Outside the Door
Outside the door, Paul thought it was harder. He had not been
inside yet, so his conclusion was pretty much academic. In such
situations, however, conclusions must be drawn. Otherwise there
is no firm ground on which to stand.
One must have firm ground on which to stand, Paul had decided.
Freefall is tenable only when Hollywood special effects prevent
the impact from killing somebody.
There were no special effects here.
Paul was in a room with cabinets on the wall, a book shelf, a
sink and a towel on a hook above it, a desk and three wooden
chairs. There were no windows. On the desk were a pliers, a
hammer, a telephone book, obsolete tools of the trade but
sufficient triggers to communicate clearly to the ones in the
chair what was coming, what would be their fate, what they must
endure if they did not help us out.
A scream that the door barely muffled made the hair on Paul's
neck stand up. That was not a myth, then, not a fictional device.
It was something primordial, the contagion of terror that must
spread quickly through the tribe in the face of threats that
elicit such shrieks. Paul felt his heart race and perspiration
broke out on his face, his chest, his hands. It was flight or
fight but no one was there to hit, there was nowhere to go.
He wiped his face with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. The
sweatshirt said I ♥ New York. No uniforms in
either room, no labels. Just ironic commentary stitched in red on
The next scream provoked less response. He was becoming
habituated, perhaps, he told himself. Soon it would be
Paul heard faint whimpering through the wooden door. He could not
hear the voices of his colleagues which were conversational in
volume and tone. Only Menudo ever raised his voice, but Menudo
was in Bangkok. Frank, Perry Mirsky, Johnny and Carl were in
there, attempting to elicit actionable intelligence in order to
save lives and advance the Möbius strip-like interface of
the battlespace a few inches.
They all talk, sooner or later. You too will talk, Paul had been
told during training. This is why we limit what you know. You
will know only what is necessary for you to carry out your task,
and you will tell them everything, everything about it, so don't
pretend that you are not flesh or heir to whatever flesh is heir
to including doing anything it can to stop the tearing, the
burning, the squeezing, the shocks.
The burning was the worst, interrogators told him, because
afterward, every time you walked past a steakhouse or backyard
barbecue, something you loved to eat had become an emetic. Smell
is the most intense, they said; the species can not afford to
make mistakes with poisons, so imprinting is indelible. Better to
miss meals by mistake than eat one piece of meat that is guilty
Whatever threatens us is a sin. Whatever degrades the ability of
the enemy to threaten us is a virtue. The enemy is identifiable.
So are we. Theology on this side of the door, congruent with the
ancient wisdom of the early Hebrew scriptures, is as easy to
believe as it is to formulate as theory.
An unexpected scream pierced the door and caught him off guard.
In spite of himself, he trembled, his hands trembled for a
moment, and Paul was glad that no one was there to see it.
He realized that standing was making him tense. He sat in one of
the wooden chairs and put his booted feet up on another. He
closed his eyes and crossed his arms and held himself tightly and
breathed deeply until the trembling diminished.
The door opened and Paul opened his eyes.
"Hey!" said Johnny Younger, closing the door behind him. He went
over to a sink and washed blood from his hands and dried them on
the towel on a hook. There was a spatter of blood on his
shirtsleeves and the front of his shirt. "This one thinks he's
pretty tough." he laughed. "Maybe he just enjoys it. Ya'think?"
Paul laughed woodenly and shrugged. "I don't know who's in
"What's it matter? One's another. You know we don't use names, we
use numbers, short ones like seven oh four. This one is six
thirty two. Frank keeps calling him six for short which still
gets a laugh. Except from six."
Paul removed his feet from the chair and leaned forward.
"Are you getting anywhere?"
Johnny shrugged. "Sure, I guess. Cutting through the bullshit,
getting it into his head that nothing he can do or say can stop
"Who else is in there, again?"
"Frank, Perry Mirsky, Carl, is all. Carl said this one's his two
hundredth. He ought to get some kind of trophy, ya'think?"
"Damn. He's been here that long."
"No not that long. He's good so they use him a lot. He's had no
more than one or two oops deaths. Well, maybe three
maybe four. They don't slip out of the room until he's through."
"He must know what he's doing."
"Oh yeah. He's been all over. He worked with the Uzbeks in
Bosnia." Johnny laughed. "You know what he says about the Uzbeks?
He says it was a novelty to them to be told that one intention of
interrogation might be to elicit information." Johnny laughed a
high-pitched laugh. "They thought it was a sport."
"Yeah. You hear some weird shit doing this sort of work."
"So that's where Carl was before? Europe?"
"I guess. He's been all over. He's worked with partners in
Argentina, little countries here and there, Israel, some
Africans, even China."
"He was classified officially as an observer. While they
interrogated Falun Gong."
"Did he learn anything? Have they improved on what we're doing?"
