Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Fotis - a segment (fiction)

I had been out with a few of the hard-drinking members of the press corps - a writer from the UK, two cameramen from Quebec and a surly American photographer - and had gone to bed very drunk. I remember having a nightmare, something about drowning and running for a train which I could never quite catch. Then I was flying, and both sides of my face hurt, then the tops of my feet were burning. I don't remember the door opening, but I remember the cold terrazzo of the landing and a moment of rising horror as I realized that the nightmare had ended and I wasn’t drunk enough to ignore what was happening to me.

The two goons who’d dragged me out of bed threw me down the stairs. This meant that the hospital (if I was lucky enough to reach one) would report that I hadn't been manhandled or beaten, I had simply 'tripped' and given myself injury. If you read the death certificates of agitators in several otherwise respectable countries, you will find a lot of such claims.

Still, there were risks involved for the goons; I might have broken my neck on the way down. They should have taken that into account. Nobody wants a dead journalist. Bad press makes for bad trade relations, and my host country was in desperate need for hard currency.

This fact offered me no comfort as I hit the bottom of the stairs. Before I could get up (or even try to manage it), one of the goons kicked me in the ribs and I both heard and felt the distinct crack as one of them snapped. The other goon stomped on my feet and muttered something which I'm sure translated loosely to "Oh! Goodness! Our friend has hurt himself! We must take him to a doctor at once!"

By then, I knew that they probably weren't going to kill me. There were too many witnesses, mostly hotel staff and a few truly brave tourists who had to use those same stairs (the elevators had stopped running weeks before). The goons jerked me to my feet and I saw the backs of a few heads (pointedly looking the other way) as I was pulled through the lobby and thrown into the back of a car.

The car’s plates were government issue, which let the driver run red lights and steer around the few pedestrians on the streets with impunity. He was silent as goon number one (the intellectual) started to question me. "You are happy?" he said, with heavily accented English and foul tobacco breath.

"Thrilled." I groaned.

The second goon took a fat finger and poked me a few times in my newly broken rib. I grit my teeth as he said something in a language I didn’t recognize. Both goons had a good chuckle for a couple of seconds.

The first one leaned forward and whispered quietly to me, almost tenderly. "Do you know what he said? He wondered if you're ticklish there."

I thought hard about how to reply to that. "Your wife’s ticklish" seemed to sum up my feelings pretty well. I said it and waited for his response.

I didn’t know his wife – I’m sure she’s a lovely woman – but the sentiment seemed to get my feeling across without delay. Even the second one understood what that statement meant, and he clearly didn't speak English. Then there was a flurry of fists onto my torso and I fell unconscious, which was a blessing.

Perhaps that hadn't been the wisest thing to say, but I didn't care. And don't mistake candor for bravado. I wasn't facing my dilemma with anything close to courage. They’d already won. All I could do was manage to flail a bit on the way down. At the very least, I could be unpleasant.


I woke up hours,or days later, freezing. The room felt like it was lurching from side to side, and although the air was hot and humid, my chest felt like ice. As I slowly came to consciousness, I noticed the plastic bag of ice on my chest. It was filled with ice cubes, the small rectangular ones produced by commercial ice-making machines. There was a tight tensor bandage around my chest, and some padding around my broken rib.

This was a good sign. The ice would reduce the swelling, and the bandage would improve the state of my rib. It meant that they didn't want me dead or too badly off. The relief I felt at this was offset by the state of the room I was in. Steel walls and a small, circular window looking out at a grey sky. It took a few seconds for me to realize that I was in a ship's cabin, and that the room actually was lurching from side to side. I didn't feel seasick, which probably meant that I had been at sea for a few days. Evidently, one can get their 'sea legs' while conscious, or not.

I was hungry, and sore. Somebody had left 10 boxes of crackers, 5 large bottles of water, a plastic kettle that I could plug into a rusty outlet, and 20 cups of instant soup and noodles beside the bed. Not a varied diet, but enough to feed me for a few days. There was a flush toilet in the corner (which worked), and a sink with a single tap (which did not). The porthole was too high to reach, but I could see waves crashing over it, which meant I was close to the belly of the ship. A ship with a commercial ice-making machine somewhere onboard. I didn’t know where it was, where it was going, how I got there, or why I was being held.

In the next few days, however, I learned a lot about the cabin. I counted all of the bolts (467) and how many sides there were to each bolt (6 sides apiece, except for 48 smaller, 8 sided bolts around the door). I learned that I couldn't ever get a good enough look at the sun to figure out where we were heading, and that the seas were roughest shortly before dusk. I learned that I could stand on my head on the bed by hooking my legs over an overhead pipe. And the mattress on the cot that I slept on was made in South Korea.

Once these discoveries had been made, I had nothing to do except wait for…what? Interrogation? I didn't know anything. My job had been to cover the alleged ‘free’ election for Reuters. I interviewed members of both the ruling party and of the official opposition. I had spent one evening with one of the so-called 'lunatic fringe', an independent candidate who was running on a xenophobic platform, one which called for breaking off all ties with pretty much every other country in the region.

All in all, I had gotten off light. The toilet worked, the room was a comfortable temperature, I had food and water, and most importantly, nobody was beating me up. I didn't knock on the door or the pipes because I didn't want to be the one to initiate contact. Isolation beats most people down; I was determined to not let it effect me. A strange sense of propriety overcame me. The faceless 'they' had brought me here, that same 'they' should have the common courtesy to tell me what's happening.


It was four days after I regained consciousness that my cabin door opened shortly before dawn, a textbook tactic. Psychologically, you are weakest before the dawn, you've made it through the night and think you can see light at the end of the tunnel. Your guard goes down and they get you.

This backfired with me. I was asleep. I didn't hear the steel door open, or the sound of feet on the floor. It was the leader's cigarette which woke me up. I had gone 96hrs cold turkey without tobacco and I wanted nothing more than a drag. He had a blond beard and conspicuously dyed black hair. His accent sounded like Belfast, filtered through Texas, with an Italian perpensity to add a vowel at the end of words. And his cigarettes were Greek. If this was meant to confuse me, it did.

He had 3 goons with him. But none of them threatened me. They were just there, a fact of the situation, an absolute. Their very presence told me who was in charge.

"Richard? You are well?"

He handed me a lit cigarette and a book of matches. I took a long drag before answering. "My ribs hurt."

He frowned. "You fell. It was not our intention."

His false accent faded at "intention," making it somewhat sinister.

"What is your intention, for me?" I asked.

Big smile. " Canadians are nice. Americans, they’re too…loud. French are too expensive. All we want you to do is write something we tell you to write. One little bit. Then we send it out and then you can go."

My cigarette had vanished before I realized I had smoked it. "What do I have to write?"

He smiled again. "We will let you know. Soon. I promise."

A long pause. A second cigarette appeared in my hand. I was halfway though it before I remembered all the questions I had. I asked "Where are we?"

He frowned. "Shouldn't matter to you."

"I'd like to know."

He just shook his head. "You're well fed?"

3 days of soup had gotten to me. "Maybe there’s something else in your kitchen next to that ice machine."

He gave me a very small smile. "Maybe we'll bring you some bread. You want some cigarettes of your own?"

"Please." I said it sincerely.

One of the goons handed over 3 packages and a book of matches. “You trust me with these?” I asked, lighting another smoke.

The leader got up to leave. “What’s to burn? You don’t want to ruin your bed, I’m sure. And you’d choke to death on the smoke. Be good and be patient and you’ll be out soon.” With that, he muttered some words that I didn’t understand to his goons and the door closed firmly behind him.


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