Bring Out the GIMP (Girls in Merciless Peril)
Stories


GOMEZ

By Kirsten Smart


ONE – THE CELL

THE INTERROGATOR:

My prisoners are always naked when I interrogate them. It increases their sense of vulnerability, although they are always bound and helpless in any case. With the women I like to have their legs spread, although not too far. I want them to feel that their exposure is matter-of-fact, simply the way it is, and that they are now immersed in a world where the once unthinkable is now routine. Later, under torture, when I have their legs drawn far apart, it is done with a certain amount of ceremony, so the ultimate purpose of the spreading is crystal clear and quite terrifying.

This one, the beautiful Kirsten, will be naked when we first meet.

That is not always the case with my prisoners. I rather like the dramatic effect of the simple words, “strip her.” I give the order in the same casual tone that I might use in offering a cigarette, something I might have done just minutes before. Of course, with her hands cuffed to the chair behind her, smoking would be difficult.

I recall only once I was taken up on my offer of a smoke. It was a mistake on her part, an unnecessary show of bravado to say in effect, “I am cool enough to share a cigarette with my interrogator just as I would with a fellow passenger waiting for a bus.” Our conversation to that point was extremely civil. I had asked her a number of questions, some more than once, and tried to convince her that answering was in both our best interests. No threats were made; in these situations they are generally superfluous. So I lit the cigarette for her and held it to her lips, then removed it and proffered it again, much as one would feed an infant. Which is exactly the point. Nothing would have better pointed out my complete control over her. Psychologically it was the proverbial kick in the stomach. So when, a moment later, I told her, “when you are done smoking, we will start your torture,” she became so unhinged the cigarette slipped from her mouth and I had to retrieve it before it set fire to her dress.

“Well,” I said. “We might as well get started.” And then turning to the two guards, “strip her and strap her to the table in interrogation room B.”

She simply looked down and muttered, “I'll do what you want.”

She probably would have broken quickly in any case, but I think you get my idea.

But Kirsten will have already been strip-searched, and her clothing torn apart in the search for hidden microfiches or whatever. It seems a little silly to dress her in a prison smock just to remove it again in an hour's time. Besides, the idea of our first meeting after she has been hanging naked by her wrists for an hour or so is also quite appealing.

KIRSTEN:

I have never been hung by my wrists before, and it's a lot more painful than I imagined it would be. The coils bite into the heels of my hands, grate against my wrist-bones with urgent pain, and there's nothing I can do to relieve it. There is also a burning deep in my shoulders, eased only by the constant tension of my muscles. Every time I try to relax, the burning grows and spreads and quickly worsens. My breath hisses through my nostrils; my mouth is packed with cloth, the gag secured by a second strip tied over it.

Above me, the rope passes through a ring in the ceiling and down to its mooring in the wall behind me, out of view. Just a single loop of rope about each wrist – that is my only restraint. The rest of my body is free to move as it will. And yet, I am utterly helpless.

They stripped me before doing this. That, in itself, was terrifying; and humiliating, as they 'accidentally' brushed and grappled my breasts, my arse, sniggered at my hairiness. But nothing as horrifying as the moment my hands were bound in front of me, and I realised what was about to happen.

I guess I have been hanging here, gagged, for maybe fifteen minutes, the slamming and locking of the cell door still reverberating in my ears. My head lolls forward onto my chest, my view of my own naked, suspended body, feet easily five inches above the floor.

I had never considered myself possessing 'naked ambition,' but, in an ironic kind of way, that's how I got here. My job had been as a clerk for a minor support arm of the CIA. Nothing much – of course it required security checks, and ID tags – but it was hardly top secret stuff.

But then, I saw Maria. She was high up – she had been an operative in Central America and the Middle East; she was tough, smart, athletic, all the things I admired. I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be her. Maria was to be stationed in our offices for about six weeks, carrying out some kind of research.

Over drinks one night, a workmate had told me that Maria “played for both teams.” That she was bisexual, with a leaning towards women. That got me thinking … and over the next few days I made my move. Never anything tacky; but wearing just the right measure of Gaultier perfume, the right cut of blouse, paying Maria little compliments and sending her little looks.

It worked. Within two weeks she was inviting me out for a drink. I was surprised to find that she and I hit it off instantly; she was funny and fascinating, and I had no reservations about flirting with her. I even enjoyed it. The night she finally touched a fingertip to my bare shoulder and trailed it down my arm was a victory, of sorts; when she dropped me at my apartment I kissed her, full on the mouth, and accepted her tongue with a sense of excitement.

A week later, we were lovers. The mechanics of sex with a woman were easy to get my head – and tongue – around, and Maria seemed to think I was quite a prize. The pillow talk got more and more intimate, although, true to her training, Maria said little about her next assignment. Only that there would be a major sting going down soon in an obscure Central American republic.

This was what I'd been waiting for. A posting where the action was – not gun-slinging and covert missions, but a desk job where I would get to read the reports and view the photographs of what was going on, like a real-life adventure story unfolding in front of me.

To cut a long story short, I convinced her. Half of it was verbal persuasion, half of it was sexual prowess, and to be honest, a big chunk of it was the fact that she had fallen in love with me, and I was getting deeper in love with her, despite myself. And, suddenly, I found myself in a humid, ramshackle town surrounded by banana plantation, sweating through my blouse and plodding through paperwork that was a lot less interesting than I'd hoped.

I don't know how my captors figured my identity. Actually, I have a fair idea … needless to say I could have been more responsible about who I talked to … but shortly after work one evening, walking back to my temporary apartment, I was snatched from the sidewalk, bundled into a van, and driven to … who the hell knew where.

I have never been hung by my wrists before … and I am terrified.

THE INTERROGATOR:

I have been standing outside your cell for almost an hour, watching you through the observation slit in the iron door. Ah, Kirsten, Manuel did not do you justice, not even with his evil little smile.

“The prisoner has been made ready as you have ordered, sir,” Manuel reported as I looked again through her inadequate file. There was not even a photo. “She is hung up by her wrists in Cell Two. We have stripped her and searched her thoroughly and found nothing of interest. Other than that, we have not touched her. She is still gagged.” He stepped forward and spilled the contents of her purse onto my desk from a plastic bag. The tattered remains of the purse itself, torn apart in the search, were there as well.

“I will decide what is of interest. Did she put up much of a struggle? Did she seem like a professional?”

“At first, frantic, but no, I would not guess she had training. She stopped fighting us when we gagged her and pulled the bag over her head. She started to struggle again in the van and Carlo told her he would hurt her badly if she didn't stop. She tried to kick him so I grabbed her by the throat and told her the same thing in English. She stopped. I don't think she knows any Spanish.”

“Anything else?”

Manuel smiled. “She is really quite a pretty girl.”

KIRSTEN:

A long, long time has passed, and I am still hanging here. With time, has come pain, ever growing, ever spreading. The continued burning in my wrists, a stronger ache in the pits of my shoulders, that spreads in slow, hot waves down my sides. My arms are not used to carrying the weight of my body, and my straining muscles are beginning to weaken.

It is enough to make me groan. The sound, when it comes, is muffled: in addition to being hung by my wrists, I have been gagged. A cloth, packed into my mouth, held in place by a second strip tied over my mouth and secured behind my head. At first, it made me retch, and I thought I would vomit and choke to death, but in time I became accustomed to the intrusion. Still, my jaws ache from being held open by the wadding, and the gag adds to my sense of helplessness.

My eyes have been open throughout, but barely seeing. Now, with effort, I focus; I see my own bare chest, my small breasts are drawn flat by the tension through my ribcage, my nipples standing out. And far below, my own bare toes, suspended above the floor. I swing my feet, hoping to find some point of anchorage, some way to relieve the strain on my arms, but there is nothing; my toes only encounter empty air. The movement sets me swinging, slowly, tortuously. It sends intricate flashes of pain down my arms and through the muscles of my back as I move. The rope creaks, slowly and quietly.

In pain and despair, I tip my head back. My own arms, stretched hard above my head, my fisted hands side-by-side, now looking like purple lumps of dough. I stare in dumb misery at the binding; a single loop of slender rope around each wrist, tied between them in a basic knot. A knot so basic that a three-year-old could untie it. Such a simple restraint. One piece of rope, one simple knot, and I am as helpless as if I were cast in chains and a straightjacket.

I know I must be like this when my captors return. They will be free to torment me, beat me, even, God forbid, rape me. A sleeveless blouse, shorts and open sandals weren't much covering to begin with; even those few vestiges of modesty, pocket-less and incapable of concealing anything larger than a handkerchief, were taken from me and torn apart in front of my very eyes. I had worn no bra; but my panties were taken, leaving me without a stitch of dignity.

I am naked, and I am hanging by my wrists. I am utterly vulnerable and helpless.

If it wasn't for the gag … oh, if it wasn't for the gag … even like this, even hanging by my tied wrists, I could probably free myself. I could haul myself up, using the gym-trained strength of my arms, to get my mouth to the knot. But the gag, securely in place, would prevent me from drawing the knot loose with my teeth. It is as if my captors are deliberately tormenting me by tying such a simple knot, knowing I am deprived of the means to undo it.

Breathing is hard with my head tipped back, so I let it fall forward again, between my stretched arms. I exhale. The breath hisses through my nostrils, my mouth filled by the gag. The pain is growing worse, deep in my armpits, and in my elbows. I groan into my gag again, stir my feet, but there is no escape from this awful suspension.

