Happiness Ltd. excerpt

     Happiness Ltd. excerpt


    The door slid open and two guards entered, wearing black uniforms and expressionless black face shields. Their guns were drawn; he cringed, but they didn’t use them. Their leather gloves clamped onto his arms and he was quick-marched out the door, down a long hallway as white as his cell, to an elevator. The door opened soundlessly. Inside, one of the guards pushed the bottom button of an unlabelled grid on the wall. The door reopened moments later and they pulled him into an area that looked like a locker room, with tiles on the walls and drains in the floor. In an- other room, which had showerheads from floor to ceiling, they stripped him of his soiled jumpsuit and stood back as the showerheads blasted him with ice cold water, so much of it, so hard, that he could barely breathe, but when he grew faint they turned the water off. They zipped an uncomfortable plastic garment onto him and marched him out again, down a hallway lit with old-fashioned incandescent bulbs that cast a stale yellow light.

    Closed doors pockmarked the hallway, extruding faded brass doorknobs, grimy from years of dirty hands. Some of the doors had stick-on numbers, but there was no progression either up or down — the numbers seemed random: 59, 74, 380, 22. Nelson had emerged from his catatonic state to the opposite — acute sensitivity, and his ears caught the highest frequency. Muffled screaming from behind the walls. His stomach turned watery.

    After a minute of walking, he and the guards stopped at a door marked 101 and entered.

    “Good morning, Nelson.” A compact, neatly groomed man in a black suit and white turtleneck flashed a curt smile as he turned from a wooden table, where he had been looking at some papers. He approached Nelson, but remained just beyond arm’s length. Nelson noticed his feet were small and clad in black suede slip- pers. Nelson’s mouth went dry and a clammy sweat broke out under his arms and between his legs.

    “My name is Carlyle. I’m an information specialist. You’re a smart boy. I trust you know why you’re here?”

    Nelson, suddenly aware he was shaking, struggled to find his tongue, and Carlyle said, “Never mind. I don’t like small talk either. Sit down.” The guards jerked Nelson to a small, scarred wooden seat in the middle of the room and forced him into it, then withdrew to stand on either side of the door. Nelson noticed there were no windows or exits other than the door by which he had entered. A large mirror was placed over the wooden table; Nelson assumed it was an observation window. On the other side of the room, incongruously, was what appeared to be some exercise gear: a slant board, some barbells, and a jump rope or two. Nelson’s anxiety eased somewhat; he didn’t see any of the images of torture that appeared so often in popular culture: the electric shock machines, the rubber batons, the tongs for pulling finger- nails, or the high speed drills.

    Carlyle went back to the table, checked the papers again, sliding them around like puzzle pieces with his fingertips. He turned suddenly, fixing Nelson with a dark stare. “All right. Let’s get down to business. The whore. What were you doing, beyond the obvious?”

    The ugliness of the question so startled Nelson that he didn’t associate it with Celia. What whore?” he asked.

    Carlyle’s mouth turned up in an ugly smirk. “Oh, so you want to play before we talk. You should have told me.” He withdrew a black fabric bag from his jacket pocket, shook it loose, and put it over Nelson’s head. The fabric was a clingy material; it seemed to crawl around his neck and insinuate itself into his mouth and nostrils. Nelson reflexively raised his hands to free his breathing, but strong hands gripped his wrists and twisted them behind his back, where they were secured with some sort of handcuff. A surge of panic lifted Nelson out of his seat, but again, hands pushed him down and his feet were quickly bound to the chair. As he struggled for air, he heard Carlyle’s voice. “Stop squirming. You’ve got enough to breathe, if you just calm down.”

    Nelson’s body began to shake as he took deep breaths in and out. The fabric was like something alive, trying to worm its way into his mouth. Adrenaline was rushing through his veins; his heart felt like it would burst from his chest. Lights seemed to flash in his eyes even though he was in complete darkness. He cried out, “Please, please!” but got no response.

    “Let me explain something to you. Are you listening? Nod your head ‘yes.’”

    Nelson nodded.

    “Good. Fact number one. I don’t care if you live or die. No one knows you’re here. Not Celia. Not your mother. Not anyone you know. If I kill you, we’ll burn your body in the cremator and no one will know what happened to you. So that’s the end game. It’s your option. Life? Or death?” When he said “Death,” some- thing touched Nelson’s nipple, sending an electric shock of pain and fear through his nervous system, activating the panic response again.

    “Oh, stop whining,” Carlyle said. “Fact number two. I would rather not kill you. I’m a professional and my performance is monitored. If my information-to-death ratio remains positive, I get a bigger bonus. I have an incentive plan too, like everyone. If I can keep my mortalities down to less than forty-nine — that was my number last year — I win a cruise to the Caribbean! All expenses paid, wife and kids — I have three boys — it’s a perfect family vacation.” He paused. “But,” and here he touched the other nipple. Nelson cried out, tears of despair wetting the fabric on his face. “My primary job is to get the information. That gets an over- weighting in my ITD ratio, and it’s what I care most about.

    “Fact number three. Tell me what I need to know and I’ll be a very happy man. And you, Nelson, will be happy too. You can walk free. Wouldn’t that be nice? To see the light of day? Take a walk in the park? You might go see your girlfriend, even if she is a DP. Though I would advise against it. See what kind of trouble you got yourself into, fucking a DP? Not a wise move. Not wise at all.”

    At the mention of Celia, Nelson squirmed, desperate to hear news of her, but terrified of putting her in jeopardy. So he suffered in silence.

    “Those are the three facts you need to know,” said Carlyle, sounding peppy. “Only three! One, I don’t care if you live or die. Two, I would rather that you live. Three, give me the information I need and you can go home.”

    Nelson, trembling with dread and nausea, nodded.