"No, not really. A body's a body. Nerves are nerves. You read the
manual. Human is human."
Paul watched his colleague look around the sparsely furnished
room for a moment, then sit on one of the empty chairs.
"You getting anxious for a turn?" Johnny said.
Paul turned in his chair, facing a different windowless wall.
"No, not exactly, but I think I'm ready. I read that book again
last night "
"The Face of Evil?" Johnny smiled. The one with the
pictures and descriptions of what these guys have been doing to
"Yeah, that one." He flashed on hundreds of faces of friends,
colleagues, beloved members of families, arranged in rows like
mug shots, their faces in death unable to convey the horror of
their dying. That was left to the words. "It makes you think."
"Yeah, it does. Think what it takes to be here in the trenches."
A long drawn-out scream was followed by a keening wail and a
torrent of words they couldn't understand. Johnny said, "Perry
Mirsky knows what it means. He's really good at languages."
The other door, the door to the hallway, opened and a colonel
came in. They had seen him around the base but hadn't met. The
colonel carried two hoods like ski masks without eyes which he
tossed onto the table.
"You might need these later on," he said. "Today, tomorrow maybe,
they have some women."
"Thanks, Colonel," Johnny said with a hint of a salute. Things
got pretty informal down here. "Especially if our new boy here
takes a turn."
The colonel closed the door softly behind him as he left.
Johnny looked at Paul looking at the hoods. "You know for what,
Paul said, "To cover the faces."
Johnny laughed, "Yeah, sure, but especially the eyes. Sometimes
when you see their eyes, they can manipulate you, looking the way
they do. It's easier to blot it out. So you can focus on the
"The noise doesn't get to you?"
"No, not like eyes. Or smells. Smells sink in somehow. "
A muffle of voices came through the door, some speaking English.
"They're talking to him now," Paul said, not really giving Johnny
"Yep. About time, too."
They sat in mutual silence listening to occasional noises coming
through the door.
"So how long you got?" Paul said.
"What, until I go home?"
"Shit," Johnny scowled. "I don't even think about that. Do you?
Is that what you think about, sitting here?"
Paul backed away quickly from disapproval. "No, not often. Once
in a while."
"You don't want to think about that," Johnny said. "Just stay
focused on why we have to be here, what we have to do. We're
protecting the sheep. We're the dogs keeping the wolves away. You
think they want to see what a wolf looks like after a dog has
torn out its throat?"
"I wasn't thinking of that," Paul said. "That's something else."
"That's right. Don't forget it."
"No." Johnny shook his head. "I know. I won't."
The door opened. Carl looked out but did not come into the room.
"Break's over, pussy willow," he said with a grin. "He's getting
to where you can do some of your magic."
Johnny smiled and rose from the chair. Keeping the door open so
long allowed the odor of excrement into the room.
"Jesus, close the fucking door," Paul said. "I haven't got
anything in my nose."
Carl and Johnny laughed. "Stay cool, grasshopper," Carl said.
Johnny went into the room after Carl and they shut the door.
Paul tried to put his feet up again but couldn't sit still. He
stood and walked around the room, looking at the cabinets
containing tools, clothing and towels, a shelf on which were a
few books to read while waiting. Someone always had to be outside
the door, just in case. This week it was Paul's turn. Then he
would move on.
He wasn't hearing anything now, just his own breathing and the
noises he made. That was all right, really, it let him think
about other things. One thought or image linked to another. After
half an hour of relative quiet, he became bored and chose one of
the paperbacks – any one, whatever it was – and read
the words without allowing them to tell much of a story or mean
much of anything, really. Still, it was something to do while he
by Richard Thieme
... who is a professional author of books, stories, and articles,
which are indexed at Thieme
Works online. His Richard Thieme's Islands in the
Clickstream (July 2004) is a collection of past works, while
"Entering Sacred Digital Space", New Paradigms for Bible
Study: The Bible in the Third Millennium (June 2004) and
"Identity / Destiny", Prophecy Anthology (vol 1, 2004)
were anthologized. His "The Changing Context of Intelligence and
Ethics: Enabling Technologies as Transformational Engines"
appeared in Defense Intelligence Journal
(January 2007). His stories have been published in Analog
Science Fiction, The Puckerbrush
Review, Timber Creek Review,
Porcupine, Pacific Coast
Journal, The Potomac Review,
Red Wheelbarrow, Heartlands,
The Circle Magazine, The Listening
Ear, Words on Walls, Nth
Degree, Down in the Dirt,
Golf, Rogue, and elsewhere. His
articles have been published in Forbes,
Salon, Information Security,
Secure Business Quarterly, Village
Voice, Wired, Counter
Punch, Common Dreams, Internet
Underground, National Catholic
Reporter, Asia Times Online,
The Witness, and elsewhere. This short story has
been excerpted from The Room, a forthcoming book.