Author's note: Well, this is it. My first long piece on FP, so any comments you leave would make my day. If you clicked on this, I can't tell you how grateful I am. A few things before we begin: first and foremost, the full story is already written, so there's no danger of it dying on you. Updates will be weekly unless I get good feedback, in which case they will be twice-weekly. Second, this chapter contains a brief semi-graphic description of torture, though with no gore. Discretion is advised.
Finally, thank you so, so much to nsane1 of FanFicton, for being my beta-reader. This wouldn't have been possible without you. I encourage all of you to mosey on over to her profile and check out the stuff she's written.
And so, without further ado, I give you Scheherazade.
Special Agent Andrea Kowalski picked up a gallon jug of water and a thick piece of cloth. Tucking the latter under her arm, she hung several pairs of handcuffs from her belt and headed for the detention block. This part of her job, she did not like. It made her feel filthy inside, where soap couldn't clean. But hopefully it wouldn't become necessary. Hopefully, the prisoner would cooperate and tell her everything she needed to know, or at least be pliable enough that she would be able to extract the information using psychological tactics alone. Jaw clenched in apprehension, Kowalski exhaled forcefully, knowing it was a pipe dream. She'd read the briefing notes that Supervisory Special Agent Hartley had passed her that afternoon. She doubted the prisoner was going to reveal anything today, even with the … torture, Drea, the word is torture, she reminded herself. After over twenty years working for the Syndicate, Andrea Kowalski harbored no delusions.
Water sloshing in the jug as she walked, she stopped by the security office at the detention block and checked her sidearm. "Pull up the camera for cell eight," she instructed Agent Carlisle, the mild-mannered, unassuming, and thoroughly caffeine-dependent man who ran the office.
Tossing back his third cup of the day, he complied, and the large, high-definition plasma screen at the front of the office lit up with a bird's-eye view of the cell. It was eight by ten, with black matte steel walls and an electronically locking door. Harsh fluorescent lights illuminated a plain grey mattress in one corner, a brushed steel chair bolted to the floor in the center of the room, and a young woman restlessly pacing the perimeter of the cell. She was in her early twenties, slightly built, pale skin made paler each time she passed under the lights. Her thin, stringy hair was white-blond under all the dirt, and her eyes were sea-green. Kowalski shuddered. This person hardly seemed to match what she'd read in the briefing notes. She looked so harmless, like a child, almost.
The prisoner had been deprived of food and water for twelve hours, and had been in solitary confinement for even longer. The first contact she had with another human being was critical. Kowalski had to catch her subject in just the right state, work her over until she weakened and eventually broke. She'd seen people react different ways to solitary, especially with no meals to mark the time. Some screamed and slammed themselves into the walls repeatedly and some started outright hallucinating. Restless pacing wasn't unusual, but it was more a sign of boredom than of mental vulnerability. Still, it would have to make do.
The walk to cell eight seemed to take a year. Kowalski dragged her feet, postponing the inevitable.
She paused at the door of the cell, shifting the gallon of water to her left hand so she could punch in the code. 5263-1552. The alarm buzzed, a horrible sound that grated against her ears. She shoved the heavy metal door open and stepped inside, trying not to let it slam behind her. Her efforts failed, and she winced. Damn.
The prisoner was backed into a corner, eyes wild and desperate, looking for all the world like a frightened mouse. Kowalski sighed and steeled herself.
"Sit," she ordered, putting the water and cloth down and indicating the chair. Trembling, the woman rose to her feet, took a few shaky steps to the middle of the room, and sat down. Kowalski pulled out her handcuffs and shackled the woman's arms to the sides of the chair and her ankles to the legs, making the cuffs just a bit too tight, and stood in front of the chair, back straight, feet hip width apart. The prisoner was breathing deeply and carefully, and out of curiosity Kowalski counted off the seconds. In for four seconds, hold for four, out for another four, then hold for four more before inhaling again. Breathing in squares. It was a favorite calming technique of hers, as well. That was only going to make this harder.
