I was right about the guys in black.
I have been dragged into a lot of cells in my time, from backcountry lockups to maximum‐security prisons. So when I say these guys knew what they were doing, you can take my word for it. There’s a number of tells an amateur might show that can give you a chance. Like, if they’re needlessly cruel or kind of sloppy, or if they talk a lot or try to show you how tough they are. Just little things, but they leave a lot of holes for somebody like me to crawl through. Maybe you wouldn’t see it, but to me they’re definite signs. When the guy holding the gun shows you one of these, it means he’s not a pro, and you have a chance.
These guys didn’t show any of the tells. They didn’t say or do anything they didn’t have to do to get the job done. They moved efficiently, on the balls of their feet, eyes on everything at the same time. When they spoke at all, it was terse orders in French. There didn’t seem to be any point in pretending I didn’t understand them. I did what they said.
They pulled me off the dock as a couple of other guys in black unloaded the big crates from the boat. Frenchy stood on the bridge and worked the crane from a set of controls, beside the wheel swinging the crates up and onto the dock. Before the first crate made it onto the pier, I was steered into a dimly lit passage carved out of the rock of the is‐ land. The walls were smooth and unpainted and radiated the kind of permanent coolness you feel from cave walls. We went down a long, circular stairway, maybe as far as forty feet down. It dumped us out into another hallway, the twin of the one we’d taken from the pier. After walking along this passage for a couple of minutes, we took a right‐hand passage, and we were in a short hallway. It had six steel doors, three on each side, set into rock walls. The doors had small, high‐set windows, covered by thick steel grills. Below that was a slot just big enough for a food tray.
I knew the look. Maximum‐security lockup.
I was pretty sure we’d gotten to my new ’ome.
One of the men in black opened the last door down on the left. They led me through and into a small cell. I’d seen worse, but only in comic books. The room was about eight feet by eight feet, bare stone walls, bare stone floor and ceiling. One dim light hung from the ceiling inside a steel‐mesh cage. Opposite the door there was a shelf carved out of the stone. It was just big enough to lie down on. Just so I didn’t have to figure it out by myself, there was a thin blanket folded on the foot of the “bed.” And hanging from the wall above it there were two chains. On the floor below were two more. I didn’t have to guess what they were for.
In two minutes my hands and feet were locked into the chains and I was sitting on the stone bed.
That’s pretty much all I did for a truly long‐ass time. I think it had to be three days, but it’s impossible to be sure. The one light in the ceiling never flickered. It was always the same dim no‐time in the cell. There were no sounds, no smells, nothing. Six times the door opened and two guards came in. They stood at either side of the door, weapons at the ready, while a third guard dropped a tray on the floor where I could just reach it if I stretched out all the way. Then they left.
Each tray held a bottle of water and a paper plate. On the plate it was always the same—a gray‐green glop that looked like something they’d scraped off the walls. I ate it anyway. It wasn’t awful. I mean, compared to eating dog shit or rotten squid it was sort of tasty. But I figured they weren’t planning to kill me with the food, so I had to stay alive and as healthy as I could, just in case. I ate it all.
So like I said, I was pretty sure it was three days. I knew the whole arrangement was all set up to fuck with my head, make me unsure about time and everything else—steady dim light, no external sight or sound, all that. It’s a popular old‐time technique. Stick you in a cell with light always on, no way to tell if it’s night or day. They change the feeding intervals, keep you isolated from absolutely everything, and make you just sit there. There’s no way at all to tell how much time is going by, or anything else. Nobody to talk to, nothing to listen to, no way to move more than a few inches. After a while your brain short‐ circuits. Two minutes seems like an hour—or three hours can feel like a couple of minutes. Like I said, it fucks with your head. And if it goes on long enough you can even start to hallucinate.
I could take it. I’d been there before. My head has gotten pretty hard to fuck. And I actually started getting optimistic. The longer it went on, the more certain I got that they were softening me up for something. Sure, that probably meant something heinous was coming at me. But it also meant there was going to be some way out, even if it was tiny. There’s no reason to soften up somebody to kill them. You do it to get them to jump at some truly stupid, lethal idea that looks like a great way out when you’re softened enough. But if they really wanted me dead, I would be already.
So I stayed cool. I didn’t talk to myself, hallucinate angels, or flip a finger on my lips and go, buh-bee, buh-bee. I sat and waited. I was going to get through this. Somehow, some way, I was going to survive. They might make it hard, but I was used to that, and I always find a way.Somehow, some way, I was going to survive. They might make it hard, but I was used to that, and I always find a way.
I kept that thought with me all the time. I would make it. And as long as I was alive, there would be some way, somehow, some time, to get out of here. I hung on to that, and it kept me calm.
