“That’s it, senorita. Wake-up,” a male voice encouraged, followed by someone slapping her cheek, not cruelly, but hard enough to abolish another layer of cobwebs. “C’mon. You can do it.”
More slaps. Each one was sharper than the last caused her eyelids to flutter and break the crud gluing them shut. Where was she? she asked herself.
“Sit her up,” ordered a voice, male.
“She’s awake,” a second voice announced, also male.
Rough hands raised her into a sitting position. Surprised pain induced by legs that had fallen numb but now raced with free-flowing blood made her yelp, abolishing another level of grogginess. The solid feel of a hard-cold wall pressed into her back. Dim light soaked through the blindfold ― more of a glow than actual light. Fully awake now, she shivered. How long had she lain unconscious? A long time. Her bladder sent spears through her abdomen. Vague memories of a bathroom visit and roaming hands tried to surface. Joint stiffness slowly abolished. And though her head felt thick and heavy her brain began processing current events.
Desperation waited on the sideline.
“Should I remove the blindfold?”
The voice sounded close, directly in front of her, hoarse with a whistling sound. Fright streaked through her. She struggled to move backwards, but the wall prevented her from retreating farther. Knees drawn to her chest, the need to urinate increased with her fear, so she tried to relax, to locate an ounce of self-control.
“Leave it. Get her a cup of water, Dan.”
“Don’t use my fucking name, imbecile.”
His raspy voice possessed a subdued quality. Words came out slow and methodical. Dan motioned to a third man standing at the door to fetch water. Door hinges squeaked. Machinery noises grew louder. Odera turned an ear in the direction of the new sounds. The door clicked noisily shut, reducing the mechanical sounds. Hardened leather soles tapped across the floor, growing louder. Shaking and trembling set in Odera’s limbs no matter how hard she fought to stay calm.
Running water sounded.
More footsteps. Two sets of them drew closer.
“Why? She ain’t going nowhere.”
“All right, you two. Can it,” a new voice commanded. “Give me the water and go find Sylvia.” Somebody nudged her arm. “Senorita, I have water for you.” She pulled back as far as the wall allowed. “It’s up to you, but I know what Nembutal does to your mouth.”
Hands touched the base of Odera’s head while fright blazed through her.
She jerked her head back from the hands and banged it against the cement wall. Throbbing pain lanced her skull and stars twinkled in the blackness. A belly chain restricted her from raising her hands to rub her head. Something stiff and unyielding hurt her ankles. Shackles. Disjointed memories returned to her in bits and pieces. Vibrating cement floor. Machinery noises. Vaguely, hidden in Nembutal dreams, she recalled a woman’s hands. More fear and anger accompanied that recollection.
“Stay still so I can remove your blindfold. You’re going to injure yourself.”
Odera quieted, became as still as a grouse in the presence of a fox. The blindfold loosened. When it came away, shards of harsh fluorescent light made her squint. A square male chin came into focus and with it, a toffee complexion and short black hair. Military-styled was her first impression. The owner of the masculine chin squatted on his haunches directly in front of her, close enough for her to sense his animal presence and to feel the emanation of his body heat. His back remained ramrod-straight. Dark brown eyes were level with hers. The man was a bit above medium height, had a stocky, muscular build with broad shoulders and thick arms that appeared to be too long for his torso, but which matched a pair of large hands endowed with thick and blunt-ended fingers. He sported a scar over his left eye, above a crooked nose.
Cinderblock walls surrounded her. Blue paint flaked free. Banks of steel lockers stretched the length of the room. Like the ones in high school. The room had one entrance/exit door. The top half of the door was opaque smoked glass with safety wire running through it. To the left, she saw a bathroom with showers and sinks. No urinals. Dan, the walking mountain with stitches in his lip, stood off to the side, but not too close. He had been at her home, but his black and blue eyes and the stitches were more recent. The knee brace and crutches. Every now and again he scratched his forehead and nose. Crutches swayed back and forth. His chin to sink toward his chest before he jerked it up again, clearly tired and fighting the medication.
“Do you still refuse water?” the man with the hooked beak asked, patiently allowing Odera to process her surroundings. “Si. Agua?”
“No,” she croaked. “Yes. Water.”
Gomez held the cup to her lips. Gulping thirsty swallows filled the quietude. Water dribbled off her chin, which she wiped across her shoulder with a quick head dip. The last mouthful she saved to swish around and over her tongue. Immediate relief from a swollen tongue eased her discomfort.
Odera shook her head.
“You’ve caused me considerable trouble, but you can make everything golden. Tell me who you emailed the data file to.”