"I'm Agent Kowalski," she began, a small, rather naïve part of her hoping the woman would offer her name in return. She said nothing, and a brief, tense silence hung over the room. Then Kowalski continued, pacing back and forth in a vaguely predatory manner. "And you're going to tell me everything you know. I need the names of your contacts, the locations of safe houses, any codes you use, and what your mission was when we apprehended you."
The woman didn't respond. No taunts, no threats, no smart remarks. She simply continued her square breathing with a look of forced relaxation on her face. It was smart of her, Kowalski thought. Any kind of talking while being interrogated was ill-advised, especially in the face of such direct intimidation tactics.
"You know why you're here," Kowalski said firmly. "You know about us. You know what I'm authorized to do to get you to talk. And you will talk. We can either do this the easy way or the hard way, and just between the two of us, I'd rather it be the easy way. The hard way requires a lot more paperwork."
Again, silence. Her intimidation tactics were failing miserably. Kowalski resisted the urge to bite the inside of her cheek, a nervous gesture she'd been trying to suppress lately. She pressed on, hoping that if she pushed hard enough, the woman's instinct for self-preservation would kick in. Everyone broke eventually. You just had to find the right pressure point.
"You're not getting out of this. Even if I don't get anything out of you today—which is highly doubtful—I'll be back tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. There will be no end; do you understand me? No. End." She wished she had a table to slam to make her point. "So tell me, when was your last contact with the Crescent Moon?" Kowalski prayed the woman would answer. If she could just get her subject to reveal something small, create a leak in the dam, the floodgates would open and she'd have all the information she needed, sparing them both what she'd have to do next.
She circled the chair, walking around behind the woman, who didn't even try to maintain line of sight. But Kowalski noticed that her prisoner had abandoned the square breathing. She checked the woman's neck and saw the carotid artery pulsing rapidly. Good. Nervous prisoners were talkative prisoners. Kowalski stayed silent for thirty seconds, a minute, two, letting the woman's fear build. If she could just unbalance her subject a little, it would be enough. But the prisoner never broke her silence.
Kowalski kept trying. She threatened, reasoned, cajoled, but the prisoner said nothing. After another half hour with no progress, Kowalski realized that she would need more than words to break through this woman's calm exterior. Damn. Double damn. And she was so young, so innocent-looking; she didn't deserve what was about to happen … Kowalski hit the emergency brake on that train of thought. Her job required her to harden her heart, and compassion was a luxury she could only afford in small doses on special occasions.
"Don't make me do this," the agent said, speaking as much from the heart as from interrogation tactics. "Believe me, it's the last thing I want, but I'll do it if I have to." No response.
Feeling sick to her stomach, Kowalski undid the cuffs that held the young woman's wrists immobile and refastened them to rings in the floor near the wall, then switched the cuffs on her ankles, positioning her on her back. The prisoner was stretched out with her arms above her head, struggling weakly, but Kowalski had allowed her very little freedom of movement. The woman's expression was one of pure fear. She would break, Kowalski was certain of it.
"One last chance," Kowalski told her. She could see the woman's jaw clenching as she fought not to say anything. Kowalski pressed her, hoping against hope that simply being chained to the floor would be enough to get her talking. "You know what comes next. I don't want to do this any more than you do. Just a few names, that's it. No harm in names, right?"
Steadfastly, the woman shook her head. Kowalski felt even sicker. She hated doing this. Other interrogators tried to justify it, using every excuse from "I'm just doing my job" to "They deserve it." She found it deplorable. She was a monster, pure and simple. There was no excuse, no justification, for how she made her living.
Kowalski walked to the corner of the room where she'd set the water and cloth, soaked the cloth, and placed it over her captive's face with a few practiced motions. Biting the inside of her cheek so hard she tasted blood, she picked up the jug and began to pour. The water hit the woman's respiratory passages, and she struggled desperately as she realized what was happening. She shook her head in a vain attempt to throw the cloth off, twisting and straining as much as her restraints allowed. Kowalski used her knee to keep the woman's head in place and put a hand on her chest to hold her down, feeling the prisoner's heart beating frantically beneath her palm.
