The Cutter and the Snake
Being a transcript of the confession of Pierre de la Tour
They called him The Cutter for a reason. They were bad times, and many terrible things were happening. There was murder and torture and shootings and I seen many things, but I'd heard about him before I seen him.
We had a prisoner – politico he was. Revolutionary – but then, wasn't everyone? It was the buzz-word: everyone wanted another revolution, as though that excused anything. You'd know his name though, this one – famous he was for a time, so when they caught him it was big news. He was a bit of an 'anti-hero' I think they call them: bit of a celebrity. They said he could break out of anywhere: had done many times, so many in fact the press nicknamed him the Snake. Crowds at the palace when he was tried. He was popular, so the government hated him.
'I shall gain my freedom!' he shouted from the dock, 'No prison's walls can unjustly hold me!' and all that stuff. The crowd loved it - some even cheered. Soldiers put a stop to it but that only made people cheer more. Very fickle things, people, in my experience.
Anyway, so this 'Snake' bloke arrives with us a week later. Word had got out and we had a crowd. I hate crowds: always making a noise, asking questions. 'When's he coming,' 'can we have a look', or better, 'can we have a kick'. I don't often get a visit from the top brass but not only the Attendant but the Captain and his boss – the High Commissioner, I think – big guy in a fancy hat – they all came and sat me down and asked how secure we were. I told 'em: nowhere more secure on this earth your honour, I said. I'm very respectful, always have been. Loyal too.
How secure, they said? Well I showed 'em, as I can you if you like? Secure as if he's inside the earth, for that's what my jail is, sirs – a cavern, dug down into the earth, hewn out of solid rock. Granite, I'm told, though I know little of such matters. But I do know about holding people secure. There's no one ever, ever escaped from my jail, sirs. There's only one way in, and only one way out, and I police it twenty hours a day. The other four it's shut fast and I have the one set of keys – simple as that. Every visitor has to be identified three times on the way in and three times on the way out. My staff are hand-picked by me – I pay well and most have worked with me for many years. And in turn the government pay me well per prisoner – it's a suitable arrangement.
When he arrived he was smaller than what I expected: you imagine these so-called freedom fighters to be bigger than you but he was no more than five-foot three and slim with it. I laughed: 'you couldn't fight my gran!'
'I would not wish to,' he says all smug –like, then adds: 'Mark my words: I shall be free within one month.'
'You won't,' I says. 'Only one way in, one way out. No tunnels, no windows, no secret passages.' We test for 'em, you know – using smoke. I'm quite proud of that. You can see drafts. 'You ain't going nowhere without my say-so, pal,' I said. You need to let 'em know who's boss. And it's unfair to let them have delusions, poor things!
No human contact, they'd said, and the ultimate restraint. I told 'em: no need, he's not going anywhere, but they insisted on maximum precautions. If it'd got out! But they pays so we put him in cell ten. I need to tell you we have fifteen 'rooms' for our guests on three levels, each lower than the last. One staircase, one gallery. All rooms have one metal door and no windows. Each door has two small holes with metal bars and a flap to push food through on the ground. There's a hole in the corner for ablutions: only six-inches across with sharpened metal bars across at intervals of 12 inches down the shaft. Empties into a cess pit, another six-inch ventilation flue to the outside. Try escaping through that and you'd end up as sausages! Or else the gas would kill you.
So we installs him in the bottom-most cell, and we chains him up – hands and feet. It's damp down there, the floors are wet most of the time and you can constantly here the dripping: drives some of 'em mad just listening to it.
'How longs he in for?' I'd asked. Well, I got a mouthful in return. Depends on whether he talks, they says. So then I knew, see – I knew we'd be seein' some fun. I like a bit torture, I mean, who doesn't?
The Cutter arrived the very next day. Now he was a different kettle of onions he was. Tall, gaunt: face like a skeleton. Sent a shiver even to me. Didn't like him from the off, though of course I knew what he did for a living.
'We need information,' they'd said. 'No problem,' said I – I have a couple of contacts who are experts at all modern methods.
