The body behind him stiffened. Her hands dropped away as if his skin were suddenly made of molten steel. “You’re right,” the strangled voice sounded in his ear.
“Aww, Christ,” Andrews muttered, struggling to turn his head slightly. “I’m sorry, Gunny. I got a big mouth, ya know. Sometimes I just don’t know when ta close it. Don’t take nothin’ I said personal, Gunny, ok?”
“No. You’re right. It’s my fault that we’re in here.”
Struggling against his body’s betrayal, Andrews managed to wrench himself around, reaching out a hand and laying it on the muscled forearm of his commander. “This isn’t how any of us pictured it turning out, Gunny,” he said. “But them’s the breaks, right? To tell ya the truth, I wasn’t too fond of seeing those little tykes in pieces either.” Taking a chance, he removed his hand and gently grasped Kael’s chin, forcing her dull blue eyes to fix on his. “We’re not all like Epps, Gunny,” he said softly, willing her to believe. “I haven’t known you all that long, that’s true. But I can see you’re a good leader and a damn fine Marine. When we get outta this, I’ll be happy to cover your ass anytime alright?”
Forcing out a small smile, Kael nodded her dark head, reaching up and gently clasping his uninjured hand with her own.
The doors blew back open and two guards stepped in, eyeing the three drenched captives, sneering, before they reached down as a unit and grabbed Andrews away from Kael. The Marine’s scream was high and breathless as his arms were wrenched behind his back, the previously set bone bulging, straining against his skin like a malignant growth. Marshalling his strength against the blackness encroaching on his vision, Andrews struggled to get his legs beneath his spasming body, determined to walk out of the cell like a man.
After he was thrown into the chair, trying with all his might not to black out as his hands were again forced behind his back, Andrews’ eyes widened with shock as, with a nod, Al-Hassein dismissed the guards from the room.
Taking in Andrews’ look of mild surprise, the commander smiled, displaying a row of brilliant white teeth. “I thought that today, our meeting might be better served by just having us chat, man to man as it were,” the Iraqi explained, standing in front of the bound captive, his hands loosely clasped behind his back. “My guards sometimes get a little too …shall we say …possessive of my rank in our society. They don’t like to see me slandered.” He shrugged. “I am sure you know how it is.” Reaching out, he ran a fingertip along the Marine’s swollen jawline, smirking as the man pulled his head defiantly away from the gentle touch.
Wiping the sweat from his hand off on Andrews’ tattered robe, Al-Hassein straightened and stepped back slightly, his eyes sparkling with false compassion. “Where’s your sharp tongue, my American friend?”
Andrews’, acknowledging that discretion was the better part of valor, decided against telling the Iraqi interrogator exactly where he could shove his compassion and remained silent.
Al-Hassein smiled and nodded as if Andrews had spoken aloud. “It’s good to see that you Americans have some manners after all.” Shifting his weight, the commander casually crossed his arms over his broad chest, looking down at his captive with interest. “Perhaps that civility can continue into today’s discussion, no?” He smiled again. “Perhaps your telling your name was just too hard a task for you yesterday. I’ve decided to start with something a bit more simple. Which branch of the American military are you assigned to, my friend?”
When his captive failed to answer, the commander reached out his arm again, grasping the man’s jaw in one hand and squeezing slightly, warning. Andrews winced and bit back a moan. “Please talk to me. You needn’t feel any more pain, you know.”
Andrews remained silent, and the hand became like a vice. He hissed out a pained breath.
Al-Hassein sighed and released his grip. “I really would rather not hurt you anymore, my friend. It pains me to see you like this. It pains me deeply. Just tell me which branch you’re from and I’ll send you back to your friends. I’ll even arrange to have some food and water sent in. Maybe let you get some sleep tonight? Hmmm?”
“Go to hell, you Iraqi pig.”
Shaking his head, the commander thrust out an arm, the heel of his hand striking the broken collarbone dead on. Andrews’ scream was breathless as he slumped in his chair, unconscious.
The commander stepped back, blowing out a breath of disgust. “Allah be my strength,” he whispered to the walls in his own language before turning and summoning his guards back into the room.
“Get him out of here and bring me another,” Al-Hassein ordered when the guards arrived.