    “Very good. You’re doing well. Would you like me to remove the head covering?”

    Nelson nodded. Suddenly the hood was off and he blinked in the bright light, breathing sweet air. Carlyle stood in front of him, his face resting in an easy smile. “Now, we know you were involved with the terrorists on Warren Street. They were common criminals and they’ll be dealt with accordingly. But you and your girlfriend, you were something special, weren’t you? No garden- variety terrorist plots. You were going for the big score. Ultra. Yes? As big as they get. So tell me, what exactly was your girlfriend plotting? She sought you out. We know that. It’s all recorded. From the first day she contacted you. She used you to get to Ultra. But what exactly did you have in mind? Was it a simple assassination? Or something bigger, more media-tailored? Tell me.”

    Nelson’s hopes evaporated. Somehow, stupidly and incredibly, he had not imagined the possibility that they would ask him to betray Celia. Now he realized it was obvious. He tried to answer, but his voice was shaking worse than he had expected so he had to practically spit out the words. “There was no plot. We wanted asylum. We wanted to go off the grid. Live on Ultra’s land. Dis- enfranchised. We love each other.”

    Carlyle’s mouth began to turn into a frown. “Oh how sweet. You love each other. You were willing to throw away your lives for each other. Do you think I’m stupid?”

    Nelson shook his head. “You recorded everything. Watch the tapes. Listen to our conversations. We never talked about killing anybody. We’re not terrorists. We just wanted to be together and not bother anybody!”

    ”Nelson, do you really want me to force a confession from you? We couldn’t hear your conversations in the Marshes. That’s why terrorists live there, isn’t it? I’m going to give you one last opportunity. Tell me the truth. What was the Ultra plot about? How were you going to kill her? We didn’t find any guns or bombs on you. But there was a pocket knife. Was it that basic? We know from your psychological profile that you couldn’t cut a person’s throat to save your life. But Celia? She was going to get close to Ultra to slit her throat. I have to hand it to you — that’s nice. Real bloodshed in today’s world — you don’t see too much of it. So that was it? Ask Ultra for asylum, gain her trust, and then . . .” Carlyle made a hissing noise, finger across his throat. “Are you ready to confess?”

    Nelson pleaded, tears springing from his eyes. “It was just a pocket knife, with a corkscrew. Please! We have nothing to hide.”

    Carlyle sighed and motioned to the two guards. Nelson sobbed.

    The black bag went over his head again and they loosed him from the chair, then strong arms lifted him and placed him on the slant board, where he was immobilized and belted down. Carlyle talked, casually, as the guards worked. “I really want that cruise, but I’m having a bad month. My ratio is in the negative zone. One week in, and I’ve sent five to the cremator. Only two confessed. Sorry Nelson, you had a promising career ahead of you. And you threw it all away on a DP.”

    Nelson was on his back, head lower than his feet. Water was trickling over his chest, along the cords of his neck, and slowly soaking the bag. As the fiber grew wet, it expanded and clogged his nostrils and mouth so he couldn’t breathe. He blew out to clear his mouth, but the water kept coming. He tried to squirm, but the straps held him down. His blowing created bubbles, and when he needed to inhale, water began to enter his sinuses and push on his throat. He held his breath, and for a moment felt possessed by superhuman strength; he was sure he could burst free, but he couldn’t, and then when he gasped for breath, the water came flooding in, searing his lungs.

    Suddenly he was jerked upright. Light filled his eyes; the bag was off. He coughed and choked. A noise echoed in the room and he realized it was his own howling.

    “Last chance,” Carlyle said. “All you have to do is sign the papers. Confess and you’re a free man.” Nelson gasped, clinging to the last sweet breaths of oxygen he felt he would have. He didn’t want to die. But he could never harm Celia. “Are you ready to sign?” Carlyle said. Nelson didn’t answer. He savored the air while he could. Carlyle held a paper on a clipboard in front of him. “Nod your head ‘yes’.” Nelson tried to think of Celia; he wanted her to be his last thought. Carlyle cursed under his breath. The bag went on again and Nelson’s head plunged backwards.

    The second time, the pain was worse. He held his breath until lights flashed in his eyes. If only he could hold on long enough. But his body betrayed him; it gasped for air, and water poured down his throat and into his lungs like fire. Upside down and in the dark, he was spiraling into hell.

    Then the bag came off again. The light was worse than the dark, because he had begun to lose consciousness, but they were dragging him up again. “Are you ready to sign? Or do we need to keep this up forever?” Nelson’s head lolled. In his return to consciousness, he remembered Celia like a vague memory, and Carlyle’s words rolled off of him.

    They put the bag on again, but this time Carlyle made sure Nelson heard him before they tipped him back. He put his mouth close to Nelson’s ear. “Understand me, fast-tracker. This never ends. I have all day. I have all night. I have the next day. And the next night. Then you know what? I have a replacement. Another professional. We’re very well-staffed.” Then without warning, Nelson’s head was tipped back. But abruptly, before the water came, he was tipped forward again. “Oh. And one more thing,” Carlyle said. “Your mother is next. I’ve got her in the next room.” Then Nelson plunged back and the water began trickling down his neck into the sack. Nelson had thought he was prepared for death, but the fear wormed its way into his head like an insect in his brain. The thought that they had his mother made him lose hope. His willful mind, which had been trying to retain control, snapped. When the mask came off again, he was sobbing and hiccupping, gasping for air. When Carlyle held the paper in front of him, he nodded yes.

    “Free his arm,” Carlyle said. “That’s a good boy.”

    When they dragged him out, Carlyle spoke to the guards. “Less than fifteen minutes. He wasn’t as tough as I expected. Bring me a challenge next time, will you?” Carlyle began to hum a calypso tune.