The workday, truncated as it was, would be followed, soon enough, by yet another. The man fumbled with his keys as he stood outside his flat in the dim yellow light of the hall. Fatigue hampered the man’s fingers and threading the key into the lock required three attempts before the man met with success. Home smelled of two parts lemon drop, one part cinnamon, and a dash of pine scented floor cleaner. Breathing in the chilled air of the empty flat, the man dropped his keys on the marble-topped table in the foyer. The only other item on the table, a porcelain doll, lay face up with its eyes closed. He righted the doll to sitting and as he moved it the eyes clicked open. The man smiled.
Turning from the table, he went, heavily, to the hemispherical thermostat in the hallway and raised the heat until the radiators burbled to life. In the living room, the man collapsed into the floral print cushions of the sofa and sat there, head back, for some time before leaning forward to unlace his thick-soled, black boots. The man peeled down his socks and scratched at the red indentations left in his calves by the socks’ elastic. He grunted as he scratched and, once sated, took up the remote for the older model television in the corner. The national news programming broadcast little of substance but the man watched it with that strange and small hope that he’d see a picture of himself there with a few lines about the work he had done over the past few days even though he knew such a story would not, now or ever, reach the public.
After a few minutes he muted the set and put his head back against the sofa and closed his eyes. He slept.
You get coffee?
I’m good, thanks.
What’s happening today, Chief?
Patrols picked up a couple guys at the market. Real early this A.M.
Suspicion, loitering, espionage, the usual.
Hmm. Any of them have files?
Yes, yes, and no.
Who’s the unknown?
If I knew that, you’d think I’d be higher up the chain of command and not babysitting you new guys.
Come on, let’s go introduce ourselves to the mystery man.
Right behind you, Chief.
The man jolted awake as his daughter bounded up onto his belly and swished her long black hair over his face.
“Papa,” the girl squealed.
The man grunted awake and smiled, “Papa was sleeping!”
“I know papa. I was excited.”
He patted the girl’s head as she settled into his lap and focused her attention on the television, “Papa got off early because he did an extra good job at work today.”
“What did you do,” the girl asked.
The man bent forward and inhaled the lavender and vanilla scent of his daughter’s scalp. “How was school?”
“Long. What did you do at work to get off early?” The little girl squirmed into his lap, crossing and uncrossing her legs.
“Some things that Papa’s boss really liked.”
“Oh,” the man looked toward the sound of the apartment door closing. His wife stood in the foyer holding several cloth grocery bags. She smiled but the man returned his attention to his daughter.
“Like what Papa?”
“It’s nothing, baby. Boring old things that grownups do for work.”
She looked up at him. “Can we watch cartoons?”
“Anything for my baby,” the man said as he switched from the news channel to a grainy and dubbed over rerun of Tom and Jerry. He put his arm around her and squeezed.
“Was that too hard?”
The girl giggled. “A little Papa.” She settled back into his lap, resting herself against the man’s belly. He held her there as she watched the cartoon and his wife came in from the kitchen to stand at the arm of the sofa. The man’s wife smoothed the top of their daughter’s hair as she bent to brush a light kiss against the man’s mustachioed lips. She rested her hand on the thready top of the sofa’s back.
“Mmhmm,” the man didn’t look up from the television screen.
“And work was,” his wife let the question hang.
“Fine.” The man shifted in his seat causing his daughter to readjust her position but she moved without taking her eyes away from the cartoon.
“Papa,” his wife’s voice was firm and he looked up at her. Her left eyebrow, manicured such that it tapered to a scalpel’s edge, arched up in a way that was not to be ignored.
“I’ll tell you about it later,” he said and as the two watched each other’s faces, neither husband nor wife smiled.
I hope you noted in the logbook that he pissed himself already. It’s always good to leave those kinds of notes for the next shift.
Sure did, Chief. Only a couple hours in, too. Quick, huh?
Yeah. That your first time seeing a guy do that?
You can’t let it get to you. Stick around long enough, you’ll get exposed to worse things.
These younger guys...they’re nowhere near as tough as some of the old timers we used to get in here.
Believe it. Used to be we’d have to work on a guy, real hard, for a week at least before he’d come close to pissing. Back then, they had some grit to them. Did you get all what he was saying? It’s on the tape but if you know what they’ve said, it can really help you out later in the interrogation.
He spill anything good? I was trying to follow him but my English isn’t so great anymore.