Nodding, the two guards released Andrews’ wrists and dragged his limp body up from the chair, holding him suspended between them. “There’s a man and a woman in the cell with him, my Commander,” one of the guards said, “and two other men in the adjoining cell.”
The commander’s eyes widened. “A woman?!”
“Yes, Commander. Should we bring her in to you?”
Al-Hassein cupped his chin in thought. Perhaps he was mistaken? He fancied himself quite a scholar of the U.S. military, and knew of no women who were trusted enough to belong to an elite terrorist squad. Perhaps these weren’t Americans after all?
He sighed, the beginnings of a headache pounding at his temples. Orders had come from on high this morning to break these American bastards. His leader was gearing up to cross into Kuwait and the Americans were rattling their sabers, warning against such action. If Al-Hassein could prove that these people were really American terrorists, sent into the country to kill innocent civilians, the United States could well be forced to stay out of Arabian affairs. He smiled inwardly. The glory of Allah would be his.
So, the question remained. Were these truly American soldiers? His instincts told him yes, even if the presence of a woman among them stirred the pot a little. Would he be able to get anything important from her? That was doubtful. If she were here with the rest, it must be in some minor support role. Her mind wouldn’t contain anything of importance to his mission. Women’s minds rarely did. “Bring the other man from the cell. We’ll try him first.”
“As you wish, my Commander.”
Al-Hassein took time to study the new prisoner as he was strapped to his chair. This new man was almost a total opposite from his previous captive, with his light colored hair and pale skin. Where the previous man was stocky, this prisoner was long and lanky, thin almost to the point of emaciation. The commander clucked his tongue softly, mildly disgusted. Summoning up his rapidly depleting reserves of polite civility, Al-Hassein smiled and stepped around his desk to face his prey. “My name is Kamran Al-Hassein. Welcome to my home.” He spread his arms wide in a friendly welcoming gesture. “I realize you are probably thinking that you’re about to receive the same treatment as your friend. Let me put your fears to rest, my friend. He talked. Told me everything I needed to know. All I need from you is a few loose ends tied up and you’re free to go.”
At the expression on Reingold’s face, the commander’s bushy eyebrows rose in mock surprise. “I’m hurt that you don’t believe me. Deeply wounded. You are my guest here. Why would I lie to you?”
Reingold smiled slightly and shook his head. “If my ‘friend’ had told you everything, sir, you wouldn’t have thrown him back in the cell still alive. He would have served his purpose and damn sure wouldn’t look good as an example of a misguided young man shown the error of his heathen ways by a benevolent mentor, now would he. I don’t think even your own people would believe he had made some trumped up confession of his own free will.”
Al-Hassein’s brows contracted. Out-maneuvered. By an American, no less. The thought left a bitter taste in his mouth. He willed his face to remain relaxed as his mind sorted through various plans in an attempt to save face. He smiled broadly, falsely. “You watch too much television, American. Your friend is alive simply because I have no need to see him otherwise. He put up a brave fight, but in the end, he was persuaded to tell the truth.” He took a step closer to the bound captive. “You seem a bit too intelligent to have need of the same persuasive tactics, am I right?”
Reingold pretended to give the question serious thought. “If you mean that I’m too smart to need you to beat your version of the truth out of me, then you’re right,” he agreed. The sneer which bloomed looked very much out of place on his open, friendly face. “I wouldn’t tell you the time if I were standing in front of Big Ben with a gun to my head.”
His chair tilted crazily back on two legs as the blow to his face thundered into his head, shattering his nose and several front teeth. Coughing harshly on inhaled blood, the young man jerked forward, righting the chair as he spat blood and teeth shards from his furrowed lips. “There goes another candidate for TV Confessions with Saddam,” he rasped. The second blow ended his torment and Reingold sagged against his bonds, his breathing shallow and rapid.
Al-Hassein stepped back, snarling as he viewed the blood dotting his immaculate uniform. “Get him out of my sight. Bring the other one back here, conscious or not. I want answers and I want them now!” With a disgusted sigh, the commander looked at the clock. He had promised his superiors answers by the end of the day. Time was rapidly slipping away from him and that put him in the foulest of moods. If Hussein got wind of these failures, the captives would look like poster children for the Good Health Society compared to how he was sure to look after a session with his leader’s master interrogators.