His voice was so reasonable. Why not tell him? What could be the harm?
“Help me to correct the error and you can go free. That’s not asking much.”
She recalled the thin man’s words in her home. Once they had the list, she’d no longer be useful. Useful to what end? The variable list. Odera feared to believe his promise of freedom, yet she yearned to believe his words. With all her heart she wanted to believe she would be set free.
And then she remembered.
They had removed her blindfold and revealed their faces, which placed her in grave danger, she thought to herself. The variable list had been some kind of cocaine recipe. This place made cocaine. Oh my God, she had endangered Bruce by sending him the file.
“No one,” she replied, desperate to buy time until the police rescued her; until she could warn Bruce. “I did not send it to anyone.”
“That isn’t entirely true, now is it? We recovered the file from the computer and the optical drive at your father’s company. Who else did you send it to?”
The man’s unfeeling and calculating gaze promised death once he possessed the information. Unlike his soft words, the hard gleam in his penetrating brown eyes broadcasted a cold and final outcome. Oblique expressions devoid of mercy and compassion returned her questioning gaze when she looked for an ally in the three sets of eyes surrounding her.
“I only sent one email to the company computer.”
“Did you send it to Bruce?” Gomez explored, absentmindedly removing a speck of dirt from beneath a fingernail. “Hmm, does Bruce have it?”
“Don’t fuck with me!” he shouted, and slapped her face, imprinting fingers on her cheek. “I’ve tried to be patient, but if you continue to lie, you’ll force me to resort to more archaic forms of questioning. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“Yes,” said Odera, stifling her tears to hold out.
“I doubt that you do. Pray you never have to. Now. Let’s try it again, shall we? Did you send the data to Bruce?”
“Only to work. Nowhere else,” she answered quietly, flinching sideways when he raised a hand to scratch his chin.
Odera hated herself for showing fright, for giving him power, for not having the courage to stand her ground.
“Hmm. That’s a start. Tell me about this man. Everything you know. Lie and I’ll probably catch you. I have a folder of information on him.”
He sat back, exiting her personal space.
Telling her he possessed knowledge facilitated truthfulness. How much did he know? How much should she tell him? Why was information about Bruce important? Anxiety entered Odera’s eyes and penetrated her voice.
“He’s a forklift driver. My dad hired him as part of a prison-release work program. He writes books.”
“What are you to him?”
“Nothing, I’m the boss’s daughter so I know about his past. I work alongside him now and again. Nothing more.”
“I warned you about lying. Bruce Garland’s actions are not those of a simple employee. You’re hiding something. It’ll cost you your baby finger. Another finger for each lie after. Miguel, bring me the tin snips.” Facing Odera, he pointed to her fettered hands. “Okay senorita which baby finger? Your finger. Your lie. Your choice. Left, or right?”
Miguel walked toward them carrying a set of heavy grey tin snips with large loopy handles. The scimitar-curved metal blades looked sharp and shiny. Odera whimpered, shaken to her core as the man crossed the room.
“Choose a finger or I’ll take both. Hold her hands out.”
Her interrogator opened and closed the tin snips a few times to demonstrate their use. Miguel trapped Odera’s arms between his thick bicep and ribcage, and clamped down, hard. The man with the hooked beak forcibly placed her left baby finger between the metal tines and squeezed the blades together until they bit into her flesh, squeezed until blood seeped out around the blades. Odera struggled impotently. Miguel was too strong. Pain struck her as though she had slammed the car door on her finger.
“No, don’t. Stop!”
“This one?” Gomez asked, indifferent to her shouts and cries. Odera shook her head. “You’re sure you want to keep this finger?” When she nodded, he moved the snips to the baby finger on her other hand. “This one, then. That’s your preference.”
Red-stained metal blades closed, slicing through flesh until the sharp tines met bone. Odera shook and jerked to pull her hand back when the blades broke her skin, but she was powerless under Miguel’s iron grip. Warm blood pulsed and dripped and flowed, travelling back along the ridge of her palm to her wrist. Blood ran down her forearm to reach her elbow to soak her shirtsleeve. The pain worsened. Any moment he would snip off her finger.
“He’s my boyfriend! He’s my boyfriend. Oh God, don’t make me choose. He’s my boyfriend. Please don’t.” Feeling as though she betrayed a sacred trust, she cried, “Please. Oh please, stop.”
