and archaeological relics from excavations that Darius had directed lay scattered on dresser and night table. Outside the window, from what Steed thought was the fourth floor on the apartment building, he could see a mosque standing tall and round far away. The door opened and Darius' head peeked around it; seeing Steed awake, he smiled widely and came inside, closing the door behind him.
"Steed. You're awake. Good. How do you feel?"
"Terrible," he said, having no desire to downplay his misery. "Where am I?"
"In my apartment; the master bedroom. Don't worry. No one has any idea it was me who rescued you. Ali is dead. He was a traitor to me. Had his own clan agenda. I never knew. I'm sorry. I'm terribly sorry." He sat down on the bed by Steed. "You've been sewn back up by a doctor friend of mine, and he's returning tonight to check on you and give you a large shot of penicillin from his clinic's pharmacy. His nurse forgot to put it in his bag yesterday and he had a speech to give today at a medical seminar, so you've had to wait, as we just want to use him and keep it all very hush-hush. You've been asleep for a day. You're still in dreadful shape, as you may have noticed yourself."
That he had been given some medical care was good news; that he had not received any antibiotics for his wound and bladder infection aggravated him. His fear spilled out of him and he said, "Darius, make a plane reservation for me on the next flight back to England."
"But that's later this afternoon. You're safe here. We buried the Soviet bodies and drove their car back to Baghdad. Hussein shouldn't be aware that they haven't already left for Moscow. You should rest here for several days until you're stronger to travel. Your wound is inflamed and secreting pus."
Traveling did seem as onerous as swimming the Channel to Steed, but he was committed to leaving Iraq as soon as possible. "I'm strong enough to sit in a plane seat for six hours." He continued in an urgent vein. "I don't want to stay here. Hussein may discover the Soviets didn't leave. He have some contacts. He may be able to trace me, and you. I think its best if I went home, as soon as possible. We'll spend the time until then having you relay all the information you know to me, adding to what I already found out firsthand."
"Darius, go and make that reservation, then get me some clothes. I want your information and then I want to leave."
"I've got your luggage from your hotel. There's an extra suit in it, but, Steed, can you even walk?"
The question took him by surprise. "Of course I can," he said, and then decided to prove it to himself as well as Darius. He swung his legs slowly out from under the covers, grunting at the stress upon his wound the movement caused. Still, he reached the edge of the bed, and placing his feet on the Persian rug that covered the floor, he leaned forward preparing to push up off the bed, shaking his head at Darius' attempt to help him. Moving in slow motion, and with clenched teeth and a groan, Steed took several deep breaths and then lifted himself up, closing his eyes once he stood up. Once he was semi-erect, his abdomen protesting any attempt to stand straight, Darius watched Steed with an eye to catch him if he tipped over as he limped heavily on his right leg taking a few feeble steps. The drug, probably morphine, was still in his system, making him sluggish, and he was very weak on top of that. On his own he didn't think he actually could move very far.
"I'll need some crutches. Can you get them for me? I should be fine with crutches." His arms were stronger than his legs.
"Steed, I still don't think--"
Steed's easy-going nature fell victim to a rash outburst. "Just do what I ask, Darius. I don't need a debate on it. Reservation, crutches, my suit, information. And some food and water. Go take care of it." He waved Darius away, and then leaned on the bed until he was back by his pillow and sat down on the edge. Darius stood up and left for a moment, coming back into the room holding onto the handle of a round object.
"I'll do what you say, Steed, but you may be interested in taking a look in this while I'm gone. It may convince you that staying here, safe and sound, for a few more days makes sense. I'll have my wife bring you some food and tea."