Said some of the stuff you said he would. He’s visiting his family here in the city, his grandmother. Former military. Has been out for a couple years. Said he’d gotten a bona fide travel visa from the U.S. before he came.
They all have the same covers and it matches what the patrol said about his docs but you can’t pay that any mind. CIA would set them up with all the necessary papers and stuff. Make it seem all above board. Hell, it’s like they think we’re amateurs here or something.
Heh, yeah. Say, you okay, Chief?
Tired is all. Here, hand me that baton. When we go back in, I’ll work on his feet.
You sure? I mean, I could spell you for a bit while you took a breather.
I’m fine. This little rest here was good. Plus, me working him gives him something to think about.
If I’m the one working him, and I’m going at it hard, while the younger of us questions, it makes him think of how much worse it’s going to be when I do finally hand off to you. He’ll crack a whole lot faster like that.
Okay. What do you want me to do?
Keep up the questions but act like it doesn’t mean anything to you. Like you could be at it all day. Pretend to be bored. That really messes with them. If you get all violent and aggressive it will give him something to mentally fight against.
I wouldn’t have thought of that. Seems like it would be the opposite.
Yeah, trust me, the more you look like you don’t care, the harder it is for them to resist. Go through the list of questions over and over again, especially hitting the ‘Who are you’ one. But you have to do it slow. That’ll really get him thinking. While you’re at that, I’ll work the bottoms of his feet. After about thirty minutes I’ll hand the baton to you and you can work the tops and I’ll take over questioning for a bit so you can get some practice on both ends.
I want you to take note of how I work his feet so you can get an idea of the best way to do it.
Sounds like a plan.
Alright, let’s get back in there.
Right behind you, Chief.
The man pushed back his empty plate and stifled a belch that rose in his throat. “Excellent, my dear.”
His wife, seated across from him at the small, rectangular dinner table, smiled.
“Papa, I’m done.”
He looked down at his daughter. She sat at the long edge of the table between him and his wife and her plate before her still held more than half of the chicken, rice, and vegetable pilaf that was their dinner. “You didn’t eat so much.”
“I wasn’t hungry.”
“Nonsense,” the man’s wife insisted, “you had a tiny lunch and that was hours ago. Eat.”
“But Mama, I don’t like the onions.”
“You need to learn to eat things you don’t like.”
“But Mama,” the girl whined.
The man smiled and put his hand across the tabletop. He ran a finger over the back of her hand, tracing the veins that stood out from the brown skin. She looked at him and cut her eyes. “Maybe we could put that in the refrigerator and you can finish it later,” the man asked.
The girl jumped at the compromise, “Yes, Papa, I’ll eat it later. Before I go to bed.”
“That’s my baby,” the man said. “You go play in your room until it’s time for your bath.”
The girl scraped her chair across the tiles and bounded away. The man watched her go, out of the dining room and down the hallway to her bedroom until her door slammed. He turned back to his wife’s frown. “You’re spoiling her,” she said.
The man smiled and said nothing as he traced the veins in his wife’s hand again. She sighed and pushed back her own, mostly filled, plate of food with her free hand. “How was your day,” he asked.
“And now you’re changing the subject.”
“You hardly ate any of your own dinner, my dear.”
“Changing again.” She looked away before looking back at the man. “My day was fine.”
“Ahh,” he said and leaned back in his chair.
“I took Yasmin to school in the morning then I went over to Leila’s apartment for lunch and I stayed for tea.”
“How is she?”
“Hmmph. Why don’t you tell me why you were home so early?”
The man hardened his face but not in a show of anger, “I will, my dear.”
“But not now.”
“Tell me about what you did this afternoon.”
The woman sighed again, “Then I went to the market and picked up Yasmin and came back home. There. Busy day. Full of excitement.”
The man smiled. “I’m glad it was so productive.”
“I wish you would tell me. You know that I worry when things are out of the ordinary.”
“I know.” The man opened his mouth but the creaking of his daughter’s door closed it again. The girl came running down the hallway and into the dining room again.
“Mama, Papa, it’s snowing. Hard.” Her excitement diffused into the room and the girl’s parents smiled at her. “Maybe schools will close tomorrow and I can spend the day with you and Papa both.”
“Oh my baby,” the man said, “I’m afraid Papa has to go back to work tomorrow morning. Bright and early, like always.”
“Aww,” the girl said.
