Mahabith Detention Facility
Empty Quarter, Saudi Arabia
They came before Michael was ready, the three men in black. Tight-fitting black turtle-necks tucked into black trousers, in turn tucked into high, black, military-style boots. Skin-formed black gloves covered their hands, and black, fleece ski masks hid their faces. Not that it mattered. Michael knew he was never going to escape this prison to identify anyone. The gash above his eye, opened by the taller one’s walnut-sized knuckles, had not had time to clot. The knife-like pain in his side, undoubtedly a broken rib, sustained when they had thrown him down the cement stairs into this pit, had not subsided. He could breathe only in short, painful gasps.
They stood inside the door, silent, as before. The puckered vents over their mouths moved in sync with the rise and fall of their well-muscled chests. Slow and easy. Michael could not tell if their eyes were black, or if it was just a trick of the shadows. Either way, they were demons from a nightmare. Most frightening was the bored, business-like approach they had taken to beating him. In Michael’s life, beatings had always been fueled by rage, jealousy or fear. These men were doing a job. As he blinked away his own blood, Michael knew they were good at their job, and that they weren’t finished, not by a long shot.
He hadn’t even had time to figure out where he was. There were no windows and no opening in the single, steel door. Clearly, no one was supposed to see what happened in this room. He was fairly certain he was underground. The room was cool, like a basement, with no discernible air flow. The floor was concrete. It had a sterile, antiseptic smell of industrial solvents. Underneath it, though, the stench of sweat, blood and fear was unmistakable. They had left him in pitch darkness, but, now that they had returned, a light in the ceiling glowed dimly. So they can do their work, Michael thought grimly. In that dim light, he noticed that the walls were bare, gray concrete. Rough. The kind that would rip your skin if you rubbed against it.
What stopped his heart was the drain in the middle of the room. The concrete floor sloped down to it, and something black was encrusted around its edges. The drain was at his feet, directly in front of the metal chair to which he was tied. The chair was bolted to the floor, to hold him in place while they hit and kicked him. The blood from his forehead continued to run down his face and had begun to pool in his collar. He lifted his head and opened his one good eye.
The man in the center, the largest one with the walnut knuckles, snapped his right fist forward. Michael’s brain barely had time to register the movement before the man’s fist crashed into his right eye socket. His entire body slammed into the chair. The restraints dug into his arms and legs, but the bolts did their job. His head snapped back as fireworks exploded behind his eye. The room winked out, then came back into view, hazy and unfocused.
The men in black moved in. Just doing their job.
Michael woke. It could have been hours later, or minutes, or days. He had no way of knowing. It was longer than the first time because his right eye was crusted shut. He couldn’t hear anything out of his right ear and, now, both sides of his rib cage screamed every time he tried to breathe. He moved his fingers and wiggled his toes. Those weren’t broken yet, and his neurological pathways were still able to communicate those commands. That was something, at least. He ran his tongue around inside his mouth and winced. Several teeth were loose. The coppery taste of his own blood was so overwhelming that he gagged. His head had whipsawed so viciously during the beating that his neck muscles were overstretched and useless. Staring at the floor, he noticed that they had not washed his blood down the drain. Yet.
The men in black had done their job, but they had not killed him. They were keeping him alive, for now. It didn’t take a genius to figure out why. He knew what would come next, and wasn’t surprised when the door opened.
Michael didn’t recognize the man who stepped through the door, but he couldn’t have been more different from the three men in black. To start with, this man was dressed in white, the traditional thobe. He was smaller and thinner than the three men, and his face was not covered. Round spectacles flashed in the overhead light, turning opaque, hiding his eyes. Something in the heavy way the man dragged a chair across the floor frightened Michael even more than the beatings from the masked thugs.
Michael’s right hand had started shaking. He ignored it and waited for the man to speak.
“Professor Michael McKeon,” the man began in a quiet voice.
Michael couldn’t hide his shock.
“Yes, I know your name,” the man continued wearily. “I’ve learned a lot about you in a rather short period of time.”
He removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose before replacing them, dropping his hands into his lap with dreadful finality. The man’s mustache twitched once. Then he cocked his head slightly, like a professor who was about to repeat a lesson for an exceptionally dimwitted student.
“Let me tell you what I know and then you will tell me what you know.” He didn’t wait for a response from Michael. “I know that you developed a process for accelerating the growth of certain strains of microbes that can destroy oil. I know that you have successfully tested this process in the lab and in the field under limited conditions. I know that you were kidnapped by an organization calling itself The Global Group. I also know that this group kidnapped your wife and adopted daughter to force you to cooperate. I know that you and three others infiltrated Abqaiq, pretending to be photographers. I know that we found five empty containers next to the water injection pumps that contained the microbial solution. I know that we found five empty containers next to the oil storage tank and an additional six filled ones in the rear of your vehicle. I know that the woman and your two kidnappers are dead, and you are alone. Finally, I know that you will tell me how to stop the microbes.”
With that, the man sat back in his chair and waited.
A grim silence settled in the room. Neither man moved; Michael, because he couldn’t, and the other man because he chose not to. Michael judged from the deathly stillness in the room that it was soundproof. They don’t want anyone to hear what happens in here, either. Finally, with great effort, Michael forced his overtaxed neck muscles to lift his head and squinted his left eye until the man came into focus. He opened his battered mouth and rolled his swollen tongue, trying to find enough moisture to speak, but he couldn’t stop his hand from shaking.
“I’ll tell you what I know,” Michael croaked. The first words he had uttered since his capture. “I know that I’ll never tell you a goddamned thing. Go to hell.”
The man shrugged his shoulders in apparent resignation. He stood up slowly and shuffled to the door, which opened before he touched it. As the man disappeared up the stairs, the three men in black filed through the doorway. Silently. Effortlessly. Business-like. Two of them approached Michael on either side. He tensed, waiting for the beating to begin, but was surprised when they unlocked the chain binding him to the chair and lifted him off the floor, his arms pinned to his sides. Michael gasped as his elbows were forced into his broken ribs. His head lolled side to side with each step. They stopped in front of the man with walnut knuckles, who stood in front of the door.
Without a word, they dropped Michael to his knees. His brain was too battered to engage his reflexes, and his knees cracked against the concrete floor like twin rifle shots. His lower legs and feet immediately went numb. Then the two men grabbed his wrists and yanked him off his knees. Michael ground his teeth into his lips as his ribs blazed in agony. Through the scarlet haze that had enveloped him, Michael heard two metal clicks then felt the men release his wrists.
He didn’t fall. His wrists were chained to a metal bar fastened to the ceiling. The bar was high enough so that he had to stretch to touch the floor with the balls of his feet. The man with walnut knuckles stepped toward him and drilled his giant fist into Michael’s solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him in a painful rush. Then the three men went back to work. Fists. Forearms. Elbows. Knees. Feet.
As the beating continued, Michael dug inward. Dug with the panic he had felt when Milla and Katya went missing. Dug with the rage he had felt when he found his sister dead. Dug with the desperation he had felt when his father and then his mother had attacked him.
He dug until he found what he was looking for, the cave inside him where he had crawled for the first time when his father beat him. It was a dark and angry place, but completely impregnable. He had lived there every time his mother brought a dealer or a client to their apartment. He had dug even father inside it when he tracked down his sister’s killer and shot him between the eyes. He had continued to live there until Longfellow first enticed him out with equations and algorithms that wormed their way into his brain and wouldn’t let him rest. But it was still there, as he knew it would be. Waiting for him. Come inside. No one can touch you in here.
He crawled inside.
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