With that he left the room. Steed looked down at the small mirror by his side. Frowning he picked it up and looked at himself for the first time in nearly a week. His hair was completely mussed; just a mass of thick, brown hairs pointing hither and yon. His face his neck Covered in blisters, and peeling where he didn't have blisters; he looked like he had some leprous tropical disease. His eyes were bloodshot, his face red, his lips like shredded ancient parchment, there was a bruise by his left eye. His well-established whiskers, which he had not seen in many a long year, and through which bits of skin peeled like dandruff, were mottled with wide patches of grey grey he was turning grey the colour of truly being too old for this
He looked grotesque. That was the only word. He imagined the shocked stares people would toss his way in public, much different from the flirtatious leers and approving nods his looks and form usually garnered him. Well, if being seen by others like this humbled him and scared a few children, it still meant he was on his way home. His near panic swelled again at the thought of being in Iraq, even though Darius had assured him all traces of the dead Soviets had been eradicated and their rental car returned. However, whatever private plane they were going to fly certainly hadn't taken off. Hussein could have government informants that could notice the plane sitting there, and contact him, wondering where the Soviets were. That truly terrified him; that Hussein would discover the plane had not taken off, investigate and find the bodies, learn that he had been rescued, and track him down and take him back to that village, that building Steed didn't return to bed; he sat in a chair by the window, scanning the street below, watching for the arrival of armed men led by a pudgy beast in human form, whilst listening for the sound of the front door slamming.
Darius' wife brought Steed food and drink. After he ate, he washed his hair and the areas of his body it didn't hurt to get near, and shaved. The bathroom off his bedroom was Western style, so that made things easier for him. The initial burst of energy he had upon waking faded quickly, and everything was a chore; he had to push himself to finish his hygiene, to struggle into his new suit of clothes. Steed pressed a nice-sized painful to touch bump on the back of his head he remembered feeling under his head on the desert surface. Underneath his whiskers was more bare, peeling skin; he would leave a trail of bits of skin as he walked that Hansel and Gretel could have used to find their way home. As he finished clumsily tying his tie as if his fingers were all thumbs, a chill hit him hard inside, he shuddered violently and he knew his low fever had suddenly taken a high leap into outer space. Not long after he grew very nauseous and vomited up the food Darius' wife had brought to him; the nausea stayed with him nonetheless. He sat in a chair wrapped in a blanket as he listened to Darius tell him first about Ali and how the man had poisoned his wife, then set Steed and Adam up to be captured by his clan members, to enhance their standing with Hussein, and how Darius and the men who had killed Ali had worked together to track him down. He told how Ibrahim had discovered his whereabouts and then remained in Behbahan. How Ibrahim had watched Steed be abused by Hussein until the Soviet Captain decided to take him back to Moscow. Ibrahim had then left the building and finding a secure spot, had relayed the news to Darius, including a description of the Soviet's car, so that they could waylay the Soviets on the dirt road leading to the paved road back to Baghdad. Ibrahim had then taken off running in that direction to meet up with them, even though Darius had them move the van further from the town so that no one would hear the gunshots.
Spotting the Soviets car with binoculars about fifteen miles from Behbahan, Darius and Anwar had come out from hiding to shooting their guns, stopping the car. In a flash they killed the Soviets and rescued Steed, putting him into Anwar's van. They buried the bodies, drove back and picked up Ibrahim, and then took the van and the Soviet car back to Baghdad, turning in the car at the rental place as the papers in the glove compartments instructed them to do. Darius gave his partners money from his safe at home and they returned to their village, swearing silence forever. Darius then spoke about Iraq building up weapons, including nuclear and biological, hiding some of them in archaeological sites, the divisions within the government, the men planning military coups, with Saddam Hussein the front-runner, and the Soviet influence in the political chaos of the country. It was hard for Steed to stay focused, and his eyes drifted out the window frequently and his ears tuned themselves more to doors closing than Darius speaking. But, he learned what he needed in the marathon session, with Darius talking a hundred miles a minute, to transfer his information to Steed in the brief time they had together. Steed took a few notes, though it was very difficult writing with his two fingers bandaged together and exquisitely sensitive to any pressure.