The man stood and whisked her up into his arms, grunting as he did so. “But if you help Papa with these dishes, we can give Mama a break and watch the snowfall afterward.” He put his daughter down again and she took her plate to the kitchen. The man stooped and pecked a kiss at his wife’s cheek as he took her plate from in front of her. “Why don’t you go relax in the other room? I can take care of this for you.”
“Hmmph,” the woman grunted again, but said nothing else as the man followed his daughter into the kitchen.
Did the tape get it all down?
Sure did, Chief.
Good. Make sure you transcribe it all out, just right, just like he says it on the tape so that when we report this one up, everything goes smooth.
You got it.
He lasted longer than I thought he would once you brought out the pliers.
Yeah. Usually when you go to them with the vice grips they give up pretty quick. He surprised me that he held out for as long as he did. Especially after this morning’s workout.
That’s a nice trick. Where’d you get that one from?
That one is from way back. I learned it from a guy when I was about your age and fresh out to the unit. There was this crusty old timer named Abbas. He had a whole bag full of techniques and kind of took me under his wing a little bit. Used to be we didn’t have this mentor type stuff so it was something special if one of the old timers took a liking to you.
Old Abbas. Even with as tough as those guys were back then, he could get a guy to crack by just hinting at what was going to happen. I learned all the good tricks from him: vice grips, electrodes, watering them. It’s all the stuff that is pretty common now. He’s the one who came up with most of those.
What happened to him?
Retired. Moved out of Tehran. Lives up in the hills somewhere, last I heard.
Yeah. You know what? You transcribe the tape and I’ll run out and get us an early lunch. My treat.
Sure thing. You get the tape done and when I get back I’ll walk it over to the Supe’s office to report it up in person. We go way back, me and him. Who knows, if he’s in a good mood, maybe he’ll cut us a day’s bonus or something.
Nice one. Hey.
Don’t mention it. Come on, we’ll take him back to the cells and then you can get to work while I run down to the corner for some grub.
Right behind you, Chief.
The man stood at the window to his apartment taking in the cold slowness of the nighttime street. His wife came beside him and put her arm around his waist. He put his arm across her shoulders but kept his eyes on the street. “She finally got off to sleep,” the woman said.
“Did Yasmin go back and eat anymore from her dinner?”
“She pecked at it a little bit. Then said she wasn’t hungry anymore.”
“See,” the man said, smiling as he turned to the woman, “like she said she would.”
The woman frowned. “Are you going to tell me what happened today or what?”
The man sighed and turned back to the window. “It was nothing really.”
“We got some kid to talk.”
The man reached up and rubbed his eyes. “Some American kid. They found him at the market. Tried to claim he was here visiting his family.” The man nodded toward the window.
“Yeah. It’s the same thing every time but we eventually got him.” The man paused as a car crawled past in the new snow. “NSA,” he muttered.
“Well then,” the woman hugged his waist tighter. “I thought you were in trouble.”
“This close to being done and you think I’m going to do something to mess up retirement?”
“Don’t get upset.”
He sighed again, “I’m not it’s just...So the Supe let me and the new guy off for the afternoon since we were the ones to break the kid.”
“And you came here and napped.” The woman smiled and craned her neck to kiss the man’s cheek.
“Yeah,” he chuckled, “It’s not a raise, but there’s not too much you can do about that.”
“That’s okay. We’re doing just fine.”
“I know it.” The man turned to face his wife and laced his thick fingers together across the small of her back. “The Supe was pretty impressed though. Maybe, as short time as I am, he can work out a little pay increase later on. Kind of hinted at that anyway.”
“It’s just fine. Come on, it’s late and you’ve got work again in the morning.”
“Okay. I’ll be there in a minute.” The man’s wife slipped through his hands and drifted away down the hall and disappeared into the open rectangle of light that was the opening to their bedroom. The man watched the empty hallway for a minute before turning back to the window and the snowy street. As he scanned the block from traffic light to traffic light, he caught the shadowy reflection of his face in the window and this he studied for some time as a host of the day’s images and sounds and smells poked through the surface of his mind. Punctuating these memories, like a refrain from his workday, was the ragged “please” begged in both English and Farsi by the young man he’d cracked. The voice rang over and over again in his skull until the man focused again on the empty street and finding nothing, turned to his bedroom.
Benjamin Toche is a baffled man who can be seen wandering the streets of his current hometown and talking to birds. He received an MFA in creative fiction writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage and his work has appeared online in some places, in print others. Internet him for further details.