THE INTERROGATOR:

No, Manuel did not do you justice, Kirsten. To me you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Truly. I know this although I only saw your face for a moment before your head fell forward in defeat. Of course, it may have something to do with your situation. Oh, there have been many women who have hung in your place, or been bound to chairs, or strapped on the table. But none like you. They have been natives, or mulattos with a large portion of native blood. Not that one or two have not been desirable, with their wide-hipped, heavy breasted bodies resembling the fertility statues of their ancestors. But none like you. Tall and slim and light-skinned. Your figure emphasized by the stretching of your body as you hang by your wrists, the light gold of your skin glistening with a thin sheen of sweat.

Yes, my dear, you are my first foreigner, my first gringo.

Of course, I have wished for this for a long time. Not you specifically, but an American, slim and athletic and desirable. After all, I saw many of your kind there at Langley, in your capital city, when your CIA trained me.

How ironic that it was training now to be visited upon its own operatives.

Ah, but Kirsten, you stir. I have been waiting here so patiently while you hung there with your head bowed and unmoving. But now you lift your face and open your eyes. Your eyes. No woman who has ever hung in your place has had eyes like yours. Green? Blue? Almost … both. The green-tinted blue of the sea on a clear day. They seem to shift, catching the light differently as you sway ever so slightly.

But why do you sway? There is not a breath of air in that windowless cell two floors below the ground. Of course, you are trying to pull yourself up on the ropes that torture you so, arching your back and twisting your hips, moving in any way that might relieve the pain in your shoulders and arms and wrists. Stretch your bare feet toward the earth, my beautiful captive; struggle to find purchase for your straining toes.

It gets better. You have begun to cry. Your wonderful eyes are brimming with tears, which flow over and run down your cheeks. Yes, cry for me, Kirsten; sob into your gag while you twist naked at the end of my ropes. I could watch your delightful writhing for hours I think, but the time has come. You are suffering now, but it is nothing, believe me, nothing compared to the suffering you will do for me.

KIRSTEN:

Think.

The worst thing about hanging by my wrists is that I am unable to get a clear head. The pain is tolerable, but too severe for me to focus on anything else. Every moment belongs to the ropes around my wrists, the strain in my arms and shoulders.

How long have I been here? It feels like a day. Maybe it's just a few hours. Maybe it's barely an hour. Why hasn't anybody come for me? Why am I here? For what might be the dozenth time, I throw my head back to look up in despair at my roped hands, give a muffled whimper into my gag. Pain has drawn an oil of sweat over my skin, my heart is racing. I pedal my feet briefly, knowing that they will still find no support for my body.

As my head drops forward again, I notice a tiny observation slit in the door before me. In the shadow beyond, I catch a glimpse of something. I am being watched! My reaction is involuntary: I strain into my gag to make a sound, though nothing emerges. Against my will, tears spill from my eyes at the realisation that whoever watches me has no intention of freeing me from this sadistic restraint, and, gagged, I cannot plead or bargain for release. I just have to hang, naked and stretched out, exposed to this stranger's gaze.

I lower my eyes from the door-slit, mutely regarding the concrete floor; its cool solidity taunts my dangling toes. The floor itself is featureless, apart from two simple ring-bolts, a metre-and-a-half apart, on either side of me. I dare not contemplate their purpose.

TWO – QUESTIONS

THE INTERROGATOR:

I startle you. Your head snaps up as I open the door. After the surprise, your wonderful eyes seem to register relief. Or is it my imagination – because an instant later, there is no mistaking the emotion; fear. No, more than that; terror. You try to call out to me, but not only are the words lost in your gag, but their inflection as well. There is no way to tell if you are demanding, pleading, questioning or cursing. I glance at you for a moment, keeping my face blank, then start to walk slowly around you.

I do not look up at your face, but feel your eyes following me, hear your laboured breathing, faster now than when I entered. I keep my distance no more than two feet from your naked body. I am close enough to smell a hint of perfume mixed with the aroma of fear and the slight tang of sweat. I do not know about such things, but I would like to think your perfume is expensive - maybe half a year's salary for one of our peasants.

As I pass by your side, you try to twist your body to follow me. It is more difficult than one would think, isn't it? From the corner of my eye I see you toss your head. A drop of your sweat falls on my wrist.

When I am directly behind you, you stop struggling and simply hang there moaning. Is it the same moan as when you make love, your mouth filled by your lover rather than a filthy cloth? As I contemplate that, I gently touch the tip of my swagger stick between your shoulder blades and lightly trace a path down your vertebrae to the small of your back, then gently push.

KIRSTEN:

The door is already half-way open by the time I realise somebody is entering the cell.

A soldier – an officer, in fatigues, neatly pressed. It doesn't take much to realise that this is no backyard vigilante, no third-world opportunist. Oh, fuck. I am in serious trouble. A wave of fear overruns me. My body suddenly feels weak; I am washed by a wave of cold sweat. I seem to hang even more heavily in the ropes.

I know I have to communicate with you; I must convince you that I am not the person you want. There is nothing I can give you – not money, nor information …

Oh God, he wants information.

Your eyes meet mine as you draw closer: I cannot read your expression. Suddenly I am horribly aware of my vulnerability, my nudity. Hanging by my arms, my body is open to you. You are circling me, slowly. I try to follow you with my eyes, but you move beyond the horizon of my upstretched arm. Desperately, I twist my hips, pedal my feet to track your progress, but I just end up doing an odd kind of dance in mid-air, the rope refusing to let me turn. I struggle for a few seconds, throwing my head back in frustration, feeling fresh droplets of sweat trickle down my ribcage.

I sense you are behind me. I finally accept that I cannot turn, and the realisation of my abject helplessness hits me like a physical blow. The air is knocked out of me; I feel my head rock forward between my arms, my toes droop towards the floor, and I release the last of my resistance in a long, low moan. Nausea rolls up from my belly, but I force it down. Even so, the tears squeeze from my eyes.

Something touches between my shoulder blades. Hard, rounded; the end of a cane or walking stick. The hairs on the back of my neck rise, goosebumps coarse over me, and I close my eyes tightly, refusing to react. Gently, almost sensually, the object trails down my back, riding the gentle ridge of each vertebrae – lower, lower, until it is level with my waist. Then, with gentle insistence, there is a push.

I choke back a groan as I feel an almost-imperceptible breeze on the soles of my feet. My body swings like a hoisted carcass, a slow pendulum, forwards, backwards.

THE INTERROGATOR

I walk straight to the door, not turning to look back at you. I hear you start screaming into your gag. The words are unintelligible, but loud enough to give me an excuse to turn around. The tendons in your neck stand out from the strain of your desperate effort to be heard.

“Do you wish to speak to me?” I say in Spanish. When you don't respond, I repeat it again, adding a few more words, and then again, visibly showing my impatience.

You groan, close your eyes and tip your head backwards. Tears once again start running down your cheeks. This time I say it in English, “Do you wish to speak to me?”

Your relief is palpable. Your head comes forward, your eyes wide with surprise and hope. You are so anxious to respond you forget you are gagged and I see your jaws quiver for an instant as you struggle to speak. Then quickly you nod your head vigorously up and down.

“Good,” I say in Spanish, assuming that you will at least know the meaning of “bueno.” I walk to the wall where the rope that binds your delicate wrists runs to a winch. I release the ratchet, and slowly lower you until you are able to stand flat-footed with your elbows bent so your hands are only an inch above your head. When I reset the ratchet and turn back to you I think I detect more than a little gratitude along with your relief.

Standing in front of you I make no effort to hide my gaze as it moves up and down your naked body, pausing at your breasts and the apex of your thighs. What is it like, I wonder, for a woman to be bound naked in front of a fully-dressed man? I reach forward and touch the cloth at your cheek that secures your gag. You lean forward. But no Kirsten, I am not going to remove it, not yet.

“Your name is Kirsten Smart?” I ask. You nod immediately. “You are an American?” Again you nod. “What are you doing in my country?” You stretch your neck toward me, try to speak and shake your head. “Even if you don't tell me, I will find out, you can be sure.”

Again you toss your head and grunt into your gag, pushing your mouth toward me. This time you even stamp your pretty bare foot on the cement floor of the cell.

“Are you a CIA operative, Kirsten Smart?”

You recoil at the question as though you suddenly realise the extent of your peril. I continue to keep my voice level. “Are you a CIA agent, Kirsten?” You want to explain, don't you Kirsten? Explain that you work for the CIA but you're not an agent; you want to explain the difference. You could do it, couldn't you Kirsten, if only you could speak? But there is no room for subtleties when you are bound and gagged.

“Tell me, Kirsten!” I scream, “Are you a CIA agent? Are you a spy?” And with that I slash my swagger stick across your hip. “Yes or no, Kirsten! Yes or no!” And raise my crop again. But your head is shaking desperately no, no, no.

I let the stick fall to my side and without another word walk back to the winch. Keeping my eyes on your feet I slowly take up the slack in the rope, letting each tooth in the gears click a second apart until you are on the balls of your feet, then the pads of your toes. It works out perfectly. The last click lifts you so the tips of your bare toes just brush the floor. There is a new look in those marvellous blue-green eyes, Kirsten. It is despair.

As I slam the cell door behind me, I throw the light switch on the outside wall, plunging you into darkness. I slide the heavy iron bolt loudly into place with the sound of finality. As I walk quickly down the corridor to the stairs that will take me up from this fetid place I can hear you grunting into your gag – don't leave me like this! Oh God no, don't leave me like this!

KIRSTEN:

With that single shove to my back, setting me swinging, you walk past me and make for the door. Oh God, no! Surely he doesn't mean to leave me hanging here? I shriek into my gag, a desperate, muffled sound, but it is enough to make you turn. I want to beg you to show some hint of mercy, or anger, or anything rather than this cold, inhuman passivity, and at last, there is a response. In Spanish.