The six-hour plane flight left at 6:00 p.m., and arrived at Gatwick at 9:00 p.m. local time, due to the three hour time difference between England and Iraq. Every second Steed had to sit in Darius' house caused intense anxiety in him, but he held it in as best as possible. It was not that he had become a coward all of a sudden; the very idea was anathema to Steed. Yet, there was a time to cut and run, a time to retreat, when there was danger all around, and an agent was all alone. Steed had retreated before in his life, and saw no loss of dignity in wanting to retreat now. When Darius was done with his recitation, Steed could not sit still, but to hide his agitation, he practiced with the crutches, medical items he hadn't needed in a very long time. He was able to move them forward slowly and then half-walk, half-drag his feet to catch up to them. It was exhausting, but he would do it, he had to do it to get back to England. To not have the call potentially traced to his home, Darius went to a phone booth with handfuls of change and dialed a secret number Steed gave to him, alerting the Ministry that Adam Willis was dead while Steed was returning on the evening flight, and was, well, a little bit under the weather. Darius put that in his own words as he knew the English spoke in understatements all the time, and thought that was the best way to describe Steed's condition. Darius would have given his right arm to be English, and so acting like one even for a moment pleased him.
Darius drove Steed to the airport, and they arrived at 5:00 p.m. Steed contained his panic at the idea that Hussein had the airport staked out waiting for him to arrive; though, he almost couldn't force himself to leave the safety of the car. But, Darius volunteered to accompany him to the gate, and that helped. Steed was well aware that Darius expected to be fully compensated for all his work in saving Steed, and he was correct, he would be. This courteous gesture was the least Darius could do. After all, he had assured Steed that Ali was not a spy, when Ali had set him and Adam up to be captured by Ali's uncle. Yet, Steed held no antipathy for Darius' ignorance and all the grief it had caused; he had just not known the truth, and it served no point to blame the man. Besides, he had made up for his blunder by at least rescuing Steed. Steed would just let the whole episode go.
They entered the airport, got Steed's ticket, and checked his luggage. Steed couldn't prevent himself from glancing right and left, in front and behind, for men in khakis approaching him, but all he noticed were people trying not to be caught staring at him. He knew that hobbled as he was on the crutches, he could probably be captured by two or three active midgets, dragged out of the airport, stuffed in a car, and never heard from again. He was not the only Caucasian in the airport, but if anyone had a description of a tall man shedding skin like a snake, that alone would have pin-pointed him, without the additional mention he would be barely able to walk.
He and Darius reached the gate only to be told the plane was a little delayed. A wave of claustrophobia descended over Steed, and his mind shrieked to him that he was trapped and had to leave now.
Yet, he merely smiled blandly at the ticket agent and asked, "How long was the plane delayed for, and why was it delayed?"
He ignored her widened eyes and slightly dropped open mouth at the sight of him. "The plane is arriving from London, where there was a very big storm. It was fifty minutes late taking off, and so will arrive here a little late as well, though the pilots hope to make up some time in the air. We're sorry, sir," she explained.
Steed silently ordered his heart to quit exploding against his chest wall at every beat. Hussein hadn't ordered the plane detained, the government hadn't ordered it detained. They didn't know about Steed. They weren't coming to arrest him. He was going to travel to England. Everything was fine. Everything was fine. He stuck out in the airport like a sore thumb, he had a fever, he felt like he was made of porridge, but everything was fine. At least he had his passport. Darius had taken it from the Russian Captain's pocket; at least he hadn't had any trouble that way. The fact that he was using the alias that Hussein knew, that was understandable, even if it was stupid and dangerous and against every rule and regulation the Ministry instigated for escaping agents. It made sense to not have waited an extra day to have the Ministry send him a new passport, as he needed to get home tonight. This was fine, using his known alias. It was stupid and dangerous, yet fine. Everything was fine.