Of course, the woman couldn't actually drown, but the small stream of water filling her respiratory passages was enough to trigger the gag reflexes. Essentially, it was the same thing. And in way, the simulated drowning was worse than actual drowning, because there was no end. A person drowning in the ocean will lose consciousness within three minutes. The slip of a woman struggling beneath Kowalski's hands would have no such mercy.
After counting thirty seconds, Kowalski stopped pouring and let the woman take two breaths. She coughed and spluttered, then gasped, desperately sucking in air, and Kowalski made a mental note to keep an eye out for laryngospasm and pulmonary edema. After checking skin color and respiration, she began to pour again. The prisoner's struggling grew more frantic, and the next time Kowalski paused she loosened the handcuffs a notch. It didn't help. She was rubbing her wrists raw. At least her socks protected her ankles. Thank heaven for small favors, the agent thought sarcastically.
After another four minutes of pouring and stopping, she realized she wasn't going to get anything from her subject, not today, at least. Cracking this one would take a few sessions, and require Kowalski to damn herself even further, but the prisoner would break, spill her secrets, tell them everything. They always did.
Kowalski let up after another few seconds, pulling the cloth off the woman's face. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused, and aside from a lot of coughing, she did not react. Kowalski rubbed her shoulder a few times, trying to bring her back, but it did no good. She was off somewhere else, in that place where prisoners went when it all became too much. Cursing, Kowalski undid the cuffs, wincing when she saw the woman's bloody wrists. As soon as the cuffs were off, the woman scurried to the corner of the cell with the mattress in it and curled up, hands clutching her thin blond hair. Moving slowly, as though approaching a wounded animal, Kowalski walked over to her, hoping to keep her from shutting down completely.
"It's okay," she whispered, kneeling down in front of the woman. She looked even younger and more vulnerable than she had before, wet hair plastered to her chalk-white face. "It's over; it's over." Cautiously, she reached out a hand, palm up. "Come on; don't do this. Stay with me." The woman only curled up tighter, and Kowalski heard a ragged sob escape her throat. "It's over," the agent repeated, knowing full well the futility of her words.
She finally succeeded in getting the woman to look up. Her eyes were glassy, displaying the classic thousand-yard stare. Kowalski reached out a hand and touched her shoulder, and the prisoner shuddered violently at the touch. Her skin was cold; Kowalski could feel it even through her shirt. Her face was gray, and there was a slight wheeze every time she inhaled. Her face was blank, lifeless. Kowalski had seen it before, in prisoners whose interrogators—torturers—had gone too far. Dissolution, they called it. Not for the first time, she wondered what was going on in the mind of someone who'd dissolved. Then her stomach clenched with guilt as she realized that she was the cause of this woman's breakdown.
No matter. She and guilt were old friends.
"I'm going to ask them to bring you some wa—something to drink," she told the woman. Then she rose to her feet. The best thing she could do right now was leave. Chest aching, she got up and exited the cell, guilt and shame gnawing through her gut. It had taken her under an hour to destroy a person's mind, possibly irreversibly.
On her way out of the detention block, she stopped by the security office, as was her custom. Carlisle was waiting for her.
"How'd it go, Drea?" he asked.
"Bucket," she said, through clenched teeth.
"That bad, huh."
"I said bucket," she growled. Carl knew the drill; he passed Kowalski a spare trash can from under his desk and politely turned his back while she threw up.
"You know, you really shouldn't eat so much before an interrogation," he told her when she was done.
"I know, but Hartley sprang this one on me, after lunch."
"Awfully inconsiderate," he remarked, passing her a cup of water and some minty gum.
"I'll say. Look, the prisoner in cell eight, would you check her breathing every so often? And give her some night-night juice and a blanket."
"Sure, coming up." He reached under his desk and pulled out a thick polyester blanket and a bottle of drugged water. Then he spoke again. "Look, Drea, I don't mean any offense or nothing, but if this gets under your skin so bad you have to throw up after every interrogation, why don't you just quit?"
Kowalski didn't give him an answer. She had none.