My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Eight:
May 30, 1987
Aleksander regained consciousness slowly. He was sitting on a hard chair, probably in a basement or storage room of some sort. It was cold and dark and damp and smelled of rotting vegetables and something vaguely sinister. Copper? Aleksander wasn’t sure.
He could hear voices muttering somewhere nearby. Two people, it seemed. He was afraid to open his eyes to check. His hands and arms ached. He tried moving them but they were secured tight to the chair, arms pulled behind his back, wrists shackled together.
Tried his feet next. Same result. Each ankle had been affixed to a chair leg with something heavy and solid, probably a length of chain.
Aleksander felt queasy and weak. He knew he had been drugged into unconsciousness inside the tiny East German automobile and wondered how long he had been out. Was he even still in the German Democratic Republic? Was he back in Russia? Somewhere else? He concentrated on the voices, trying to pick up enough of the conversation to determine what language they were speaking and how many people were inside the room with him.
No luck. The voices were too quiet.
He risked opening his eyes, just a sliver, and moved his head very slowly to look around. In the dirty yellow light of a single bulb he could see a pair of shadowy figures huddled together in a corner of the room. The image blurred and doubled, then cleared. The lingering effects of whatever drugs he had been given, Aleksander guessed.
The men were sitting around a rickety table drinking something hot out of mugs—Aleksander could see the steam rising into the air even from here—and his stomach clenched and rumbled.
He wondered how long it had been since he had eaten. He wondered whether he would ever eat again. The terror of his predicament struck him like a wrecking ball and Aleksander puked all over the floor, the vomit burning his gullet on the way out. Cheap German vodka. Aleksander sobbed, then quickly stopped himself. His eyes widened in mounting panic as the men pushed their chairs back and began walking across the room.
The men stopped directly in front of him. One was tall and thin, skeletal. The other was completely bald. Aleksander looked up in fear, feeling like he might be sick again. He hoped when the vomit erupted from him it wouldn’t splatter all over his captors.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, Comrade,” the bald man said in Russian, which meant nothing, since his East German contact had spoken Russian, too. “Time is of the essence, so let us skip the preliminaries and get right down to business, shall we?”
Aleksander’s terror was nearly overwhelming. His stomach rolled and yawed. He was afraid to speak for fear of vomiting again.
But as terrifying as this situation was, he knew he possessed the ultimate trump card—provided he had been kidnapped by Russians. If these two weren’t citizens of the USSR, he didn’t know what he was going to do.
“Where is it?” the bald man said. So far skeleton-man had not spoken.
Aleksander had no choice but to answer now. He hoped he wouldn’t puke on the men, but they were standing perilously close. He swallowed hard. “Where is what?” he croaked. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until just now.
“Do not play games with us. Doing so will only cause you pain,” the bald man said, and skeleton-man drew back his foot and kicked Aleksander in the shin, hard, with his steel-toed boot. The pain exploded, racing up and down Aleksander’s leg like an electrical current.
He screamed in agony and fell forward, desperate to cover up, to protect his injured shin, but could barely move with his wrists shackled to the chair behind his back. He hadn’t heard anything crack but couldn’t believe the bone hadn’t shattered.
“Where is it?” the bald man repeated, his voice slashing like a knife.
“I don’t know,” Aleksander gasped. “I passed it along just as I was instructed to do. Where he went with it after he left the club I have no idea.”
“You know him,” the man said. It was not a question. “You have done business with him in the past.”
“No, never. I swear. I’ve never seen him before.”
“You were laughing and joking like old friends, Comrade Petrovka. Do not insult our intelligence.”
“I was just doing what I was told to do by my contact, to blend in, that’s all. I’ve haven’t been to East Germany since I was a teen, I swear. You can check my travel records if you don’t believe me.”
“Oh, we will, don’t worry about that. Next question: What was the item you delivered?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t believe you, traitor.”
“Traitor?” Aleksander looked up at his tormentors, sweat dripping into his eyes. His shin throbbed with every beat of his heart. He knew now was the time to play his trump card. It might be his only chance. “No,” he said, “I am not a traitor. I was doing exactly as ordered by General Secretary Gorbachev. I am here on official state business.”
“Official state business?” the man said, his voice mocking and cruel. He turned to his partner. “Did you hear that, Vasily? He is here on official state business, representing Secretary Gorbachev himself.”
The man turned his attention back to Aleksander. “Well, I have news for you, Comrade Aleksander Petrovka of Ivanteyevka. Mikhail Gorbachev is just as much a traitor to his homeland as you are. We care nothing for Mikhail Gorbachev’s orders. If Gorbachev’s reckless stupidity is not checked, he will be the downfall of the Soviet Empire, and Vasily and I are just two of many who refuse to see that happen.
“Betraying your country under the orders of a fellow traitor is no excuse, Comrade Petrovka. So I ask you again, for the last time: what was the item you delivered to your contact?”
Terror flooded through Aleksander’s body. The terror overwhelmed the pain so his throbbing shin did not even exist. The terror overwhelmed his queasy stomach so he no longer felt he was about to puke. The terror was everything.