“You see? That wasn’t so hard. To show I understand your sacrifice ― that I have no desire to be cruel unless you cause it yourself ― you may keep your finger this one time. Next time I catch you in a lie, there will be no reprieve. Now,” Gomez rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Where were we? Yes, Bruce Garland. What places does he frequent? A restaurant? A gym? Perhaps a friend’s house? Give me a list of his friends and their addresses. What’s the name of his favourite pub? What’s his cell phone number? I want to know everything you know about this man.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat. Cold sweats and dizzy shock assaulted her. Her stomach flip-flopped while her tear-rimmed eyes followed the bright and shiny edges of the tin snips. A knife. Tin snips. What was the difference? She would tell them what they wanted if they would remove the steel from her flesh.
“The YMCA. He goes there. He takes kendo lessons at the Katana Dojo. He stays to himself. He does not have many friends. He’s very quiet. He’s no threat to you. Please don’t harm him. I will do anything you want. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know if you won’t hurt him.”
Her chin slumped to her chest.
She had just betrayed her heart and she had only begun. They would want to know more and she would tell them. What choice did she have? Steel was too strong to fight. Shame and guilt battered at her damaged fortitude. What have I ever done to deserve this? Please, God, I promise to lead a better life. Make them stop hurting me and protect Bruce.
“Quiet?” the man said in feigned humour. “That’s a good one. He assaulted the cops when they tried to arrest him. He stole the file you emailed out from underneath Wayne’s nose and crippled Danilito here. The shit-turd shot one of my men. When we had the puto bastard cornered inside your home, the fucking monkey swung off the roof as it exploded beneath him. Not to worry though. I’ll soon have his fucking balls gilded for bookends.”
“He’s not in jail?”
Stark hope marshalled battered courage.
“In jail? No,” Gomez shook his head. “He’d be mine if he were. I imagine he’s searching for you while the cops blame him for your abduction. Thought he’d flee the city with the entire fucking police force after him, but he hasn’t. Not as of tonight anyway. A slippery prick. I’ll grant him that. Before he discovers the truth of what you emailed and goes to the cops with it to clear his name, you’re going to tell me everything you know about Bruce Garland.”
“Save the brave words,” he advised, circling the tin snips over her hands. “Now that we’ve dispensed with niceties, let’s get back to work. How did you acquire access to Cornerstone’s website?”
To punctuate his willingness to inflict harm he placed the next highest digit of the same baby finger between the razor-sharp edges and squeezed. Odera screamed, struggled and wept as fresh blood christened steel. Not again. Make them stop, she bargained. Please, God, I promise to do your work if you make them stop. Sharp and shiny steel sliced through flesh and tendon. She could feel pressure being exerted on the thin bone as he toyed with the idea of clipping off a digit. None of her cries or screams or pleading had an emotional impact on her tormentor.
“Lie about so much as the wrong fucking colour and I’ll take this digit and then the next one as well until you tell me what I want to know. Si. Yes. Now, you fucking bitch-whore, tell me everything you know about this bastard!”
“Ow! Ow. No! Please. I’ll tell you. Please, don’t hurt me anymore,” she pleaded as metal knives grated against bone and blood flowed. “The Royal York. The computer convention,” Odera uttered, her gaze morbidly drawn to the contrast between cherry rivulets and the shiny steel buried in her flesh. Praying for Bruce not to return, she said in sliced horror, “The convention salesman issued us temporary website access. Please. You don’t have to take my finger. Please. You win. I’ll tell you everything. Anything.”
And so, she did.
For more than thirty minutes the man with the hooked beak fired questions and Odera answered. Each response diminished her spirit, reduced her courage and drained hope. Hope always withered last. Steel had beaten her again ― had stolen nearly everything she thought she valued about herself. Each answer drove her into deeper despair. Guilt and shame threatened to overpower hope. How could she ever forgive herself for betraying her love?
She wanted to die for her weakness.
A brown-skinned woman entered the room.
She owned shoulder-length black hair, round dark eyes and an athletic build. She wore a black leather vest highlighting muscular arms and shoulders. The top chromed snap buttons were open, exposing most of her small breasts. Black Spandex pants accentuated long legs and clung like snakeskin to her backside. Trashy throwback to the 1980s thought Odera. Set off against those black pants rested a holstered 9mm Beretta clipped to a belt; two extra clips were stored on her other hip. She wore the weapon with natural ease. Pink and white cross-trainer tennis shoes squeaked as she hiked across the room with catlike grace.
“You wanted me, Lucien?”