I don't understand you! Please, I don't know what you just said! You say more, again in Spanish, and with a groan I close my eyes, feeling the tears start to freely flow. I have no way of communicating, even if you remove my gag.

“Do you wish to speak to me?”

English.

Yes! I try to give voice to my relief, but the gag stifles my efforts, so I nod my head.

“Bueno,” you say, apparent approval. You cross the room, moving beyond my view, to where I sense the rope that holds me aloft is anchored. I hear the sound of some kind of winch being loosened, and am suddenly aware of my body being lowered. My toes search the floor in anticipation. For the first time in what feels like hours, they touch solid ground, and it is relief beyond words. My legs, although shaky, take my weight. My arms are gradually lowered, bringing pain to my strained shoulders – but it is much better than hanging. Even breathing seems easier, and I fill my nostrils with air, fighting to gather my composure before you return.

You lock the rope so that my arms are still raised; a reminder that I am still your prisoner. My hands droop limply, my fingers numb and useless.

You stand before me once again, regarding me intimately. Your eyes travel the length of my body. It is an inspection I have endured from other men; but seldom have I been so vulnerable, and my heart quickens in fear. Not of rape: I think you have too much passion, too much focus for that. Rape is about power, and there is no question about who has the power here. No, there is something even more terrible behind your scrutiny, the way your eyes linger at my breasts.

At last, you move to release my gag. But to my dismay, you only touch the cloth that is cinched around my face, then lower your hand. “Your name is Kirsten Smart?” you ask.

Yes. I nod.

“You are an American?”

I nod again, although you must already know that.

“What are you doing in my country?”

I must speak to answer, so I offer my gag to be untied, but you don't take the hint. So I shake my head. I can't tell you that.

“Even if you don't tell me, I will find out, you can be sure.”

How the fuck can I answer you gagged? I toss my head, stamp my foot in frustration, barely fighting back tears. You're playing a sadistic game, and I have no choice but to be your pawn.

“Are you a CIA Operative, Kirsten Smart?”

That chills me to the core. How does he know that? What else does he know? “Are you a CIA agent, Kirsten?” Of course, gagged, I cannot reply. I can only regard you in horror, shake my head over and over. He knows. He knows too much about me. There is nothing I could say, even if I could speak.

“Tell me, Kirsten!” Suddenly, you shout at me: I recoil, but cannot escape the assault. “Are you a CIA agent? Are you a spy?” Without warning, you slice at me with your cane; it smacks across my naked hip, a stinging blow. “Yes or no, Kirsten! Yes, or no!” You raise your arm again: I shake my head wildly, desperate to avoid being hit again.

You drop the cane and walk from my view. My temples are pounding, my nostrils heaving air. My hip stings, but the pain is transitory: more wounding is the act of violence itself. I realise now that I have no rights, no recourse.

As all this is still sinking in, I hear the click of a ratchet, behind me. By the rope binding them, my wrists are pulled upwards. I whimper into my gag as my arms are drawn higher, straighter, until they are at full stretch above my head. You are doing it with deliberate slowness, savouring my humiliation.

Tension, through my arms, my spine; another click, and my heels are drawn off the ground. Another, and my wrists are taking almost all of my weight, only my toes supporting me. Another click, and by my stretched arms, I am lifted off the floor. I groan; by reaching my toes, I can graze the floor, but it is not enough to gain leverage or support. I may as well be hanging ten feet off the ground.

Briefly, you captor return to regard me. Even though I am hanging, your eyes are now level with mine. In your expression I see triumph … and anticipation.

I can do nothing. You have me helpless.

You turn to leave. Oh, no, no! I cannot endure another eternity, hanging by my wrists! But the door slams, and, worse, the light suddenly dies. As the bolt slides into place, I am hanging in darkness.

It's called sensory deprivation.

Time has passed, but I don't know how long. It could be twenty minutes. Could be two hours. I can neither see, nor hear anything. Suspended in the blackness, my only contact with the physical world is a burning loop of rope around each wrist, nothing more. At times, I seem to be spinning, tumbling through a void. It becomes hard to breathe; only the sound of air in my nostrils saves me from complete panic. I am no longer sure if my eyes are open, or closed. My jaw aches, slow waves of pain, my mouth forced wide for so long by its packing of cloth.

There is still the faintest stinging sensation across my hip, where the cane struck. A mild blow, but it has set a whole process of thought in motion. Only two days ago, a report crossed my desk. I should not have read it, but ghoulish fascination drew my eyes over the testimony.

“I was stripped naked and my hands were tied behind me. They had an electric baton; they touched it to my breasts so many times I fainted. They shouted questions at me and touched me again. Then they touched it between my legs, and when I cried out to stop, they put it on my mouth.”

I feel a teardrop creep down my cheek, until it is lost in the fabric of my gag.

THE INTERROGATOR:

It has been over two hours since I left you hanging in the absolute blackness of your cell, unable to see your naked body stretched out beneath you, or the floor your bare toes so tantalisingly touch. I thought I would leave you there for the rest of the night, while I finished my paper work and got some sleep. Leave you there to suffer and sweat and consider your future. But I couldn't. All I could think of was the look in your eyes when I left you, and the shining column that was your naked body. So after forty minutes I returned, not to watch you but to gaze at you.

When the lights in your cell came on you started as though shocked. Disoriented you closed your eyes quickly and then opened them to narrow slits trying to adjust to the bright light. A full minute of blinking and squinting passed before you began staring at the observation slot, and the eyes you couldn't see but knew were there.

You tried to call to me, Kirsten. The cords of your neck stood out and your jaws fought against the gag. You curled your toes and flailed your feet for a moment, then shuddered. Your head tipped back and you stared up at the ropes that bound your wrists. When you looked back at me your cheeks were wet with tears.

It made me happy to see you cry. I was the only one who could make your tears go away. I was the only one who could end your despair. I wanted to kiss your face and dry your tears. I wanted to stroke your beautiful small breasts and whisper that I would save you. Instead I switched off the light and walked back up the stairs, thinking as I walked how I would torture you in the morning.

KIRSTEN:

There can be no numbness, as long as there is pain.

The pain comes from many sources. The most urgent is that of the ropes around my wrists. Every braided fibre seems to grind into the bones, intense, like a laceration.

Less focused, but equally tormenting, is the constant strain in my arms. My elbows, and particularly my shoulders, feel intensely fatigued, and any slight movement sends biting shards along the musculature of my arms. The tendons and ligaments are unaccustomed to such unceasing stress.

There is the pain of my environment: it is stiflingly hot, and sweat constantly covers my naked body. But in the heat of this cell, it does not evaporate, and cannot cool me. My breathing quickens in an effort to dispel the heat via my lungs instead, but this only adds stress, because the gag prevents me from drawing sufficient air. The gag, too, contributes to the burning thirst that torments me. Gagged, I cannot swallow, and my throat is painfully dry.

Suspended in darkness, these are the only sensations available to me. Although I am exhausted, I cannot sleep. My mind has ceased any rational function; formless half-thoughts reverberate and swirl, materialising as phantom flashes of light or abstract sounds. When I groan, my voice sounds oddly distant, as if it belongs to another prisoner, in another cell.

Time means nothing, means everything. I have no way of measuring how long I have hung here. It must be days. But then I think perhaps it is only five minutes.

Light.

Blinding, damagingly bright, hurting my eyes. I didn't even realise my eyes were open; now, I squeeze them shut, but the brilliance invades the membranous defence of my eyelids and still hurts. My eyes seem to strobe helplessly for a long time, until the washout of white begins to subside, and I can make out the wall, with its single metal door, before me.

It is then that I realise the observation slit is open again.

You are watching me.

My reaction is anger. It takes me by surprise. I want to scream at you – I try to shout in rage, but the gag, and my dry throat, conspire to keep me silent. I kick for the floor, trying to find support for my exhausted body, but there is none. As abruptly as it swept me, my anger evaporates to despair. I tip my head back and regard the single rope that holds me so cruelly, in desperation. The tears spill from my eyes, precious fluid running down my aching cheeks to the cloth of my gag.

My head rocks forward again, and I let myself hang. I have no choice. My head has begun to hurt; an ache that is made worse by the light and heat. I cannot take any more,

Then blackness returns as you switch off the light.

I don't know which is worse. When it is light, I yearn for darkness. When it is dark, I feel disoriented, lost, suffocated. Being blind again returns my attention to my tortures; my arms hurt badly, my throat feels as if it has been burned.

Before lucidity dissolves again into the turmoil of fatigue and confusion, I wonder if I will ever be let down. What if this is how I am to die? Slowly crucified, hanging from the ceiling of some oven-hot cell? The thought does not linger: I suspect that such a death would be a mercy compared to what lies ahead.

THE INTERROGATOR:

I am back down within half an hour, unable to stay away from you. For a moment I think, why not start the real interrogation now? Why wait until morning? But I am frozen in place, staring at you.

You barely reacted to the light this time, your head lolling on your chest. Finally you raise your face to me, pleading silently for release. I am sorry Kirsten, but you must suffer some more. I should go, I have work that must be completed; but the sight of your delicate cinnamon nipples transfixes me. A bead of sweat runs from your armpit, down your side, and follows the ridge of your hip to the black triangle below your belly. There it joins a hundred other droplets, to sparkle there like dew. The heat in your cell is stifling. You have had no water. Your thirst must be unbearable, added to the agony of the ropes and the fear of torture. You must know you will be tortured. Before I turn out the light, I look back up to see your face; but your head has fallen back on your chest.