'No, we want the best – we need information quickly,' they said, so they bring in this bloke nick-named The Cutter. Nasty piece of work from all accounts. Carries his own tools, like a medical man, which maybe he was. But one gone wrong: they say he doesn't get paid, does it for the pleasure of it. And that he laughs when he works.
Anyway, first day this big black carriage pulls up right outside the doors. The guards have a heart attack, thinking it's an attack of another sort! Surround it ready to shoot – all twenty-one of them (I told you no one could get in or out). The curtains are drawn across the windows so we can't see in, but then a door opens and this bag appears – large, brown leather. And you know what? I swear smoke was coming off it. Bomb! someone calls but then another hand appears and out steps this bloke, cool as you like, straightens his coat, puts this wide brimmed blue hat on his head and smiles the horriblist smile I ever seen – ergh, makes me shudder that does.
'I'm here to see _,' and he says the name instead of The Snake cos that's his revolutionary name and the powers that be don't like it – makes him appealing to the gullible populace, they say (I remember that from a paper someone read to me). And he marches up to the door. I don't open it – I'm not stupid.
'And who are you?' I says – even if it is him, it may be the Powers That Be testing me again. 'Papers?' I say, and he hands them over. It's him alright. I'd even taken the precaution of having not one but two gentlemen on hand who recognise this Cutter and can attest to his identity. I want no come-backs: I'm a professional.
'Okay,' I say and Leopold opens the outer gate. It takes time, but eventually The Cutter strides into the outer yard – twenty-feet square, overlooked by another five armed guards. Here we insist on searching him and, impatient though he obviously is to get started, he obliges.
'And the bag?' I say, indicating his large brown valise.
'Contains the tools of my trade,' he replies, all snooty.
'As torturer?' says Leopold in awe. Easily impressed is Leopold.
'As an artiste,' replies the gentleman. I have to say, he's a cut above any of the fellows of the same trade I know. Rough, most of 'em – well you have to be. But he was different, I'll give him that. 'Open it if you must,' says he with what I would call disinterest, 'but DON'T touch anything inside!'
Leo opens it and dear God! It's a full of metal-work and bottles and leather straps like you never seen, all neatly arranged. And the metal on the knives and the pincers gleams. And in the bottom is a burner and these great round tubs of hot-tar It is the most terrible and most beautiful thing I've ever seen.
'May I?' he says, closing it up and carrying it to the next door.
I let him through the next set of doors – into the atrium as I call it. It's just me and him now, that's how I maintain security. One set of keys, on my belt at all times. Once we're inside no one else can follow.
'He's in ten,' I say by way of conversation, 'Right down the bottom of these stairs. He's manacled to the far wall so I can always see him from the door.'
'And he's never released?' he asks, as we descend the damp stairs.
'The chain reaches to the lavatory, the food we push through the hatch, along the floor with a very long pole.'
'Ingenious,' says the visitor – this "Cutter". 'So they have no human contact at all?'
'Yes,' I say proudly.
'Very good. I shall report back favourably. Now,' he announces, 'I need to go in if you'd be so kind?'
'Of course,' I says and unlock the door. I'm always watching you see, always on the alert. It's the lazy and the complacent ones who lose prisoners, lose their livelihoods, and worse. But not me. I'm a professional – I take pride in my work, and I think Cutter as a fellow professional could see that.
'You may retire,' he says to me and I think my face showed the disappointment. I'd really been looking forward to this – I fancied branching out, see? If I could offer an all-in service, incarceration AND torture, 'information extraction' I think they call it: then I'd get even more business. My name would be famous!
'No,' he says, flicking his hand at me dismissively and turning into the cell. 'Lock the door behind you.' As if I would dream of anything else! I am many things but stupid is not one of them, sirs.
'Who are you?' I heard the prisoner – Snake - ask, still with those airs about him.