Steed's mind began growing a bit fuzzy, having trouble concentrating. His thoughts rambled randomly, and he let that occur, too tired to put the effort into staying clear and rational. Darius asked if he wanted anything to eat or drink. He shook his head no, even though his bladder irritation would have benefited from more fluids. He was still too nauseous to eat. He told himself that when he had urinated before going to the airport and blood had discolored his urine, amid a growing ache in the right side of his back, well, that was merely just a slight worsening of his urinary condition, nothing to be concerned about, and as soon as he arrived in England the doctors there would prescribe whatever he needed to cure the infection in his system. He just had to put up with the pain there, with the pain everywhere, for just a few more hours. He had decided that he wouldn't drink much and then have to urinate. What would be the point? It hurt to do so, worse than it hurt to not do so. He didn't need to work at increasing his discomfort. After all, his bladder was a constant torment, but so was his side, which felt like Hussein's knife was still in him slicing away every time he inhaled. So was his back and legs from the blows, his fingers --he sometimes wondered if the nails were still in them-- the dog bite he just wanted to be home.
He staved off fidgeting like a child on the last day of school, sitting calmly in his chair, facing the window viewing the tarmac and all the planes, so that he couldn't see people walking the terminal behind him and they, he hoped, couldn't see him, slumped in his chair, his chin resting on his left hand. He would rely on that sense of danger he had developed to give him a moment of warning before he was surrounded. Darius chatted about his wife, the archaeological dig. Steed suddenly realized that going home meant having to tell Adam's wife and children that Adam was dead. That was no better than staying in Iraq and being recaptured. No better at all
Finally the British Airways plane arrived, people disembarked and it was time for him to board. Darius helped him to stand and then handed Steed his crutches. They shook hands and then Steed hobbled down the gangway, onto the plane. He was in first class, as the flight was not full, and even at the last minute such a cherished ticket was still available. A stewardess gave him a look of grave concern, took his crutches and he fell into his seat, resting his head against the window. She brought him a pillow and put it in position to cushion his face. He asked for a blanket, still feeling chilled inside, and she brought one, tucking it around his body. He watched the runway for a Jeep to drive up; he listened for the sound of feet stomping down the gangway. He shook his head at the offer of some peanuts or a drink, and when the plane was towed out from the terminal, soon was speeding down the runway and taking off, Steed closed his eyes, wondering what lie he would relate to Adam Willis' family about the nature of Adam's death. He died peacefully in bed; he died quickly and painlessly; he died in comfort, and was certainly not eaten by dogs
Steed didn't sleep at first, all the images of his days in Iraq keeping him awake. He worried the plane would be hijacked and taken to some dangerous country where they would recognize him. He worried that if the pain in his back or his wound increased much more, he doubted he would be able to walk off the plane. The stewardess was very attentive to him, and he heard her whispering about him to the other stewardesses around the corner in the first class galley. He knew someone was sitting in the aisle seat next to him, felt him staring, but he didn't have the wherewithal to greet him with even a nod of his head.
The chills increased, and a light sheen of perspiration covered his body. Steed asked the stewardess for a second blanket which was placed over the first. He refused her offer of tea. She placed her hand on his blistered forehead and pursed her lips in worry. He closed his eyes again and concentrated on breathing, to make sure he continued to do so, as it seemed he was growing too weak to maintain normal respiration. When the dinner tray arrived, he saw the stewardess silently begging him to eat or drink something, but he mumbled "Sorry" and turned down the food and drink. His nausea was minimal, but he dreaded vomiting on the plane; it was better to stay a little hungry.
When the food trays of those that had eaten were cleared away the movie began. Steed bought headphones, although it took forever to pull his wallet out of his jacket to pay for them. He hoped that by watching the movie it would take his mind off his body and his anxieties, but strangely he couldn't seem to understand the plot or parts of the dialogue; he was always so perspicacious, it was strange, very strange he couldn't follow a typical Hollywood movie. Halfway through the show his bladder was adamant in demanding he drink immediately. He chose four small bottles of mineral water. The stewardess was relieved to see him imbibe something.