In my office, I try to concentrate on your file. You seem to lack the training of a field agent. And you don't speak Spanish. Perhaps a courier or a researcher. But if the latter, what are you doing here, and not in the capital? If the former, who are you meeting? You have only been here a few days, but the office you work in was rented months ago by a New Zealand exporter, and has lain vacant. You are alone here, and the papers we found in the office were interesting but told us so little, basically worthless. You have met no one, your conversations with locals have seemed innocent and your lack of Spanish has made them rather perfunctory.

Not so many questions, and I am sure you can be convinced to answer them. Perhaps you are ready now. Having put so many others through much more severe trials, I tend to forget that what you have endured so far can only be called torture. No, I have not torn out your toenails one by one or run electricity through your genitals. But hanging naked and alone for hours and hours in that pitch-black dungeon - by morning you just might be ready to talk. And if not, well… I picture myself spreading your lips and attaching the clips while you scream and beg me for mercy. I look down and am a little surprised to find my hand pressed against my cock. The sight of your nude body hanging there waiting for me is more than I can bear. I start to unzip my fly but shout “No!” out loud. I can't give you that victory over me. Not here in this place. Not with you so close. I will go down and look at you once more, then go home and drink and masturbate until I can sleep. Tomorrow promises to be a long day, the longest in your life.

KIRSTEN:

Light again.

It seems it had barely gone out.

This time, I cannot lift my head. It has sagged so far forward that my chin rests against my breast-bone. My eyelids, half lowered, allow a distorted perspective of my own suspended body.

I slowly become aware of a thousand droplets of sweat, that have clustered like condensation across my breasts. Even the floor, beyond reach of my dangling toes, is spattered by drops of my own perspiration. The very sight of it makes my throat burn doubly. I am so thirsty that I would lap up those salty dewdrops in a moment.

It is so hot. With my own armpits clamped either side of my head, I can clearly smell my own sweat, becoming stale; mixed with a vanilla hint of the perfume I had hastily sprayed on this morning.

I finally force my eyes upwards, managing to raise my head and look towards the observation slit. Release from suspension is no longer my focus; it is water. Whoever watches me must surely realise, by now, that I need water? Surely they won't deprive me of that? I would do anything for water. Anything at all. I try to make that promise with my eyes, but there is no response, so I let my head tip forward again.

A fat droplet slides from one underarm, tickles a slow path down my ribcage. It is the only sensation in my stressed body that is not pain; I focus my mind on its slow course. It follows the concavity of my hip, until I sense its halt at the edge of my pubic bush. I let my head slowly tip forward, not letting my focus wane. I will endure this.

THE INTERROGATOR:

As I get up to go, my eye falls on the contents of your purse. In spite of my admonition to Manuel, I had not examined them. There is not much. A lipstick that has been dismantled, your wallet that has been gone through carefully, and the other detritus of daily life. I pick up a handkerchief and hold it before my nose. I smell your perfume, but without the added mixture of sweat and fear, it seems somehow lacking. Nonetheless I put it in my pocket.

There is a small red address book. I flick through the pages with my thumb. It is totally blank. I think that a little odd, until I look at the back cover of the book and see a price sticker showing it was bought here. You have not had enough time to write in it. Then why carry it? Since I have had you followed for two days, I know it was bought before then. I turn the pages again. There is a calendar at the back of the book, one week laid out on facing pages with smaller spaces for Saturday and Sunday. I turn to today's date. In the box below, a neatly-printed blue-ink entry fills the small space allotted. Thursday: Meet M at 9. KGR815.

How amateurish. My initial thoughts are confirmed - you are not an agent. But I would very much like to speak to this M, whoever he might be.

It also means I will get no sleep tonight. I assume the “9” refers to the time of the meeting. Of course it could be an address, but probably not. If it is the time, I do not know if it is AM or PM. I need to know where and when, and who this M is. I might have less than nine hours to milk the information from you.

The other numbers? I call my Lieutenant at home, waking him, and tell him to determine what they can be. I will not spend time thinking about it. And my guess is I will know the answer from you before he discovers their meaning. I buzz for Manuel. I know he will still be here. He is always around when there are women to be tortured. I tell him to find Carlo meet me down at your cell.

“He is probably at home, asleep. I will call him. I will come down after I have reached him,” he says.

“No. Wait until he arrives before you come down.”

“Whatever you say, Sir,” he says, and smirks at me with equal measures of conspiracy and condescension in his smile. He knows I want time alone with you, and senses my motives are not as simple as his. He senses your control over me, ropes and gag notwithstanding. He takes pleasure from hurting women, as simple as that; and he is very good at it. I will get no pleasure from your pain, but the thought of breaking you, of watching you struggle to resist and then bending you to my will - this excites me more than I can possibly express. I wonder if you would understand the difference, and if you did, would you care? Would it matter to you why you are being tortured? Would your agony be any less if you knew how much I admired you?

Of course none of this matters. My job is to find out who M is, no matter what happens to you in the process. This is my only thought as I reach your cell.

When I flip the light on I see you have managed to draw your legs up so that your bare feet are six inches off the ground. Your eyes are squeezed shut and you seem oblivious to the light. So do the rats. As I watch, your thighs begin to tremble severely and your feet begin to sink slowly down. In seconds your legs are again fully extended, but only for an instant, for the moment the sole of your bare foot touches the larger rat you jerk your legs back up. For a moment you hang there with your knees pulled to waist level. It is an impressive display of strength and endurance from one who has been strung up by her wrists for so many hours. Sweating and grunting into your gag you try desperately to keep your feet in the air, but the quivering muscles of your legs can not hold any longer and inexorably your feet begin to descend. But by the time your toes are again brushing the rough floor of your cell the rats, momentarily frozen by the light, have fled into unseen cracks.

KIRSTEN

For a time, I am able to endure my suspension by focusing my thoughts inwardly.

The problem is measuring for how long: as always, it may have been an hour, or only minutes. I am too exhausted to maintain my focus: my arms ache with fatigue, and the unceasing weight of my dangling body draws their strength, and tortures my joints mercilessly. My thirst, briefly forgotten, returns cruelly, tearing my throat like sandpaper.

Sound. I hear the faintest scuffling from somewhere in this cell. At first I think it is more mind-tricks, but the sound comes again: it is real. I try to lift my head; it is still pitch dark in here, but there is somebody with me. Desperately, I moan into my gag, pleading whoever it is to reveal himself.

The response is silence.

I hang, listening. I have been subjected to enough pain and humiliation; to play games with me this way is immeasurably sadistic. My will is all but broken.

But the silence continues. One whole minute. I begin to wonder if it was my imagination after all. Perhaps I am going insane already? I hang more heavily in the ropes, my head lolling forward, and now the tears begin to spill again.

Then, the sound. Scuffling. Followed by a barely-audible, high-pitched squeak.

A squeak.

At once, the source of the sound is apparent. Mice – or rats. Scuttling along the wall, somewhere in the darkness. Oh, thank God! Rats, I can cope with. Compared with suspension, thirst, heat, and this prolonged ordeal of terror, the notion of sharing my cell with a few rats is nothing. I let slip back into a kind of pain-racked daze, no longer troubled by the sound.

I am suddenly jerked back to awareness by a sharp pain in my toe. I shriek into my gag, flick my foot upwards. A rat bit me! For a moment, I am broken. The tears return, and this time I let out a hoarse howl of misery into my gag. The pain, the thirst, the heat, and now the rats – I can't take it! I can't take it! I kick my feet wildly in the darkness, but they strike nothing, not the floor, not the rats, and my energy is quickly sapped. With a last moan of misery, I go limp again, the only sound that of the rope, slowly creaking, as my body sways with residual movement.

Time passes.

The rats seem to have gone. I am alone again, in darkness, in fear, in stifling heat. Hanging.

But suddenly, the pain again; sharp and savage, in my little toe. I bark into my gag again, kicking: this time, the rat hangs on for almost a second, before being flung off. The pain stays, a tiny wound, and I roar with misery. This time, I do not lower my feet: instead, I keep them off the ground, though I can now hear the rats squeaking and scuffling about, below me.

This new position puts extra strain on my body; on my legs, my back, my abdomen. It takes effort to maintain, and I tip my head back, heaving air through my nostrils, my aching jaws clamping on the gag that seems to have grown into my face. Regardless, I hold the position for as long as I can.

My prolonged suspension, my exhaustion from the constant pain, and my dehydrated state conspire to sap my muscles long before they would normally weaken. I feel my legs failing after only a few minutes, so, gingerly, I extend one foot in advance. My toe touches coarse fur, and I jolt my feet up again with renewed repugnance. Goosebumps flash over my naked body, little hairs stand on end. They're still down there!! I squeeze my eyes shut against tears of fright, and, quickly, rage. The adrenaline of my encounter gives me new strength, overrides the pain in my wrenched arms and exhausted spine. I grunt with frustration, flick my suspended body like a hooked fish, as if that will somehow free my burning wrists.

I hate you! I hate you! You knew, when you hoisted me, that my dangling toes would be fair game for the rats: this is one of your deliberate tortures! If only I was free, oh, God …

My anger fades quickly, dissolving into anguish, self-pity. Why me? What did I do? I begin to sob again, my eyes puffy and stinging.

Light.

You are watching again. This time, I don't care. My eyes remain tightly shut. Once more I feel my legs begin to fail, but this time, I don't fight their descent. Surely the rats are gone, now … but my descending foot touches rodent again, and this time I draw my knees as high as I can, grunting with the effort. But my endurance is gone. My legs have no strength. In my mind, I am still holding them up; but the muscles refuse and sag ever-lower. The rats are going to tear my toes to the bone, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Miserably, I concede victory to the rats; but this time, when my toes reach the floor, there is no contact with writhing sinew, no frenzied attack on my vulnerable toes. They have gone. Relief sweeps me, and the last of my strength seems to drain out through my legs. My head drops forward, my body becomes limp, the cell spins into a whirl of disorientation.