“I’m finished here ― for now.” Gomez told Dan, “Go get some rest.” Speaking to the tall woman, he instructed, “See to her needs. Bandage her finger. Leave the handcuffs and shackles in place. Have the storage room on this floor emptied. Secure her to the shelves. Make sure you get our guest something to eat and drink, then report back to me. I have an assignment for you.”
“Want I should wipe it for her too?”
“Treat her well, Sylvia. You can entertain yourself when I’m done with her.”
Gomez and Miquel headed out the door.
“Do you have to tinkle, sweetheart?” Odera nodded dejectedly. “Up you go, then.”
Bone-deep cuts in her finger pulsed and ached when Sylvia took her by the bicep and helped her to stand. Stabbing twangs tweaked her finger with pain at each heartbeat. Blood splattered her pants and shoes. She tried to bend her baby finger and failed. Pain prevented her from a second try. Severed tendon, she supposed, weighted down by emotional weariness. Emotional exhaustion stole her energy. Residual Nembutal in her system added to her weariness. Depression sapped any remaining energy.
Odera stutter-stepped into the bathroom.
Every fourth or fifth step jerked the shackles into her flesh. Metal bands gouged against her Achilles tendon. Sylvia kept one hand at her elbow. Shackles made taking a full step impossible. It was difficult to remember how short her steps had to remain not to cause herself pain. Pain distracted her ability to think straight. Nembutal slowed her thinking. Chains clinked and dragged along the tiles. She halted at the toilet and looked at Sylvia beseechingly.
“Won’t you release my hands?”
“You heard Lucien. Don’t be shy honey, we’ve done this before.” Sylvia unfastened Odera’s pants and pulled them to her ankles. “I don’t have all day, unless you’d prefer me to linger,” she offered and let her eyes rove over Odera’s nakedness. “Your choice Chiquita.”
Odera’s face palled when Sylvia’s mocking, merciless laughter followed. The woman watched her with a dispassionate expression, completely unaffected by Odera’s injuries. As Odera seated herself she reflected on the differences between Lucien and Sylvia. He acted cruelly to acquire something he wanted but Sylvia did it because it brought her joy. It was in her eyes and in her expression.
Fear and loathing surfaced in Odera where it was immediately transformed into patience.
Shock was beginning to fade.
Freaking out would not improve her situation. She began to put the pieces of information she had learned together. Bruce searched for her. He had had contact with Dan. The memory of Dan’s stitches, his missing teeth and his injured leg, increased her shame. Bruce searched for her while she had betrayed him. And she knew she would do so again. It did not matter that Bruce would understand she had had no choice. Knowing Bruce would forgive her made her feel worse, not better.
Random thoughts plagued her isolation.
How much time had passed?
As long as she remained useful, they would keep her alive. Until they resolved the security breach, she cautioned herself. Suddenly she remembered the burning intent in Bruce’s eyes the night she shared her assault over the kitchen table. Memories fostered meagre hope. From fledging hope she suckled a measure of strength. Courage trickled into her. In her heart she understood he would avoid the police. Bruce would continue to search for her because she would have done the same. Because it was in his nature. Gomez said Bruce possessed the chemical compound list. Bruce would figure it out. But would he do so while she was still useful? Please God, protect him from anything I’ve said. The hate she felt toward those who forced her to betray her love, deepened.
A fuller understanding of the beast Bruce described came to her; it called to her. She felt its nebulous potency, its dark promise of nothingness if she surrendered a portion of her humanity. Compassion and empathy could not rescue her. Goodness and love were unable to save her from this earthly hell. For a love not fully known, Odera embraced her pain and anger. She focused her heart and mind on hate and vengeance. To survive this anguish she must die a little. Must retreat to a safer place beyond steel’s reach. Reason and kindness were unable to make her safe. Fledgling determination to endure no matter the personal cost evolved. They could have her body but she would never again relinquish her spirit. Never again feel like a victim without choices. Guilt and shame rightfully belonged to her tormentors. Physical and mental torment that she had endured began to numb as she detached herself from kind emotion. The trick was to experience it fully and then step away from it.
A shiver shook her body from head to toe while she bound her baby finger in a toilet paper bandage.
It was not a piss shiver; not linked to fear.It was tied to the future. A forecast. As her emotions receded and calm asserted itself, the nature of Bruce’s actions took meaning. Everything Gomez had shared now made sense. Winter’s cold warmth searched for her. Nothing but death could halt its arrival once the nature of the data list revealed itself to Bruce. Bands of courage fortified her spirit, dimmed the shame and humiliation that had once clawed at her soul. Never again would she feel less than. Cold-warmth was coming for her ― if she could just stay alive long enough to re-enter its embrace.