The trip to the first class bathroom, which he needed to make not long after, was a nightmare. He had to use all the strength in his arms to stand up, and could not stifle a low groan from filling the first class section as he did so. That summoned the stewardess, who brought his crutches as he leaned against the bulkhead, swaying like a tall building in the wind. His mobility on crutches was impaired by his weakness and pain, and it took forever to reach the bathroom not ten feet away. Steed voided bloody urine, grimacing all the while, his urinary tract system burning him as badly as had the hot desert sun. By the time he was back in his seat, he was exhausted, completely and utterly exhausted. The pain on his right side had spread over to the left, and his bladder was already ordering him to return to the restroom. The severe urge to urinate was moot; he was physically incapable of a return trip to the bathroom. The stewardess covered him again with blankets and put his crutches away, as suddenly all his separate pains merged into an explosion of misery that burst forth from his mind, so that he could no longer say this kidney or that knife wound hurt, but rather only that his whole body was equally inflamed and pulsating. He felt drained of life, and wondered, as his eyes closed, and he began plunging down into a black abyss as if pulled by demons, if he was falling sleep or actually dying. He wasn't too concerned one way or the other.
He was woken up by the stewardess gently shaking him, asking if he was all right, telling him the plane had landed and the other passengers had disembarked already. He didn't know for how long he had slept, but it hadn't been nearly enough. Fatigue bore him down as if he was wearing an iron coat of armor.
"We're in England?" he asked, rather stupidly he realized.
"Yes, we're in England."
"Lovely," Steed said, as relief flooded his system. He attempted to smile, but it was too much effort. His arms were mushy and weak, and his bruised back had stiffened up like a thick piece of wood. He was only able to stand as a result of the brawny pilot's help in lifting him up. The stewardess handed him his crutches and he hitched them under his shoulders and made to exit. He hoped a little movement would take the freezing chill out of his bones.
"Sir, are you sure you're okay? We can get a wheelchair, if you need one. You don't look very well," the stewardess said. "Can you walk, do you think?"
"I can walk," Steed said.
The gangway was slightly uphill, a decided drawback, but with his goal so near, and Purdey and Gambit waiting for him, and he was back in England, and out of Hussein's reach, Steed was able to push himself forward, not quickly, but steadily, repeatedly placing the crutches out in front and then dragging his legs until he was out in the terminal. Even such minor movement of his lower limbs brought agony to the front and back of his torso. He looked up from staring at his feet and there was Purdey and Gambit twenty feet away. Upon seeing Steed, their mouths dropped completely open and they ran to him their countenances a triple mix of disbelief, fright and alarm.
Their million and five questions sounded just like the buzzing of insects, and when there seemed to be a break, he merely croaked, "Let's go," and began moving shakily forward again, like a toddler unsure of its balance.
"Steed, what happened over there?" Purdey asked, walking next to him, her hand on his shoulder. Then she added, "Gambit, go get a wheelchair."
"No," Steed said. It was simply a matter of honor. He had survived Iraq, the sun, Hussein, the Soviets; he would walk the last remaining feet to the car, even though his vision had narrowed down to what was immediately in front of him, darkness claiming the sides--blocking out the stares, the hands over the mouths, the fingers pointing his way--and each of his legs weighed one hundred pounds. But, he was safe, that was what was important, he was home, and he could make it that distance to the car.
Purdey got him through customs with a wave of a card, as Gambit ran ahead out the building. Steed headed for a lavatory in dire need of urinating, and with Purdey waiting impatiently outside, grit his teeth hard enough to crack open a walnut whilst he voided a very red liquid. Once back with Purdey he was directed to an elevator, and for a few seconds he closed his eyes and rested as he and Purdey were lowered one floor.
Somehow he was going forward again, and passed doors sliding open to allow him to emerge into a cool English evening. It was summer, and so a little light even this late at night. There was the car at the kerb. Gambit opened the back door and someone took the crutches but he couldn't seem to bend his body to get inside, it was so stiff, and it hurt so badly, so four hands helped lower him, holding him and supporting him firmly yet gently, although even such delicate movement issued a long groan through clenched teeth. Finally he was seated in the car, with Purdey beside him, buckling his seat belt around him. He rested his head on the window and it was cool, nicely cool, not hot, not sweltering, as Purdey growled, "What sort of stupid bastard calls this being 'a little under the weather'?" She removed his tie and began to undo his shirt buttons to see if he was injured. "We should have met him with an ambulance."