THREE – KIRSTEN'S TORTURE BEGINS

THE INTERROGATOR:

It seems a great effort for you to raise your head at the sound of your cell door opening. You look at me, uncomprehending. If there is a question in your eyes it is “why? Why are you doing this to me?”

I will answer your question.

“Have you had enough Kirsten?” You continue to stare at me. I think it is taking all your remaining strength just to keep your head up. “Do you want to know why you are here?” This time, you manage to nod your head. “You are here because you are American and CIA. But that is not why you have been punished. That is not why you are still hanging naked and alone with only the rats to keep you company. That is because you lied. Are you ready to tell me the truth now, Kirsten?”

You head inclines slightly to the side, and you nod sorrowfully to me. Above your gag your aqua eyes are vacant and defeated. They beg me silently for release before sliding shut. Your head is bowed between your upstretched arms. I have broken you, Kirsten.

I reach behind your head and unfasten the cloth that holds your gag. Immediately you start working your jaws and tongue trying to expel the rag stuffed in your mouth. After a moment, you turn up your head to me presenting your open mouth, like a dog begging for a treat. I am tempted for a moment to make you try and work the gag out yourself, to watch you while you suffer. But we need to talk and I want your gratitude. I pull the cloth from your mouth. It is hardly moist. You have also stopped sweating. You are dehydrated. You cough and retch and try to speak, but all that emerges is a hoarse croak.

I walk over to the hoist and play out six inches of rope. Your knees buckle, and you remain hanging by your wrists with your legs folded beneath you. I walk to the door. Your eyes follow me anxiously, croaking gasps still coming from your mouth. Outside the door is a bottle of water, tepid, but you won't mind. I hold it in front of you and say, “stand, Kirsten.”

You comply without hesitation, weakly finding your feet. You stand there naked, still my prisoner, arms still bound above your head, and beg, “please … the water.”

I drag out the moment, opening the bottle and sipping it inches from your pleading face. You scream, or what passes for a scream, from your parched throat. Only then do I hold the bottle to your lips and tilt it so the liquid runs out slowly. You manage a few mouthfuls, before your strength gives out, and you drop into a hang, water splashing over you.

You need to drink, so I put my arm around you and lift you up, putting the bottle to your dry lips again, so you can finish.

“More,” you beg when the bottle is empty.

“First, we will talk. And don't let my little kindness deceive you. If you lie to me I will have you tortured.” I pull you tight against me. My mouth is only an inch from your ear. “Tortured,” I whisper. “Do you understand? I will not merely string you up by your wrists; I will do things to your naked body that you cannot imagine. Now, do you work for the CIA?”

You start to talk, answering my questions, adding information, all of which I really don't need. Your speech is halting at first but becomes steadier as you go on. You are unburdening yourself of the evil secrets that caused you such suffering and that threaten worse. At every pause, you beg me for water, but I don't move and you continue to talk. I am still supporting you, holding you against me. Finally Manuel and Carlo appear, and I tell Carlo to bring more water. He does, and I let you drink deeply.

You look at me with real gratitude.

“Why are you here?”

“To get the office ready, to read and file reports.”

“That is all? No outside contacts?”

“No.”

“No field work?”

“No.”

“You are a poor liar, Kirsten.”

“No. It's the truth. I swear.” You have begun to sweat again. The water, or fear?

“No field contacts? No assignments to meet agents?”

“No. No. I'm a low-level researcher. That's all. I swear.”

I let go of you and your knees give way. I walk to Manuel and say to him in Spanish. “Tie her ankles to the floor rings then winch her tight. Then leave her.”

I turn around. You have managed to pull yourself upright and stand on unsteady legs. Manuel and Carlo start toward you and you shriek at me, “I'm telling you the truth!”

I walk around the door and wait, out of sight. I listen to your cries and screams. I think of your bare feet in their hands and I am jealous. I hear you whimper and sob with the turning winch. I must see you, so I take the chance and peer through the door slot. With your legs stretched apart and ankles bound to the two ring-bolts in the floor, you are stretched wonderfully taut, your toes still touching the floor but giving you no support.

Even with your legs so wide, I cannot see the secrets of your sex. They are veiled by the curtain of hair. So exposed, and yet still hiding your mystery from me.

KIRSTEN:

Your voice reaches me as though through cotton wool. I don't know how long you have been speaking to me. I can't feel my hands. I can barely feel anything.

“… Do you want to know why you are here?”

Of course I do. I try to nod. I don't know if I am successful. You talk again, you ask me if I'm ready to tell you the truth. I nod, though I'm not aware of ever having lied to you.

Awareness slips away again, and when it returns, you are taking the gag from around my head. I try to spit out the packing, but my tongue refuses to cooperate. I offer my mouth for you to assist: you pause, as if your added cruelty will somehow be the blow that breaks me. But I scarcely care. When you realise I'm not going to beg, you grudgingly pluck it free.

My jaw seems to have seized; it moves only stiffly, and when I try to make a sound, it grazes my throat so badly that I cough. I would vomit, but there is nothing in my stomach, not even bile. You cross to the winch and release some rope; I drop, but my legs aren't able to take my weight, so I remain supported by arms that hurt so badly it feels they have been half-torn from my body. Pain has become a constant, and I am beyond crying out.

You fetch water.

God, I need water so badly. I have never felt thirst like this, it is true torture; my throat feels like it has been scored with razors, my tongue has swollen, my lips are raw and gluey. My head hurts like nails have been hammered into my skull.

“Stand up, Kirsten.”

You sadistic bastard. It takes all my effort to stand; when I do, you still play your game, taking a drink yourself, as if you need it. I try to voice my dismay, but no sound comes. But finally, you put the bottle to my mouth. I manage to drink a little, before my legs give out, and I drop again, wrenching my agonised arms, the water splashing over me. To my surprise, you promptly hoist me up with an arm around my ribcage, and allow me to finish the water.

“More.” My thirst still rages. But you refuse.

“First, we will talk.” You tell me not to lie, that you will have me tortured. I don't feel scared, any more; I just feel sick. “Do you work for the CIA?”

“You know I do,” I groan.

“Are you an agent?”

“No, I'm not an agent. I don't have any training. I'm just an office clerk, for God's sake … please, give me more water.”

“Later. What is the CIA doing here?”

I am frustrated to the verge of tears; but tears, I know, won't get me water. “They're planning a sting on someone. Some mercenary army that's forcing farmers to grow drug crops.” A pause, while I try to moisten my cracking lips. ” … Whatever. It's all political, you know that.”

“Explain.” Even though you are still holding me upright, my bound wrists remain over my head. My arms are hurting more than ever, as circulation is restored. I'm desperate to be released, so I oblige you.

“You know how it is.” My voice still croaks. “… The Agency needs to find people who are a 'threat to national security.' … It's got nothing to do with truth and justice, or any of that bullshit.”

“No?” You seem amused. “What has it to do with?”

“Budgets,” I mumble. “Bigger budgets. And promotions. And retirement pensions.”

I can't read your reaction to my cynicism, but it gives you a moment's pause. I ask again for water, but you respond with another question. “What people? Who does the Agency think it will find here?”

“I have no idea.”

Two other men appear in the open cell door. I barely register their presence, but my ears prick up when you give the order for more water. Before asking any more questions, you give me my due reward, and I drink until my stomach feels ready to burst.

You have more questions; and I answer each, but suddenly I sense the interview going wrong. You are dissatisfied with my answers. “You are a poor liar, Kirsten.”

“No! It's the truth, I swear!” I assure you. Oh God, now what?

“No field contacts? No assignments to meet agents?”

What day is it? Thursday? I answer quickly, “no. I'm a low-level researcher. That's all, I swear.”

You suddenly release me, and I drop again. The jolt to my arms is cripplingly painful; it leaves me gasping. You are busy giving instructions to your goon. The man, whose name, I gather, is Manuel, gives an ugly grin as you leave I finally manage to half-stand; but before I can say anything more, the two start towards me, their intentions obvious.

“Hey! I'm telling you the truth!” I shriek at you. But you are gone: you do not see as the two thugs wrench my legs apart and begin to lash my ankles to the metal rings in the floor. In less than a minute, my legs are stretched apart, and I am essentially hanging again. As if that isn't enough, one man goes to the winch and cranks the rope in. I feel my wrists being hauled upwards, even when the ropes on my ankles begin to resist the pull. I give a groan of misery as my body is stretched taut.

They leave the lights on.

It is perhaps half an hour before the first cramp hits me.

I should have known. Heat, dehydration; my body is depleted of sodium, and cramp is the result. A savage pain starts in my left hip, spreads along my thigh. It is bad enough to make me cry out; worse, restrained as tightly as I am, I can't move in any way to ease the pain.

I tip my head back and bellow at the ceiling. “Oh – Christ!!” I clench my teeth so hard I hear them creaking. The sound is matched by that of the observation slit opening: having heard my cry, my tormentors are eagerly watching.

“You fucking bastards!” I shriek at the door.

No sooner does the first cramp begin to ebb, than another sets in; this time, up my right calf. It feels as if the muscle is tying itself in a knot. This time, I bite down on any screams, but sweat begins to run on my body. The cramp is joined by one in the arch of my foot. It hurts immensely, and lasts for more than a minute; just when I think I'll start screaming, it eases.

After a while, the cramps die down. I hang limply in the rope, feeling like I've just been through the most gruelling torture session. My body is wet. My head droops forward; I see my own legs, taut and shining, spread widely below me, my toes barely scraping the floor. My sex is widely exposed; ordinarily, naked, I would be embarrassed by my own hairiness. For once in my life, I truly don't care.

