The plane takes off with Laci and Shy on board. I made them believe the General ordered their return. A three-man strike team is more efficient to surgically take out Artoli. Less mess. From what Delaney and I reconned, the camp isn’t heavily fortified. A small assault team is optimal. I need my two best operatives by my side for this. Beck and Delaney have been with me the longest. Their skills compare to none other I’ve worked with. Laci is seasoned enough, but Shy is too green. I don’t want her doubting her abilities after her first heavy mission, so to absorb that doubt, I sent Laci with her. I believe Laci would’ve gone had I asked and explained my reasoning, but that would only make things worse between her and Shy, and this continued discourse can’t remain. When we get back we will square this shit once and for all. I turn to the remaining members of my team.
“We have new orders, gentlemen. We’re going to follow up on the camp we found last night,” I say, looking at Delaney.
“What are we going to do when we find Artoli?” Beck asks.
“We interrogate him if possible. General Akol is who we need to take out. He’s the mastermind behind the Liberation Army. We go in clean and quiet. A surgical strike-”
“The three of us?” Beck injects.
“His camp isn’t heavily guarded. A three-man strike team should be sufficient,” Delaney responds.
I nodded, turning to Beck. “His guard will be down in his own camp, surrounded by his own men. There’s no better time,” I explain. “Grab your gear, we head out with the cover of night.”
The border remains quiet. With the refugees already in Ethiopia, there’s no need for us to linger. The Sudanese border patrol go on, business as usual. Our business is with one Amir Artoli, and the leader of the Liberation Army.
We head east, dressed in all black. All of our weaponry is the same: M4’s, a side arm, and a Bayonet. A light backpack is strapped to each of our backs with extra ammo, water, sat. phone, and first aid supplies. The temperature has greatly reduced with the setting of the sun, making it less rigorous to reach our destination. Being in the desert doesn’t afford you a lot of cover, so we do our best with the terrain we’re given. There are pockets of small villages throughout our path to Artoli’s camp. Our movements are quiet to the human ear as we use the shacks and straw huts as cover. The livestock is another matter. The goats scream, giving the appearance of a wailing woman. The bells around their necks jingle, drawing too much attention to our movement. Locals look out their windows and doors to see what’s causing the dissonance to their animals. I hold up a fist, stopping all movement as we melt into the shadows. We wait roughly five minutes for the animals to quiet down before moving on. Finally, we make it to the wall of Artoli’s camp. There wasn’t any push back on the way here, which I expected. Most of the villages are made up of common folk, trying to survive in a country so divided.
The camp is surrounded by a wall made up of concrete, standing about three feet high. We stay crouched in a line with me in the lead. I feel Delaney’s hand on my shoulder as I signal for us to proceed forward. He taps me once before coming around me to enter the camp first. I can spot around twenty tents set up similarly to the ones at the border. They also use old vehicles as a means of cover. We use them for concealment as we scout the soldiers patrolling.
“Suppressors,” I whisper, grabbing mine from my backpack.
I signal with my hand for Beck to take out the three on the right. Delaney and I head left. We split up between two tents, being as quick and quiet as possible. We can’t just kill them and leave them for their comrades to find. We have to hide the bodies as we clear small sectors at a time. There’s no way to tell how many there are, either patrolling or inside the tents. My adrenaline is a comrade in these situations. It keeps me focused and hyper-vigilant. I crouch behind a barrel as two men pass by me, laughing and speaking in a dialect I don’t comprehend. There’s noise, then a panicked voice shouts over the radio. The two men look at each other before grabbing their sidearms from their holsters. We’re blown. No more time for careful and quiet. I stand from my position and fire two quick shots. One in each combatant. I take off in a sprint toward the noise, knowing it’s either Delaney or Beck who got made. Taking a deep breath, I’m hoping that’s all that happened and neither of my men are down.
Slowing down my pace, I peer around the corner of a water tanker, I’m now behind. I see Delaney on the ground, trying to tie a tourniquet around his upper thigh. He sits, bleeding heavily, propped up against a tree. He must’ve taken out whoever shot him before making it here. Looking around, I don’t see anyone. I make my way slowly over to him. I stay low as I reach him, throwing my M4 around to my back. I take over the tightening of his tourniquet as I speak, “How bad is it?”
“Nothing I can’t handle. It’s through and through, but it hurts like a son of a bitch,” he replies, wincing as I tighten the tourniquet. The bleeding stops.
“Can you walk?”
He nods as I help him to his feet.
“I need to get you to safety, until we can get extracted. Have you seen Beck?”
I look around, and still see no one. I hear commotion not too far from where we are. They’ll be on us in no time. There’s a decommissioned rig twenty yards in front of us. We move as quickly as Delaney’s injury will allow. Throwing open the door, I help him in.
“Stay low, I’ll draw them away from you. Radio for ex-fill,” I say, shutting the door before he has time to protest.
I sprint as fast and as far away from Delaney before letting off a few rounds into the sky, drawing the enemy toward me. I get their attention; unfortunately, I run into a dead end.