When she removed his dog bite and knife wound bandages, an "Oh my God," sprang from her, followed by "Floor it, Gambit, get him to the clinic." Steed began to shake, his whole body started trembling like its own personal earthquake was occurring inside, spreading outwards, getting ready to tear him apart as effectively as Hussein's knife had done. It was as if all the tension and anxiety that had been deep inside him for the last week found an outlet with the knowledge that he was safe and came jumbling up to the surface, releasing in ever increasing crescendos.
"Steed?" Purdey asked, putting her hand on his chest. He didn't want to talk; talking took too much energy, and he had none, none to expend. His eyes were closed and his breathing grew irregular. He felt her hand wipe away sweat from his brow and then rest on his forehead. "He's got a high fever."
There was motion, fast motion, starting, stopping, and motion. His back throbbed on both sides now, like some creature was inside his body trying to burst out, and he moaned after one particularly sudden stop when he was pushed forward and had to brace himself. Sitting was no longer good, and he struggled with the buckle to undo it when Purdey did it for him. Then he slid down the seat onto his back as she helped him bend his knees up, moving to the floor herself to give his long body more space to unfold. It was much better lying down, the trembling didn't hit his head against the window now, and Purdey kissed his forehead, and held his hand.
"Don't die, Steed. Hang on," Purdey said, and Steed thought of Adam. How could he tell anyone what happened to Adam, let alone his family? It all seemed over-whelming to Steed, and he was not the sort of man who got over-whelmed, so it was strange, quite strange.
Purdey repeated her statement and his mouth mumbled on its own, "No big deal."
Then the car stopped and a door opened and then slammed loudly closed. Steed opened his eyes and cried out, rolling onto his left side, protecting his abdomen and his right hand with his left arm, as Purdey hugged him lost as to what to do. Then other people were there, and he was being lifted out, clearly agitated. Speech was now an utter necessity, and Steed blurted out, "Don't test me! I can feel!" as he was put on a gurney. Purdey was beside him and he grabbed hold of her arm. "Purdey, don't let them test me," he implored.
"I won't, Steed, don't worry, I won't," she assured him, not knowing at all what he was referring to, but he relaxed, settling down as the gurney took him inside into bright lights. People in white coats were beside him, lifting him onto a table, and then they were looking down at him, and undressing him. He couldn't get the slammed door out of his mind, even though he knew he was in England, he knew these people would help him, but it all got jumbled up inside him, he just couldn't think clearly anymore, who was friend, who was foe, he was so very tired Talking had been the final drain on his being, his limbs dissolved into the table, his blood evaporated leaving him an empty husk, and he let himself go, all of him, hoping he didn't come back, hoping he didn't have to tell Elaine her husband had been eaten by dogs, hoping he just faded eternally away, where there was no fear and no pain, no paralysis, no torturers, no one who recognized him. But maybe, wherever he went, he would be with someone perfect for him, someone he mattered to above all else, and he wouldn't die the saddest death of all for nothing
Steed passed out on the table as a sliver of a tear fell from the corner of one eye, trickling down the side of his head to his ear. Such a tiny speck of salty water, yet everyone saw it, and everyone froze at the sight, speechless. Purdey, Gambit, the doctors, the nurses--all of them knew Steed, who he was, what he was like. The bravest man they knew, the most decent, the most noble, the most reserved, the most even-tempered. None of them had ever seen him cry, none of them had ever imagined he would, or could. He was master of his emotions, he never bowed to fear, never allowed pain to conquer him. He shrugged off injuries, shrugged off deaths, shrugged off unhappy events as easily as he swung his umbrella. And, yet, there it was, one tiny tear.
Dr. Harrison spoke first. "Dear God, Steed, what happened to you over there?"
© Mona Morstein 2000
No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed prior written consent of the author. These stories may not be altered in any way or sold; all copyright information must appear with this work at all times. Please read disclaimers and warnings on top of each story. Feel free to send constructive comments to the author.. :o)
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