I realise the three of you are back in the cell. I half-open my eyes, but I cannot lift my head. Heat and exhaustion have drained me. I am still hanging naked, my legs obscenely spread. It feels like I have been here for hours; I can't feel my feet.

Manuel and his companion are busy untying my ankles as you grasp my face in your hand and, roughly, lift my chin so that I am looking you in the eye.

“Still holding out on me, Kirsten?”

I hesitate. I want to confront you, to challenge your resolve. As tough as my imprisonment has been, it's nothing a cold beer wouldn't fix. But something in your eyes warns me. Worse, a new sense of fear clutches my chest. “No,” I whisper. “I told you the truth. Please …”

“You've had your chance.” To your men: “bring her!”

I call after you as you leave. “Where are you taking me? I told you everything I know!”

They release the rope. I don't have a chance in hell of supporting myself this time, and crumple to the floor; I can barely move. My arms are screaming, my joints agonisingly stiff from so many hours' hanging. Even so, your thugs pull my hands behind my back and bind them, tightly and quickly, with a length of cord. Then, each with a hand under one armpit, they drag me from the cell.

I try to move my legs to save them from dragging on the rough concrete, but I cannot keep up the pace. We are in some kind of corridor, lit by bare bulbs, blank green metal doors. At least twenty cells. Does each one hold a prisoner? For some reason, I had presumed I was the only one, that I was the sole focus of your attention, that the information I had to give would be pivotal. What if that isn't the case? What if I am of no real consequence, and if I die under torture, refusing to reveal what little I know, you won't care?

What if you never believe me, even if I tell you everything?

“Please,” I try to Manuel. “Please, tell him I'll talk.”

“No,” Manuel says.

“'No?'” I begin to sob. “Why 'no?'”

“No hablo Ingles,” he grunts. To his comrade, “la chica es muy bonita, eh? Que pena.”

We reach a new room. This is larger than the last, some ten metres square, and as my captors drag me in, I feel the blood drain from my face. Green tarpaulins are draped over innumerable ominous shapes. For once in my life, when I imagine the worst, it is probably still not as terrible as the truth.

“Oh, god …” I am in your torture chamber.

Manuel points. “El caballo, senorita!”

Central to the room is an object I don't recognise. It looks like a large doll's-house without walls. A rectangular framework, on which is a sharply-pitched roof, its peak reinforced with metal. It is stained with rust. No, not rust …

“No!” I give a shriek of horror as it all sinks in. But I can't escape; I can barely even struggle as I am dragged further into the room. My mind is a blur. I barely notice the long chain dangling from a pulley high in the ceiling, a simple catch-hook at its end. My bound wrists, still behind my back, are secured to the hook.

“Oh, God, not again,” I whimper.

Together, the two men haul the chain. It clatters through the pulley, and my arms are wrenched up behind my back. I give a shriek as my muscles are wrenched in a cruel and wholly new way; agony explodes into my shoulders, and it feels as if my arms are about to tear from their sockets.

Again they haul, so that I am on tip-toes, my arms hurting badly. Another few seconds, and they heave again. My body is hauled into the air. I give a scream of pain. Somehow, my shoulders are not dislocated, but it is incredibly painful. I can barely breathe, my body almost hanging straight down with my arms twisted up behind me. I can feel my shoulder blades grating together.

But they are not done. Two more pulls, until my dangling toes are easily four feet off the floor. Manuel secures the chain's free end to a floor-hook.

“Let me down, please, let me down!” I wail.

Manuel laughs as he passed underneath me. “You ride the Horse, now.” His hand briefly closes on my foot, and gives it a tug. I am set twisting, and I cry out with the pain that explodes through my shoulders. I am aware of them dragging the 'horse' underneath me. I look down in misery; its smooth ridge is now directly below.

“Please,” I beg. “Please, get your boss, tell him I'll talk, please! Oh, God, please!”

Manuel just grins, and, with brutal nonchalance, grasps the chain that runs to the floor, then kicks its end free of its anchoring hook.

“Noooo-o-o!” I give a scream of terror as I plunge downwards. My feet hit the sharply-angled flanks of the horse, but they have no chance of stopping my fall. My bare soles slide off, and an instant later I land with a terrible crunch! – right on the base of my pubic mound.

For the first time in my life, I truly scream.

I have never felt pain as massive as this. It feels as if I have been split all the way to my ribcage; agony explodes up through my abdomen, focused with unbearable immensity right between my legs.

I scream again, with all of my voice. A long howl of agony. The chain has been secured, so that my arms are wrenched up behind me, how high I can't tell; but the strain in my shoulders is terrible, forcing me forwards. The restraint prevents me from shifting off the horse's cruel edge, but takes none of the weight off my agonised sex. I feel sure my clitoris has been crushed; waves of unbearable pain seem to rend my pelvic bone in two.

Slowly, over the course of five minutes or longer, the initial shock of agony subsides. But the pain is still crippling, an awful, splitting intensity between my legs. I cannot stay silent, but groan and wail. My body is running with sweat, the tears pour down my face.

By the time I am lucid enough to become aware of my surroundings again, I realise that Manuel has put heavy iron shackles around my ankles. Their chains run beneath the horse, where they are redirected to a simple winch. It is operated by a long handle at the front of the awful construction, which Manuel now cranks over, before my streaming eyes. At once, I feel the shackles on my ankles bite down into each foot; a second turn, and my legs are drawn taut.

“Please, stop!” I wail. I realise what will happen; any further turns of the winch will force me even harder down onto the metal edge. After a moment's hesitation, Manuel takes his hand from the lever. He spits on the floor, then, with a last glance at me, he leaves me to suffer astride the cruel horse.

FOUR – ASTRIDE THE HORSE

THE INTERROGATOR:

Poor Kirsten. How utterly abandoned and hopeless you must feel. You are suffering torments worse than you could have imagined possible mere hours ago, and you are helpless to stop them. Nothing you can say will stop the agony. There is no one to turn to. You would do anything to stop the pain, but there is no one to accept your offer.

I have been listening to your delirious ranting for the past hour as you suffer on the horse. I have been sitting not ten feet behind you, but you are oblivious to my presence. I have watched the sweat of agony drip off your naked body as you tried to ride out the pain. Your arms are pulled so high up behind your back that you are bent almost double, your head only six inches from the top of the horse. When you try to straighten your agonised back you can only hold the position for a few seconds, then sink back down groaning and sobbing. Your fingers flutter in the air above your tightly bound wrists grasping for…for what? Your bare feet look tiny and lost in the heavy iron gyves that chain you to the winch. Your toes curl and uncurl constantly. You can not take a breath without moaning or crying out in pain. You gasp out words in a constant stream, “Oh God … oh God, help me … somebody help me, please help me … make it stop … oh please, God, make it stop… Talking to no one, half out of your mind with pain. I can barely hear you, and sometimes your voice trails off into a tormented groan. And then, every few minutes, you cry out.

You have fainted three times; and three times, I have had Carlo douse you with cold water. The last time was only two minutes ago, and now I think it is time to have our little talk.

Your nude body is still dripping water when I walk up behind you and place my hand at the small of your back. Your tormented body jerks in surprise, followed by a yelp of pain. Any movement on the horse brings its own agony. You make a tentative turn of your head trying to see behind you, but are rewarded with more pain and I am rewarded by another cry that ends in a loud sob.

“No more, please, no more. I can't stand any more.”

I run my hand up your back to the nape of your neck. I can feel you shiver, and then tense, trying to keep from moving. “What are you going to do to me?” you sob.

I gently move my fingers through your short brown hair, and then down to press on your right cheek, and turn your head so you can see me standing on your left. Your eyes are wet with tears and glazed from pain, but you recognise me immediately …

KIRSTEN:

I know you are the one who has ordered this torture. But you are also the one person who can show mercy. The pain is overwhelming. I cannot move, but I cannot stay still. It feels as if my pelvic bone has been split with an axe, as if my sex has been hewn with red-hot knives. My shoulders scream in agony, my arms too; my back is in such pain that I can barely breathe.

“Please … help me,” I whimper. “Let me go. Please, let me go.”

“Then you are ready to talk, Kirsten?”

“Anything. Anything!” I plead. “Just take me off this thing!”

“The truth, Kirsten. You will tell me the truth?”

“I will tell you whatever you want to know,” I beg.

“First, you tell me who your contact is. Who are you supposed to meet?”

Oh, God. That is the one secret I must not reveal. I can't betray her. I shake my head. “Nobody. Please, believe me, I swear, there's nobody.” The tears are running down my face.

You don't believe me. Your hand goes to the lever. In utter terror, I begin gibbering madly, but you crank the winch. I scream at the top of my lungs as the pain seems to explode up into me; the chains have dragged my ankles another fraction of an inch down, crunching me harder onto the horse's blade-like ridge. Pain like fire sears down my legs.

I seem to be in agony forever.

Eventually, you ask again. “Who is your contact?”

Again, you reach for the lever. In dread, I can only sob, “I don't know,” over and over again.

You pull the lever, the chains tug, and the pain roars up through my tortured pussy. I scream again, and again; through barely-focusing eyes I see a bright line of blood running down the side of the horse, from between my legs.

The agony goes on, and on. My head droops, the tears and sweat dripping onto the cruel edge on which I am suffering so horribly. Even when I have no more breath to scream, I whimper and wail.

Eventually, you put your hand under my chin, and lift my face. “How much more of this can you take, Kirsten?”

“Please, please stop,” is all I can say. But you reach for the lever; and I hear my own voice rising into a trembling wail of abject terror. When you crank the winch, my wail becomes a long scream of agony. I hear an awful creaking sound from between my legs; breaking bone or rending flesh, I cannot tell, but more blood runs down the sides of the horse.