I stand motionless . . . thinking, thinking. More start to swarm me, but no one shoots. Why? I hate to sound ungrateful, but I know from being on the other end of this scenario what comes next. Being shot here, and now would definitely be better. I try to mentally prepare myself for what’s to come, but not knowing what torture methods they’ve mastered makes for a very difficult preparation.
Beck stalls in his tracks as he quietly comes around the corner with his M4 held tight against his chest. He brings it up, taking aim through the scope. Slightly, I shake my head not wanting him to engage. There are way too many of them and we both would surely end up dead. He lowers his weapon before fading into the shadows. I turn my gaze back to the mob in front of me. First: I raise my hands to show I’m not a threat. I slowly unstrap my M4 from my body. I lay both my guns on the ground. A man breaks through the crowd. He nods, and three men break away from the group, walking towards me. One stands with his weapon pointed at my head, while the other two search me, relieving me of my Bayonet. The two men hold me, one arm in each of their grasp. The one pointing his gun at my head doesn’t move. The man who broke free from the crowd walks up to me, pulling a syringe from his pocket. I recognize none of them. I feel a sharp sting in my neck before everything goes black.
My wrists burn, and my vision is blurry as I slowly open my eyes. Looking up causes nausea, so I close my eyes briefly. I can feel my wrists are shackled. I hang loosely from the rafters of the ceiling. Much in the same fashion as I found Echo. They’ve stripped me down to my boxer briefs, taking my comm. I’m cut off from everyone.
My right thigh hurts like a son of a bitch. I blink a few times, trying to clear the fog. A nice size hole from a bullet--which has recently been extracted-- is left undressed. The flesh around it looks burnt. Some asshole shot me while I was unconscious, then tried cauterizing the wound to stop the bleeding, but did a shitty job. Is this part of their torture technique? To shoot me, burn me, then let me die from Necrotizing Fasciitis. At least I’m not bleeding to death. Not yet, anyway. What sucks is, I’m sure this isn’t the worst of what’s to come. My muscles ache from being strung up. I’ve obviously been this way for a while now. It’ll take some time for the extraction team to find me, so for now, I’m on my own.
I look around for anything that will aid in my escape. The wood shack I’m being held in has a dirt floor and not much else. The two inches between the slats of wood the wall is made of allows the midday sun in. There are muffled voices and movement coming from the other side of the door. I try to see through the slats, but can’t make out anyone. The movement forces the metal manacles to bite into my wrists. The small slices cause tiny ribbons of blood to trail down my arms. The room is like a hot box. My face begins to itch from the beads of sweat that feel like a dozen ants crawling on me.
The men stay busy on the other side of the door. Are they preparing for the interrogation? My mind slips into places it shouldn’t. Delaney. Did he get the call out? What about Beck? Did he get away, or is he in a shack next to me? What went wrong? We were quiet. No way anyone heard us. No way. My men will never talk . . . of that I’m sure. They will die first. We will all die first.
Shy. As I think of her, I feel a little lighter knowing she isn’t here to endure such pain, yet again. Death doesn’t frighten me. Dying with regret, however. . .
I didn’t know I harbored regret until now, facing the possibility of death. I will surely regret dying never really having tasted Shy’s lips on mine.
The door flings open, and I’m grateful. It pulls me from my mind’s vengeful way of thinking. The air swarms me like bees to a flower as it momentarily gives reprieve from the suffocating heat. I recognize the man entering right away as General Sadiq Akol.
“Hello, Michael.” The general greets me in a rich accent. “I’m sure you’re wondering how it is I know your name.”
I say nothing.
“I am General Sadiq Akol of the Liberation Army. You are Michael Varro, top assassin of the Collective. You see, I’ve had some time to brush up on my new guest.”
I smirk. “Is this how you treat all of your guests?” My head hangs, but my eyes never leave his.
“Only very special guest,” Sadiq’s voice holds warning.
“No wonder you’re not very popular.”
The mind-numbing pain follows quickly after my statement. The tall skinny man, I also recognize as Commander Amir Artoli, digs his finger into the open wound of my thigh. I scream, unable to control my reaction as I writhe in pain against my shackles. I quickly become nauseatingly acquainted with the reasoning behind the bullet wound. I spit out the excess saliva building in my mouth as the vomit threatens to come. I’m able to speak in between catching my breath.
“I’m surprised you let this asshole live after his fuck up at the border.”
Sadiq doesn’t reply.
I glare at Artoli. “You could never be on my team. You’re a failure. Failure is weakness.”
My focus remains solely on the asshole who intends to torture me.
“Okay, Mr. Top Assassin,” General Akol smirks, nodding his head. “Let’s see how funny you are after being with my torturer for a few hours. You’re going to find out why I keep Mr. Artoli around,” Sadiq says, tipping his head to me before walking out the door.
Amir stalks toward me with a wicked grin playing across his face. “What is your weakness, Mr. Top Assassin? Let’s find out.”
His accent makes him extremely hard to understand; however, the blowtorch I watch him grab from the ground is a language I speak fluently.