'I'm here to help, _,' replied The Cutter in sickly-sweet tones as if he was a friend, again using his first name. 'But you need to help me too…'
I saw a glint of metal and there was a scream: that was the first cut, the first of many. Another scream. The Snake shouted something in defiance but I saw no more as Cutter took a very low stool from his bag and placed it beside the prisoner so I couldn't see. There was a shout from the outer office and had to leave them to it. As I walked away there were more screams – good, loud ones - and I smiled: I love seein' people doin' what they're good at, don't you?
Later I slipped back to listen: I didn't know what information they wanted, I had a sudden thought it may be dangerous, useful. I wasn't going to repeat none of it! Anyway I could make out very little. There were shouts an' screams – he wasn't so arrogant now, was 'e? I stole a glance through the viewing hatch: that Cutter bloke looked hard at work. Beneath the stool ran a stream of blood, down the sloping floor towards me. I was standing in a puddle of The Snake's blood.
Two hours passed before a banging on the door announced he'd finished.
'Did you get what you wanted?' I asked as he hurried out. He looked at me strangely before smiling that awful grin.
'In part,' he said. 'But I shall need more. I shall be back tomorrow. Do not visit him, under pain of death. He must speak only with me, do you understand?' I did. 'Good,' and as I opened the final, outer door he almost ran to his waiting carriage which in turn sped off into the twilight.
Cutter came daily for a week. Each time was the same: he set up his stool, sat beside his 'patient', then went to work with his knives and his wires and his 'spreaders' as he called them. He heated a small burner from a little gas tank and the screams of agony were joyous. I desperately wanted to see the damage he'd inflicted, especially on the fourth day when he seemed to be applying his methods to the man's groin. I tried to angle myself to see what was goin' on without alerting Cutter. There was blood – it spurted at one point with a howl of pain from the revolutionary! But I'm not squeamish, you see. A body's a body, and when you've seen them split, burst an' gouged like I have then nothing shocks you. And when it's done to people who deserve it, what more can you say? But I have to say I was intrigued by Cutter. The amount of pain he could inflict without killing: that was the art, that was the – and I use the word advisedly – the genius of the man.
They said he'd been a medical man, but that he'd killed patients and been found out. He'd carried out experiments – ones close to the limit of what was right, what was – what's the word? – ethical? And then he'd gone down the path of torturer, professional blade for hire: I suppose it takes some people time to discover their real vocation in life.
They said he had fifty blades and each gave a different reaction. Single and paired; straight-edged, curved and serrated. Some he heated, some he froze. He had skewers, wires which he would sew through the cheeks and… I need a glass of water, may I?
I went down to The Snake's cell on that fourth day and pushed his food across the floor. I stood looking at this limp figure lying – that was all he could do now – like a rag doll against the far wall. He saw me, raised a hand weakly.
'Why don't you just tell him what he wants to know?' I asked. I was truly curious: I admired the way he held out, but what cause could possibly be worth this?
'I'll be out… in a week,' he managed before his head collapsed to the floor.
More followed, and after another three days he couldn't speak. The cell floor was now awash with blood. His screams were weaker, more pitiful.
'Tell me! Tell me!'Cutter was now shouting.
On his way out on the tenth day I asked him how much longer, meaning how much longer could the man survive.
'Two pieces of the jigsaw only do I need – we are very close to having all that we require.' And then he turned to face me, something I realised he hadn't done up 'til then. He was taller than I, and he looked down at me with these intense, black eyes that seemed to see inside my head. 'He must not die before I return, do you hear? If he does…I shall practice on you next,' he said before turning and striding out to his waiting carriage, which then sped off as it had every evening before.
The Cutter must be a man in demand, I thought, or needs to be somewhere in a hurry. A shame, I thought. Part of me wanted to know more about him, this professional whose status and standing I could only admire. I wanted to drink port with this man and understand how he honed his skills, kept his nerve. Was I at fault for having aspirations?
That last night I stared at the huddle of blood-stained blankets and willed him not to die. I was convinced that at that stage, that final moment he would cough his last as I watched; that he'd spite me by expiring, denying me not only my pay but possibly my life. I was taken with a sudden certainty that he'd been waiting, waiting til' I was watching to do this heinous act against me! Hysterical, I know, but that was how acute my fear – for that is what it was - had become.