Again, the question.

I can barely speak. My head is shrieking with the pain. “No … no contact …” I answer with eyes on the lever, waiting for you to send more agony into my body; but instead, you bend to put your lips close to my ear.

“Then who is 'M?'”

God, don't ask me that. I can no longer lie. I can only shake my head.

Your hand clamps over the bare nape of my neck, and you shove me downwards. “Who is 'M!'” As pain rockets up my arms, and down my spine, you crank the lever; my extended legs are wrenched further down, my pussy is ground harder into the horse's edge, and I find myself screaming without end. The pain, the pain, the pain …

THE INTERROGATOR:

It takes three buckets of cold water to wake you, this time. You look up at me and beg, “stop, please stop … I can't take any more …”

“You will be amazed at how much more you can take, Kirsten. Now, who is 'M?'” You are trembling violently, about to go into shock. I take out the address book and open it to the page. “This 'M,'” I say. I grab you by the hair, wrench your head back, and shove the book into your face. “This M, Kirsten, this M!”

I pull your head back further and you shriek in pain. As I hold your head bowed back, you can only moan, “no, no … no …” I don't want to pull the lever; it might be too much. Every time I turn it, blood from your sex seeps down your thighs. Your slim, athletic legs look like they are ready to tear off, every muscle in your thighs and calves defined by the tension. I don't think I have dislocated your hips or knees, but I can't be sure. I need you conscious and talking.

I reach for the lever, hoping the threat will break you. Your eyes go wide with terror and your mouth opens and closes silently. Then suddenly you cry out, “wait!”

I hesitate.

“It's a friend, a friend! I'm meeting a friend!”

“What's her name, Kirsten?”

“Her name … her name is Monica, but she's nobody, she's not important to you!”

“Monica what?”

“Monica … Sampson …”

“When were you supposed to meet her?”

“Yesterday … today …oh, God, what day is it?”

“How long has she been in the country? How is she getting here?”

“I don't know … ohh … a plane … she's catching a plane … please, she's nobody …”

I turn and walk for the door.

“No! Don't leave me! Please, stop the pain! Don't leave me like this!”

I go to the phone at the end of the corridor, and call my Lieutenant. “Anything on the numbers?”

“A license plate, it would seem.”

Of course. I laugh at my own slowness. “Do you have an owner?”

“They are still checking.”

“Do this, and quick. I want to know if an American – no, if anyone named Monica Sampson flew in, over the past three days. Check the two daily flights from the US first, then all the others. It shouldn't take long. Call me here as soon as you have anything.”

I replace the phone, and return to my office; hoping, as I climb the stairs, that there is no Monica Sampson.

I wait alone in my office for the call that will decide your fate. What if the answer is that there is a Monica Sampson, and that she is not CIA? Does that mean you are free? After all, you are CIA, therefore you are still guilty of subverting my government.

Besides, I can not clear my head of our image, of your naked body gleaming with sweat, and bent agonisingly, yet still gracefully, over the horse. But mostly it is the details that excite me. The way the muscles in your long, athletic legs are etched against your skin when stretched to their limit. The way the cords that bind you to the chain from the hoist cut into your wrists. And especially how vulnerable your bare feet look, beneath the heavy iron shackles that lock your ankles to the winch. You are helpless, Kirsten. Why do you continue to fight me? I will break you in the end.

KIRSTEN

Even after you have gone, my suffering continues. My arms must surely be broken, by now; they hurt so badly, wrenched high up behind my back. My pussy is in such pain that even breathing is agony. Sweat still trickles from my body.

In this position, bent double, I can clearly see my own legs, drawn fiercely tight. They are shining wet, aching with the constant strain. In this position, too, I can see myself jammed down onto the ridge of the horse. It looks bizarre; the metal edge seems to be wedged right up into my pubic bush. The bleeding has stopped, but the pain is maddening.

After a time, I become aware that somebody has entered the torture chamber. With immense effort, I raise my head: Manuel. I give a whimper of terror, but he makes no move towards me. Simply stands there, with arms folded, watching me suffer.

In sheer desperation, I try what little Spanish I know. “Por favor, senor … es muy dolor …”

Manuel merely grins. Telling a torturer that I am in pain is like telling a pilot he's flying a Jumbo.

Compared to this, hanging by my wrists was nothing. And worse; I know that you will be back. You will soon discover my lie, and when you return, I have no doubt that you will force the truth from me. But I have to hold on. I have to resist for as long as I possibly can. Once the time of my meeting with Maria has passed, you are defeated. She'll see I'm not there, and she'll raise the alarm.

I just have to resist a little longer.

After what feels like an hour or more, the door again opens. I manage, again, to raise my head. My eyes fail to focus, but I recognise that it is you. I feel my already-thumping heart pound faster, a fresh wave of sweat runs over me. I know exactly what this means, and there is nothing I can do.

“Manuel: hook her up to the generator.”

Oh, God, no!

“Please,” I beg, trying to sound as rational as I can. “Please, don't. I've told you all I know.”

“You lied to me – again. We both know it. This time, I will have the truth from you.”

“I've been telling you the truth!” I insist, desperate to hide the rising terror in my voice. Manuel has disappeared to a corner of the room; now, he returns, wheeling some kind of gurney. Its lower shelf is loaded with half a dozen car batteries: its upper shelf with coiled insulated wires, clips, and some kind of control device. The mere sight of it breaks my composure in an instant.

“No!” I shriek. “God, please, no!”

You slap my face hard. The pain is nothing, but the shock shuts me up. “Tell me the truth!” I can't. Not yet. I can only shake my head. You close your fist in my hair, and lift my face so that I am forced to look into your eyes. “You – will – tell – me – the – truth.”

I can only stare in terror. You let my head drop again. My tears begin to flow as Manuel untangles the spaghetti of wires. The first is a thin cable, ending in a severe-looking alligator clip. Manuel calmly grasps my left nipple, squeezes and tugs it. I close my eyes. I can feel my nipple hardening and swelling against my will, responding automatically to his touch. A moment later, he attaches the clip. I give a wail of pain; it hurts badly; although the clip's teeth do not even draw blood.

“You know where this machine was made? You know who made it?” you ask me. I make no response; it is all I can do not to scream as Manuel crushes the second clip to my right nipple, my breasts now wired to your machine. “It was made in America. Yes. Given to my government by your CIA. I believe the term is … irony.”

I say nothing. Manuel picks up a heavier cable; its end is unmistakable, a car jumper-lead. He clips it to the apex of the horse, barely inches from where my crushed pussy makes contact with the metal. My eyes fill with fresh tears.

“The instruction manual – see? Written in English! Pah.” You fling the tattered booklet aside. “Manuel cannot read English. He killed three young senoritas already. I'm better to do it myself.”

“I'm begging you,” I finally say, shaking my head. Manuel has attached the final clip to the chain that runs from my right ankle. “Please, don't do it …”

“It's all right, you'll be perfectly safe,” you say, with cold humour. “I'll keep the amperage low, so there's no chance of killing you. And you sweat a lot. That means lower resistance through the skin … you won't even burn. No scars. Impressed?”

I want to throw up. “You're evil,” I whisper.

“No, I am just tired of your lies.” You finally cross to the machine, and flick a switch. We both hear the whine of a rising charge, like the flash unit of a camera. I can feel my pulse racing in fear. “We'll start with a hundred volts, ok?”

I shake my head. “Please -”

You press a switch. Agony explodes into my nipples, between my legs. My mouth flies open, I arch upwards, my eyes bugging wide. No sound emerges, but I can hear the humming of the torture unit.

You release the switch. I go limp, panting hard. Oh, God … I have never felt such engulfing agony; even the horse at its worst was not as violating, as totally overwhelming, as this.

“The next is one seventy-five volts. Who is your contact?”

“Please,” I beg.

Sparks snap loudly on my nipples, and this time I give a scream of agony. My body bows backwards, nearly snapping my arms from their sockets. You let the current run for several seconds, before releasing me. I slump, gasping. “No more!”

“Two hundred and fifty volts. Who is your contact?”

“No-o-o-o-o!!!” My voice explodes into another scream as the shock hits. The pain is tremendous, and my body arches and thrashes like a live fish on a hot pan. I scream and scream with agony, and you let the shock last even longer, this time.

When it stops, I go limp in my restraints, still cranked savagely down onto the horse. I can smell hot sweat and ozone, burning pubic hair. My whole body tingles savagely. I cannot speak. I cannot think. My ears are filled with a high-pitched whining. My mouth has gone dry.

You shock me again. Again, the snapping sparks, my straining limbs, my screams, and the agony; the unbearable, overwhelming, all-invading agony.

“Talk to me, Kirsten. Save yourself the suffering.”

“I can't,” I sob. “Please, I can't …”

“Three hundred volts.”

“No!” CRACK!! The agony is more savage still; the sparks on my nipples flash brightly, the horse seems to be buzzing with current, and all of it sizzling up into my pussy. I scream and scream, trying to pull myself from this pain, but too well restrained. I am helpless to whatever agony you give me.

The current ceases. My breasts tingle madly. I am wheezing with each breath. It feels as if I am about to die: my heart is crashing on the inside of my ribcage. My arms hurt unbearably. My spine feels as if it has been broken.

Again. And again. And again. Each time, the sparks snap on my skin, the current ravages my body, and I scream in agony. You dial the current higher, zap me again, and I thrash about in my suffering.

Blackness.

I am roused by a bucketful of water flung over my naked body. I barely have time to groan and draw breath, when you hit the switch again. I buck violently, flinging a spray of sweat and water, and scream at the top of my lungs.