I mean, I’m not Batman. Nobody can keep focus 24/7. So there were plenty of times when I wondered if I was kidding myself. I didn’t really know that somebody wanted me alive for some reason. After all, I didn’t even know why I was here—or even where here was. I could be the Count of Monte Cristo, and I’d be out in a few days. But I might be the Man in the Iron Mask and I was here until I died. Why? Who knows? There could be some weird irrational reasons I couldn’t imagine. Maybe it was a cult and they were just keeping me until the full moon, and then they’d sacrifice me to a goat god or something.
And every now and then I thought about being forty or fifty feet below sea level, chained to a stone wall. Floods happen all the time. And it wouldn’t take much of a flood to put me plenty far enough underwater to drown. Or just as likely, think about the fact that I was guarded by a bunch of paramilitary dudes. The fact that they were here meant whoever was in charge had enemies. So what happens if the enemies invade this rock, kill all the guys in black? And they don’t know about me—why would they? So they kill everybody and go home, and now I’m left to slowly starve to death. Maybe the flood was better. At least drowning is quick.
I thought up lots of other really cool ways I might die, with lots of time to get the details right. So there was plenty to keep me entertained, in between fits of stupid optimism.
On what I figured was the third day, the optimism got a little stupider. And a whole lot harder to call up.
I had just finished a delightful, sumptuous meal of slimy green glop, accompanied by a full bottle of a superb vintage of water. I’d tossed the empty plate on the floor and settled back on my luxurious stone bed when I heard footsteps. The sound was different—like, the feet making them were smaller, lighter, and not wearing boots. I didn’t know what that meant, but it was different, so I figured I better pay attention.
I sat up. The door swung open. Slowly. And then a woman came in. She had blond hair that showed dark roots, and it was pulled back into a tight bun, like ballet dancers wear. She moved like a ballet dancer, too, and she had a body to match, except that there was a whole lot of muscle showing that looked more MMA than ballet. She stared at me like I was a piece of furniture, probably a worn footstool, and turned slowly, surveying the entire cell. That gave me a good opportunity to look again and check her out. She was no footstool. Her face had probably started out as beautiful as the rest of her. In profile, the right side was close to perfect. Classic high cheekbones, a cute little but‐ ton nose, and those dark green eyes. True beauty—on the right side. But the left side . . .
Once upon a time it had probably been just as perfect as the right side. But somebody had hacked the left side of her face with something big and sharp, probably a large knife. Just for the hell of it, they’d hacked a couple more times. Okay, maybe a whole bunch of times. That side of her face was a mess. It looked like a raised‐relief map of the Grand Tetons. It was dominated by a couple of parallel scars that looked like the cheek had fallen off and a drunk tailor had sewed it back on. Those two scars ran all the way down her cheek, from the eyebrow to the chin.
I would have felt sorry for her, until she turned her eyes back on me and just stared.
I’d been wondering why anyone would come here alone, way down in the dungeon with a dangerous thug like me. But then she came soundlessly across the stone floor to me and stood close. She looked right into my face, and I didn’t wonder anymore.
She put two green eyes on me that were colder than the bottom shelf of the deep freeze. Green eyes do not generally do cold very well. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but if you haven’t, take my word for it. Blue eyes can be North Pole cold, brown eyes can fry your ass, but green eyes are always warm, welcoming. Always.
Until this woman came along. These green eyes were way beyond what blue can do. Cold, but way past that; they were dead, but at the same time filled with something that looked like endless pain and a burning need to share it. She made me squirm, just by looking. I mean, I have stared down some hard cases. Most of the time it’s either you know what they’ll do and you’re ready, or you can see they’re not taking it any further than a stare‐down. With this woman, I stared back for fifteen seconds, and it opened up a deep, dark pit underneath me. I couldn’t tell what the fuck she might do, or why, but I knew it would be a small slice of hell.
And it wasn’t smart and it wasn’t something I planned, but I looked down real quick and stared at my feet. I could still feel her eyes on me, but she didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything. We did this for a really long minute. She still didn’t talk or do anything else. Just stood there. It was enough. She was scaring the shit out of me without doing a god‐ damned thing. Something seemed to come off her, maybe pheromones or something, I don’t know. All I know is I was more scared than I’d been for a truly long time. I told myself it was because I was chained to the wall, but it wasn’t. It was her.
It never entered my mind to try anything. I didn’t even want to look up at her. But I did. And when I did, she smiled. It was worse than the stare. If her eyes had been an invitation to Hell, the smile said never mind, Hell was right here already. It actually made my stomach turn over. And while I was still swallowing bile, she reached down, took my left hand, and held it in hers.
It was such a weird thing for her to do, I just let her, and gaped at her. She turned my hand over, looking at it like she was checking for fleas or something. And then she turned it palm down, grabbed my little finger, and locked those terrible green eyes on mine. She watched me like she was looking for something, nothing really amazing or important. Just more like she was going to turn over a stone and wondered what might come out. And while I was still trying to figure out which end was up, she gripped my little finger tighter—and pulled it savagely backward.
The world went dark. Somewhere in the distance I heard a snap‐ ping sound. Then a wave of pain crashed into me and I came back into my body just in time for it to take me over.