I pushed his food across the bloody stone floor. He had his back to me.
'Hey!' I cried, 'wake up!' No response, no movement. He was dead! And then an even worse thought struck me. The solid rock walls, the thick metal doors, the locks and the manacles…they all disappeared an' in my imagination I mind saw just a huddle of empty blankets on the floor! Mindless of the unlocked door behind me I entered the cell and ran over to the bundle and took it by the shoulder.
There was a weak gasp for breath, his eyes opened. He was there, and he was alive!
'Thank God!' I cried and despite me I hugged him. He winced in pain and I felt no strength in his arms or his legs. He was emaciated and weighed next to nothing and suddenly I felt something I did not expect: pity; pity for this tiny, wasted being. The blankets covered him and despite my earlier curiosity I was now glad, glad I did not have to look upon the terrible wounds. His shoulders had huge cuts that were seared shut, partially stitched: what in hell had the man done to him? The face was scarred and burned, his eyes stared up at me with an 'opeless look.
'Not…your…fault,' he said and for some reason his words dug into me, like. Then he says again: 'Free soon,' he said, obviously aware he didn't have much longer. So much for being out inside a month, I thought. I hesitated as I locked up, turned back to see him – saw him move as I closed the door. There'd be no escape for the so-called Snake this time
'Eat,' I said and you know what? I fed him – I spoon-fed him, not because The Cutter had told me to, but because he was a fellow human being.
The Cutter came at three that afternoon: he usually worked 'til evening. He arrogantly strode through the outer areas with that large brown bag of his and I imagined the horrors within. I remembered the prisoner's wounds and part of me actually wanted to stop him. But I didn't: I knew then that that would be the final day: he couldn't possibly last any longer.
'Today we hear him confess!' he crowed as he walked, 'today we hear the conspiracy, the names of all the traitors!' and on we went.
'_ _,' he said Snake's real name in full this time. 'Are you ready for your final confession?' he announced loudly as he entered the cell, 'are you ready to confess?' And again I was taken with the certainly that despite all the many precautions and impossibilities our prisoner had escaped. But the poor man's head moved – slowly, but definitely – and I saw his eyes, eyes in which the light had finally gone out. 'You may withdraw,' said The Cutter and I did.
I sat at my desk watching the doorway, clinging to the belief that I was doing a job my country needed me to do, and that I was doing it well. I made myself busy with paperwork as the last screams came, weaker but no less terrible than the first. I poured a brandy, prepared to drink a toast to the Cutter's success, but when he finally came out he was in even more of a hurry than usual.
'Quickly, quickly!' he shouted, 'It is done – he is gone!' and almost ran through the ante-chambers to the courtyard and out to his carriage.
'But I had a drink ready!' I began, chasing after him, 'I thought we might…'
'Drink them both yourself,' he answered from the coach window, 'for tonight we have witnessed history! Farewell!' And with a shout to the coachman and a rattle of hooves they were off in a cloud of dust.
I hesitated, puzzled by his final words: history, he'd said. I hurried back inside, slammed the glasses down onto my desk. I drew out my keys and went back to cell ten. Sure enough the bloodied bundle of rags was where it had been, but the body they had covered was now naked. The hands and feet were still manacled to chains, the painfully thin body and head were hunched and one glance was all it took to see that no breath of life remained in either. The skin was pale blue and great, leaking wounds marked the boundaries between limbs, head, upper torso; each part was stitched to the next like nothing more than a rag doll resembled. And part of me – a small part - was sad. But sad for the death, or sad that I'd be able to watch that brilliant wield his skilful scalpel no longer I honestly could not tell.
What I can tell you though, sirs, is that when I looked down and beheld the face, and when I realised it was the face not of the prisoner but that of another man, a man wholly unknown to me: then sirs I have to tell you that something leapt inside me. It is the same feeling I get whenever I now hear tales of that same, woefully scarred revolutionary, The Snake, alive, fully re-assembled and abroad in this great land of ours.
And for that feeling, sirs, I cannot account.