These men were Russians, but it did not matter. They were Russians, but the word of Mikhail Gorbachev meant nothing to them. They were accusing him of treason, but they were traitors. The irony struck him like another kick to the shin. Aleksander realized he was breathing heavily, forcing air in and out through his mouth like a panting dog. He was hyperventilating but could not stop himself.
This was bad. This was worse than bad. This was a nightmare come to life.
“WHAT WAS THE ITEM YOU DELIVERED TO YOUR CONTACT?” the bald man screamed in Aleksander’s face. Spittle sprayed out of the man’s mouth as if from a fire hose. A fat gob of saliva splattered the side of Aleksander’s nose and dripped slowly into his mouth.
Aleksander sobbed, “I don’t know! Secretary Gorbachev gave me a sealed envelope. Inside was some kind of document, I don’t know what. He forbade me to look at it.”
His tormentor stepped back and looked at his comrade. He seemed genuinely shocked. “You risked your life to deliver a document and . . . you don’t even know what it was?”
Aleksander hung his head and shook it miserably. He would never see Tatiana or his children again. He would never see the sun rise over the eastern edge of the Moscow skyline. He was going to die here in this dirty, dark torture chamber at the hands of two people he had never seen, two people who believed him a traitor to his country. And there was nothing he could do about it.
A wrenching sob shook his body and pain flared in his shin. “The envelope was sealed. I could not have opened it even if I wanted to.”
His two captors laughed as though he had said something funny. Then his interrogator switched gears. “Your contact, he was a German, was he not?”
“Yes, that is what Secretary Gorbachev told me, and I don’t know why he would lie about it.”
The two men grunted and his interrogator spit on the floor. “Yes, why would he lie?” the bald man said. “He is destroying his ancestral homeland, the land Russians have spilled blood to protect for generations, but surely he would not lie.
“Now, getting back to the document the traitor Gorbachev asked you to pass along to this German, what was it?”
“I already told you, I don’t know.”
The man waved his hand like he was brushing a fly away from his face. “Don’t take me for a fool, please, Comrade. There is no one alive who would not look inside the envelope the first chance he got. What was it?”
Aleksander raised his head and looked at the man beseechingly, but said nothing. What could he say? It was clear another denial would be ignored.
And then, out of nowhere, inspiration. His contact! “If you were watching me, you must have been watching my contact, too,” he said, speaking quickly, enthusiastically. “If you can find him, you can take the envelope away from him and see for yourselves what it contains.”
“Thank you for your very helpful advice,” his tormentor replied with exaggerated politeness. “Your German collaborator claims to know nothing as well, and he passed the envelope off before we were able to intercept him.” The man shook his head in disgust and spit again on the floor. “We are getting nowhere and time is passing quickly.”
He smiled at Aleksander, his lips a thin bloodless slash. “I would like to say I am sorry for what is to come next, but, alas, I cannot. I have little patience for traitors, but would have gladly ended you quickly had you only given me the information I require. Now, I am afraid you are in for a rather unpleasant little while. I can’t be more specific because, you see, I don’t know how long it will take you to die. One can never predict these things, but the time will probably seem much longer to you than it actually is.”
The other man walked away and began dragging equipment across the concrete floor, placing it next to Aleksander’s chair. He didn’t seem sorry, either. He whistled a tuneless ditty as he expertly clamped a set of booster cables to a series of automobile batteries stacked atop a wooden pallet on wheels. A cable ran from the batteries to a small box fitted with dials, switches and a couple of grimy meters. To Aleksander the box resembled the transformer from the small electric train set he and Tatiana had given his son, Aleksander Junior, for his fourth birthday last year. It had taken months to save up enough money to buy the toy, but the look on his son’s face when he opened his gift had been worth every bit of sacrifice.
Tears spilled down Aleksander’s cheek at the memory and mixed with the spittle drying on his face. The quiet man continued working and whistling. Two cables extended from one side of the transformer-like box, snaking across the floor, terminating at Aleksander’s shackled feet. At the end of each of the cables was a shiny copper connector, spring-loaded and fitted with sharp teeth. A feeling of dread wormed its way through Aleksander’s gut and he no longer suspected he was going to throw up again, he knew it.
The quiet man unbuckled Aleksander’s belt and pulled it completely free of his trousers. He unsnapped the pants and unzipped the fly and motioned impatiently for Aleksander to lift his ass off the seat. Numbly, Aleksander did as he was instructed, and the man yanked his trousers and underwear down to his ankles.
Aleksander puked, barfing up the acidy-tasting remnants of the East German vodka, not caring this time that it splattered all over the quiet man. He began babbling, begging for his life.
The quiet man continued, unaffected. He attached the copper ends of the two cables to Aleksander’s bare scrotum, tugging lightly on each one to ensure it was fastened securely. Then he walked behind Aleksander’s chair, returning seconds later with a bucket of foul-looking water. He splashed some on Aleksander and on the cables.
He looked at Aleksander, his eyes hard and remorseless. “Goodbye, Comrade,” he said. They were the first and last words Aleksander ever heard him say. Then he walked to the small table on wheels upon which the transformer-like box was placed, and he flipped a switch. Then he turned a dial. Then Aleksander’s situation changed for the worse.
It took a long time for him to die.