It hurt. I mean, a lot. It was so sudden and so painful that I couldn’t even scream. I just sort of squeaked and then, just barely in time, turned my head to the side and threw up, a big wet fountain of second‐ hand green goop.
She didn’t let go of my broken finger. She waited for me to stop barfing and turn back to her. Then her smile got a little wider and she pulled the finger even farther back, until I thought I was going to faint. She held it there for a minute, and then, just when I thought the lights would go out again, she let go. She took a step back, nodded like she’d just finished a minor chore, and turned away.
In the doorway she paused. She turned around and looked at me for a moment with the kind of smile you get from a cat standing over a half‐dead mouse. Then she turned and walked out of the cell with that same weird ballet‐dancer grace. And I was left sitting in a puddle of green puke, cradling a busted finger, and wondering what the fuck had just happened.
Another day went by, maybe a day and a half. It was hard to think about things like that, because the pain in my broken finger didn’t get any better. It swelled up, and it throbbed like an evil metronome. But you get used to that kind of thing. I mean, it hadn’t killed me, and it sort of confirmed that they were keeping me alive, softening me up for something.
So I kept breathing, which was usually a good idea. And like I said, it wasn’t too long before we moved on to the third act of Softening Riley. I was sitting on my bed, listening to my stomach growl and thinking it had to be time for a meal. And I was kind of looking forward to it. I know it sounds stupid, weird, considering what that meal was going to be, but it was the only thing I had to look forward to, and I did. I heard footsteps in the hall, nice heavy combat boots, for which I was grateful. Not just because it meant food but also because it meant that the Queen of Evil wasn’t coming for another finger.
I was wrong about both things.
The door opened, and the two guards took their stations beside the door. But this time the third guy didn’t bring in a tray. Instead, he carried in a chair and set it down, just out of reach of the farthest I could possibly stretch my chains. Then he went out. The other two guards stayed.
Nothing happened. I looked at the chair. It was very nice. If it was real, it was a Louis XVI and worth a couple of grand. It was probably something I was not supposed to put my ragged ass into. It was way too nice to stick in a stone cell with a reprehensible reprobate like me. Especially since there was no way I could stretch my ass far enough to sit in it. So I figured I was about to find out why I was here, straight from somebody important. Maybe Mr. Big himself. I wondered if I should brush my teeth.
I was right. Not about brushing my teeth; about Mr. Big. A couple of minutes after the chair ceremony, I heard feet in the hallway. Then two more guards came in and stood against the walls on either side of me. All four guards stood up straight, kind of at attention but still focused on me. No more than half a minute after that, my dear friend Our Lady of the Finger came through the door.
She glanced around the cell one more time, then turned to the guard on the right side of the door. She murmured something to him I couldn’t hear, and he practically fell over agreeing with her. The woman nodded and went out, and I went back to waiting. Compared to looking at the woman with the scar, it was a real vacation.
A couple of minutes after that, two more guards appeared in the hall and took position beside the door outside my cell. And then a man strolled into my room and sat in the very nice chair. Scarface came back in and stood behind him, hands behind her back.
He just looked at me for a couple of minutes, so I looked back. Maybe it was too soon for another stare‐down, after the nightmare I’d had with his girlfriend. But this guy was relaxed, smooth. He had a kind of bland look on his face, and I could see he thought he was king shit, and that always gets me going. So I met his eyes. No biggie. I mean, I’ve run into a lot of people who think they’re important. Most of the time, they’re the easiest to take down. I’ve done plenty of them. I’m hard to impress. If this guy was trying to make me tremble with awe, he should have left it to the woman. I studied him back like he was just another dork with a Napoleon complex.
He was in his midforties, with dark hair and light brown eyes that seemed a little too big for his face. He didn’t blink, which can get on your nerves pretty quick. He was thin, with cheekbones that stuck out and thick black eyebrows. He wore a suit that was so perfect it almost made me dizzy. I mean, I’ve got a bunch of Savile Row suits, custom tailored for me, that go for almost as much as a new Chevrolet. This one made them look like somebody parked a new Bugatti Divo next to your Chevy.
The shirt and tie were in the same class, and his shoes, too. What he spent on his outfit would feed a family of eight for fifty years, and pay for their gas, too.
But I kept coming back to his eyes. Aside from being big and brown, there was just something about them that made you want to scurry under a rock and hide. Or if you couldn’t hide, stand at attention and say “sir” a lot.
That pissed me off. I don’t bow down to anybody, and the more they expect me to, the more I don’t. So I kept my eyes on him, daring him to show me something that would impress me and betting he couldn’t.
“Mr. Wolfe,” he said at last. His voice was measured, commanding, and he had no accent I could hear—but it was the kind of no‐accent that comes from practice, from getting rid of an old accent. It told me nothing. Neither did the tiny little smile. But then he said, “I am Patrick Boniface.”
Okay, I was wrong. He impressed me. I knew that name, and I knew what it meant.
I was fucked.