“What do you want?” I ask as the torch sparks to life.
Amir stands in front of me. “A man requires you to suffer, and so I oblige,” he offers.
“What man? What does he want?”
“Not my concern. Perhaps, you can ask him when you see him. No more questions. No more stall tactics. Let’s play.”
I do my best to prepare myself for what’s to come. The pain is indescribable, forcing a guttural scream as the flame devours the skin across my abdomen. On the edge of darkness, the only image that floats to the surface is Shy.
I startle awake at the feel of someone touching me. His face is unfamiliar. He’s slathering a thick paste-like substance on my abdomen. It cools the burn slightly, so I don’t fight it, but it doesn’t extinguish it. I believe it’s a barrier of some sort, in order to stave off infection, and to keep the flies from landing on it. I notice my leg is covered in the same paste. Well, it doesn’t seem they want me dead. Not of infection, anyway. The burn is localized. Not large enough to cause burn shock from loss of body fluids. Seems they don’t want me dead of organ failure, either. Ruling out ways they don’t want me to die keeps my mind off the pain. I rack my brain for the man Amir could’ve been talking about. The list is way too long. I’ve killed, maimed, and tortured too many to count. It could be the brother, father, uncle, cousin of anyone. They haven’t asked me for any information about my employer, intel, locations of substations; or how many divisions of the Collective there are. What the fuck do they want from me? Besides my suffering. The man finishes what he came to do and leaves. I don’t bother asking for his help. He probably doesn’t speak English, and if he does it’s highly unlikely he would help. I glance up at my wrists. The skin is raw and ripped. It feels as though they may dislocate at any moment. I grab the chains attached to the metal bracelets, and try to pull myself up, relieving the pressure on my wrists. I scream as my arms give out, causing my wrists to bear the brunt of my weight. Blood instantly trails down my arms. Breathlessly, I swing from the rafters. I try to shift my focus once again. How long have I been here? Guesstimating, I would say it’s been around twelve hours since I’ve been captured. I haven’t gotten any real sleep in days. With Echo, the mission prep, travel, and covering the border, it hasn’t left a lot of time for sleep. The exhaustion is kicking my ass. With the pain I’m feeling from the torch, I don’t expect sleep to be coming anytime soon. Sleep deprivation is a classic torture technique, I’ve been trained to endure. I’ve never needed much sleep, anyway. Even with that, a human can only go so long without it before the mind breaks down and the hallucinations start.
The pain is unbearable. The magical paste is starting to wear off. Amir burned me right where the sun creeps through the slats, hitting my skin, keeping the wound ignited. He’s good. I’ll give the bastard that. Ten agonizing minutes slowly tick by since the medicine man--for lack of a better term--left. Amir wants me to marinate in my pain.
The shack door opens and in walks Amir with a small blade in hand. A blade that looks much like a medical scalpel. His eyes rake my body, studying it intently. I assume he’s trying to figure out the perfect spots to cut. Where it will bleed the most. Where it will cause the most damage. It’s what I would do if I just wanted someone to suffer. Closing my eyes, I focus my mind. I go to a place I’m very familiar with. A place that has saved me since I was a child.
His first two slices are behind both my ears, followed by slices on my fingers and toes. He places two more small cuts strategically on my torso. Above the burn. Thank God for small favors.
This pain is bearable, but pain isn’t his reasoning behind the strategic cuts. He wants me to bleed, and bleed a lot. These are the most vascular parts on the body, I could lose quite a bit of blood, but not enough to end me. Amir proceeds to pour alcohol over the slices and my newly seared flesh, and it takes its toll, causing the darkness to take me. The smelling salts bring me back with a jolt. When I came to it isn’t Amir’s face I see.
“Shy,” I say, dazed. “You can’t be here. They’ll hurt you. Run.”
“No, Michael, I won’t leave you. You have to be strong for both of us. Hold on, I’m coming for you,” she whispers as she starts to fade.
As she fades, Amir’s face comes into focus. He’s watching me intently, smiling a horrible smile of satisfaction.
“You care for this Shy person. I assumed someone who does what you do has no heart. My work here may be done. That’s too bad. We were having so much fun. How about one for the road, huh?”
Amir is about to drive the scalpel into my side when a voice yells from the door. “Amir!”
I can’t see who it is from the glare of the sun. From the sound of his voice, I can tell he’s American.
“He is no good to me dead,” the mysterious man remarks.
Amir’s face falls. Oh, how he was looking forward to hearing me scream one last time. I look past Amir to the unidentified man. Squinting my eyes, I desperately want to know who is pulling the strings. The coward steps out from the glare of the sun, and into focus. I finally get to see the wizard behind the curtain. My breath catches, and I’m queasy all over again. This time it is from shock. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Or better yet . . . who I’m seeing. Amir’s face twists into a depraved grin at the look on my face. He folds his arms over his chest as he watches my reaction. I think he’s enjoying this moment more than the torture. I have to take a few deep breaths. I try to swallow as my mouth dries up.
“It can’t be. Jessup,” I say as I breathe the name of my once believed dead handler.