He'd never heard a grown man scream. Still the sound had a terrible familiarity. In a remote part of his brain, insulated from shock by shock itself, he pondered the enigma.
Despite what was happening there was time. Every second stretched as if racked, leaving space between heartbeats for philosophy. Curiously, the same time was also somehow compressed, the questions hammered at him too fast now to answer or even understand, the pain running seamless as a river, the cries wrenched from him an endless litany of anguish and despair. He had lost track of time. He wasn't sure if this had been going on for hours or days, or if he'd been born to it, spent his whole life ground between unintelligible questions and insupportable pain.
But deeper than the pain and distress, deep in the inner sanctum of his mind, part of him was puzzling how something never before experienced could resonate like a memory. The only explanation was that it came down to him with his genes.
It was a long time since human existence had been like this - a struggle against powerful and implacable forces ending in a flurry of beast and blood - but part of the brain remembered. The cognitive cortex, the intellectual overlay that made Daniel Hood a recognisable individual, was devastated by what was happening to him: throbbing with terror, untouched by comprehension, incapable of resistance, despoiled and defeated and adrift on a killing ocean. But at the core of him, deep in the old brain he had from his forefathers, he knew about dying in agony. The knowledge was instinctive: no previous experience was necessary.
Which was as well, because Daniel had never experienced anything like this. The wantonness of it was almost as shocking as the pain. One moment he'd been letting himself into his flat, the next the floor was coming up to meet him and when he woke it was here, like this - naked, blind, spread-eagle on a table, withmen he couldn't see stripping his humanity away an inch at a time.
As the pain mounted he thought they were killing him. But he didn't die. It went on and on, and still he didn't die. His screams faded to sobs, exhausted by the unrelenting brutality. Whimpering like a child he begged them to stop. They said he had to help them first. But he couldn't; so it went on. How long he had no way of judging.
But he knew, even after pain had robbed him of the capacity for rational thought, that he'd come to a place you couldn't walk away from. No one in this room was going to walk away unchanged. Daniel wasn't going to walk away at all.
First they tried threats and then they tried violence. Isolated by his blindfold, he got no warning of it; which hardly mattered since he had no way to avoid it. Blows like cudgels in his face and belly left him gasping for breath and for mercy. But he couldn't give them what they wanted, so finally it came to this. Hurting him. Hurting and hurting and Please, not again, no more, I can't take any more, why are you doing this? I don't know where Sophie is. I don't know who Sophie is. Please stop.
But they didn't, and deep down he knew they wouldn't. That they couldn't. They'd gone too far to stop. You could beat a man and dump him by the roadside; you could break his bones and smash his knee-caps. But this ... You didn't do this to someone you meant to survive. You didn't want anyone walking round - or hobbling round, or crawling - knowing you were capable of this. When they were sure, when they were finally and utterly sure that he had nothing to tell them, they would take a gun, or a knife, or an iron bar, and cut loose the knot of suffering humanity that had been Daniel Hood; and the only hope left to him now was that it would be soon.
There were other men in the room with him. One of them had never heard a man scream either, and wavered between horror and a dreadful fascination. Another last heard it twenty years before when an accident with a block and tackle tore a stevedore's hand apart.
And the third heard it all the time, was a connoisseur of men'sscreams, knew what they meant. "He isn't going to tell you anything. He doesn't know anything."
"That's absurd," said another roughly. The oldest of the three, he was looking at a point midway between Daniel Hood and his tormentor, found it difficult to look at either of them directly. "Of course he knows. He was the look-out."
The interrogator snapped shut the briefcase in which he carried the tools of his trade and straightened with a sigh. "You hired a professional for a job you didn't want to do yourself. Well, my professional opinion is that you got the wrong man."
"No. Try something else."
They were new to this business, they didn't understand. He tried to explain. "Not everyone talks. Whatever you do, whatever you throw at them, there are some people who'd rather take it than talk. They're protecting friends or family, or perhaps a principle. There are people who would die in agony for an idea. But nobody dies in agony for money. If you were right about him he'd have talked long ago. He honest-to-God doesn't know what you're on about."
"I don't believe that." Desperation was audible in the old man's voice. If he was wrong about this ... He couldn't be wrong. "He watched it happen, for God's sake! He was part of it, and he can lead us to her."
The interrogator shook his head. "If he was one of those people, who can see their bodies destroyed without saying the words that'll stop it, I'd know."
"You can't give up. If you give up we'll lose her!"
"People who hold out for a principle do it because they're better than the man interrogating them. Stronger, more enduring, above all morally superior. That's what keeps them going. But they need you to know. Once it's too late for lies, they need you to know they could stop you with a word and they're not going to. If you really thought it might be a mistake they'd lose that. Their willingness to suffer rather than betray would never be recognised. Whatever you say, however you treat them, they know they have your respect. They know they're doing something you couldn't do."
The third man spoke, for the first time in hours. He had to lick his lips to moisten them. "Have you ... ?"
The interrogator looked at him with disdain, then at the man on the table. "Gone through that? Don't be ridiculous. I don't have any principles worth going through that for."
"So what now?" The old man still didn't believe what he was being told, that it was over.
"Now," said the interrogator briskly, "you put a bullet in him and you take him somewhere he won't be found for a long time. And either you give up and pay up, or you look for someone who really does have some answers."
Polar eyes flared in the lined and weathered face. "I'm not shooting him! That's your job."
"No," replied the other levelly, "my job's interrogation. And it's done, and whether you like it or not I've got out of him all the information he has. I'm sorry it isn't what you were expecting, but it is the truth. Now, to protect us all, you have to finish it. If I do that as well it'll be too easy for you to panic if the police come to your door. If you kill him you'll keep your nerve because losing it would cost too much."
For as long as two minutes the only sound in the room was of racked breathing from the table. But the interrogator wasn't leaving until this was resolved, and he wasn't going to yield. It was too important.
There was more argument, then the interrogator and the third man left together, footsteps ringing on cobbles. It wasn't a room but a stable: after this was finished they'd power-hose the walls and floor, and burn the sturdy old kitchen table, and no evidence would remain of what had been done here.
The old man was left alone with Daniel Hood. He felt no impulse of pity. After a moment he reached out a hooked finger and tore off the blindfold. Daniel blinked, dazzled by the sudden light. His eyes were pale grey, terribly bloodshot, exhausted and devoid of hope.
"You don't fool me," grated the old man. "I know you're part of this. I know you can take me to her. I don't know why you'd rather die."
The whispered reply was too weak for him to catch. He leaned forward. "What?"
Daniel tried again. All through the hurting, when he'd have given anything to lose consciousness, his senses had remained crystaline. Now it was over the darkness was crowding in. He struggled to make himself understood. "Why? Why me? Why this?"
The old man shook his head impatiently. "There's still time. I can save you. Tell me where she is."
"Sophie," whispered Daniel.
"Please. I can't ..."
"I'll protect you. Whoever they are, I can protect you from them. Tell me how to find her. I'll look after you."
Daniel's voice was a breath from the abyss. "I don't know who you're talking about."
The old man struck him in the face. As if someone who'd come through so much might in the end be unmanned by the sting of a hand on his cheek.
It might only have been another sob, but the old man thought it was a chuckle. He hit him again. The ravaged face turned unresisting under his hand. Daniel Hood was finally safe from him.
A moment later tyres rumbled in the yard and the others returned. A moment after that the sound of a gunshot echoed and re-echoed between the brick walls.
ECHOES OF LIES. Copyright © 2001 by Jo Bannister. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.