“Five hundred volts.”

This time the current hits with a bang! I hear myself screaming, but it doesn't sound human. Then, even my voice trails out as my lungs refuse to draw air. The current sizzles and hums, my own limbs and bones are creaking audibly. Finally, you end the shock, and I literally fall back, sweat running from my body. For a few seconds I heave air desperately.

“Six hundred.”

“Maria,” I gasp.

“What?”

“Maria. Her name is Maria Roxas.”

“She is your contact?”

I shake my head. “Please …”

I am screaming again. The pain is a hundred times worse than before, current surging without mercy, without barrier into my breasts and pussy. Every muscle is rigid, even my fingers and toes are spread wide.

You release the button.

“She's my contact!” I blurt. “She's CIA, high up, she's coordinating it all!”

“Where were you supposed to meet her?”

“Don't,” I beg. “Please, don't make me say it!”

You shock me again. I scream like a woman possessed, and this time you keep the current going. The air runs out of my lungs, and still the agony snaps and sizzles into my body. Just as I feel my consciousness slipping, you end the current, and I drop.

“The shrine of Mary,” I squeal. “The shrine! We were meant to meet at the shrine!”

“How will I recognise her?”

“Please, don't hurt her! Leave her alone,” I beg, then give a fresh scream of agony as you hit the current again. When it finally stops, I babble, “she drives an old Volkswagen. She's already in town. Oh, God, please promise me you won't hurt her!”

I can barely believe my eyes, as you gently switch the machine off. I am left, with the clips still attached, panting and sweating, my whole body shaking. “Manuel, take her down and put her back in her cell. Give her a mattress and some water, but tie her hands.”

As you walk from the torture chamber, I slump forward into a blank daze.

Manuel shows little compassion in carrying out your orders. He loosens the chain that holds my arms up behind my back, unhooks my bound wrists. With my legs still shackled to the winch and the chains drawn taut, I remain straddling the evil horse, but for the first time I can ease myself backwards and take a little of the pressure off my swollen pussy. Manuel finally loosens the shackles, and barely catches me in time as I tip limply off the horse.

I am barely conscious as he and his companion drag me back to my cell. My wrists remain bound behind my back, but it is such a relief to no longer be under torture that I don't mind the restraint.

They dump me on the mattress. Never has a lumpy, rotting, urine-reeking piece of bedding felt so good. Even the cockroaches that scuttle out in panic and disappear into cracks in the floor can't faze me; I lie dazed on my belly, unmoving, as the cell door is closed and locked.

Breathe.

Just being able to breathe without screaming is bliss. My shoulders still hurt, but it's ache rather than agony. My sex throbs, but it's a thousand times better than riding the horse. My nipples are still tender from the crushing electrode clips, but they will recover.

The anguish I feel comes, instead, from inside. Maria. I have betrayed her, given up her name, sent danger her way. I can only hope that the time of our planned meeting has already passed. There were clues: my interrogator referred to the meeting in the past tense.

After a while, Manuel returns, this time with water. He tosses an old metal cooking-pot on the floor, fills it from a bucket, and leaves. I drink, naked, on my belly, like an animal, hands behind my back. I drink until I can't swallow another drop, then collapse back to the mattress.

FIVE – MARIA

MARIA:

Two men lead me into a large, well-lit room. My hands are behind my back, and I can't move them: I think I am handcuffed. The men are holding my arms very tightly, hard enough to bruise, but I don't feel any discomfort. I know I am barefoot – I lost my sandals, can't remember how – but the floor feels spongy and ethereal to me.

As we cross the room, I have ample time to ponder on the heavy iron shackles that hang on chains from the ceiling. The chains run over simple pulleys, to hooks in the rear wall. There are shackles, too, on the floor, anchored on short chains. I should be afraid. I am not.

They turn me about, so that I am facing the entrance. The cuffs are off, now, and I watch with a sense of detachment as my arms are lifted up-and-out, the shackles closed about each wrist. They are locked with a key, and I find myself impressed, rather than frightened, by the seeming permanence of such restraint. I won't even try to free my wrists, because, short of cutting off my hands, I am trapped in these shackles until my captors choose to release me.

One of the guards is kneeling at my feet. Slowly, I drop my head forward to watch as he places my left foot out to one side, closes and locks the shackle about my ankle. The same is done with my right ankle, so that I stand with legs spread, arms in an 'I-surrender' position.

Now that I am secured, my captors go to the chains behind me. I hear them clanking through the pulleys overhead, and look up to see my wrists being dragged upwards. I feel the strain down my arms, through my shoulders, my spine: I feel my belly drawing out, and I am forced up onto the balls of my feet.

I look down. My bare toes are splayed on the concrete, light brown against the grey. Half my weight is on my feet, half on my wrists and arms.

One of the guards appears in front of me with a knife. Should I be afraid, now? He grabs the untucked hem of my polo shirt, and begins to slice upwards. It is like cutting butter. I watch with vague interest as the material parts: when he is done, the two halves remain over my breasts, preserving my modesty. Already, the guard is slicing the right sleeve and shoulder of my shirt; now, part of it falls away, and it is only a few seconds more before I feel the remnants of my shirt slide down my bare back.

He kneels at my feet, and slices the cuff of my pants, then continues upwards. I can remember buying these designer-label jeans; over a hundred dollars. Such a shame, they're ruined, now.

A few seconds later, I am standing in nothing but my bikini-brief. For the first time, I feel sad. These are brand new; I wore them for Kirsten. I wanted to look sexy for her. I'm not sad that they, too, will be sliced from my body; rather, the realisation that I may never see Kirsten again.

“She never got to see them,” I pout.

The guard looks at me oddly. He thinks it's the drug they gave me that prompted my sad reflection. Maybe it is. But I recall how I had eased the barely-there silk underwear up over my hips in delicious anticipation of having them removed by Kirsten. My lover. My soul-mate. My goddess.

It is a month since I saw her last, and I had imagined the passion with which we would celebrate our reunion: after we had finished our brief business, we would sweat and moan and kiss and bite in the late-afternoon heat of her room.

I am naked, now. Naked, but not for pleasure. Not for the touch of the woman who loves me. I am naked for torture. That is why I am in chains - to hold me for the torture. I will probably die under torture, while Kirsten is a hundred miles away.

I feel a tear slide down my cheek.

If my guards notice, they do not remark: instead, they leave. The door slams shut: a moment later, I feel the slight breeze of its closing, brushing my bare skin. I am left, half-hanging in chains, to await the torture.

KIRSTEN:

“Despertar!”

I open my eyes. My head hurts terribly.

“Despertar, puta! Fuck!” I hear boots on concrete; suddenly, a hand hooks around my bound arm and hauls me up off the mattress. I give a shriek of panic.

“Please! Don't hurt me!” I am on my knees, kowtowing like a Chinese peasant, with hands still roped behind my back. “Please! I was sleeping, that's all!”

“You, up!” It is Manuel's thug comrade, Carlo, in the company of two armed soldiers. He seems frustrated by his inability to communicate. “Vamos!”

Shakily, with the man's help, I get to my feet. It hurts – every muscle hurts – but at least I am able to walk. He leads me out of the cell, and I feel my heart quickening at the awful prospect of further torture. “Where are you taking me?”

“La baƱo.”

Some bathroom. A bare concrete cell with a drain in the middle, a single tap over a large metal drum full of water. There is a plastic scoop alongside, a cracked cake of soap. I stand, shakily, as my wrists are untied. “Go. Vamos! Nada sangre, comprende?”

I nod dumbly. “Comprende,” I manage.

The door is locked, and I am left alone. The relief that I am not to be tortured again is overwhelming; I crash to my knees, falling on my hands. For the first time, I see my wrists. They are black with bruises, deeply grazed, and my hands themselves are swollen and purple. Oh, God, what have you done to me?

I realise that I stink. My body smells of old sweat and blood; my armpits are sour-smelling and stubbly. Slowly, I reach for the scoop, dip it into the tepid water.

Bliss.

Goosebumps course wonderfully over my bare skin as I tip water on to my shoulders, letting it run down my back. I use the soap to work up a slippery lather, washing the taint of suffering and fear from my naked body. Even the sting of water on my abraded wrists feels cleansing. I kneel back and slowly dribble water down my belly, letting it trickle through my pubic bush and gently soothe my wounded sex. The water that runs off my thighs is pink with old blood, and I chase it with scoop after scoop, until all traces of my injuries are washed away.

The door opens before I am finished, but Carlo has run out of patience. Without a word, he motions me to stand. He bundles a single item of clothing at me – a rag of a dress. Once it must have been white; now, tattered, it is dull grey. Carlo indicates that I pull it on, and I obey, even though I have long become accustomed to my own nudity, and no longer care who sees me. The garment is sleeveless, and several sizes too small for me, its frayed hem ending halfway up my thighs. I try not to ponder on the fate of the dress' original owner.

When I am clothed, my hands are again tied behind my back; firmly, though not painfully. Finally, a strip of heavy black cloth is produced. For a moment, I think I am to be gagged again: but the cloth is, instead, placed over my eyes, tied behind my head.

Finally, a moment I had feared would never come: I am led up, out of this dungeon of hell.

MARIA:

My sense of time is still hazy, a consequence of the drug. It seems barely seconds have passed, when the door opens again. A woman enters, followed by a small entourage of men. She probably has men following her everywhere; she is beautiful, an African-Spanish mix. Grace and strength, deep-coffee skin and a tumbling mane of brown-black hair. She is my height, perhaps taller, 5'9. She could be in her thirties, forties, fifties; ageless beauty and a perfect complexion. Even the unimaginative clothing, shapeless army slacks and a khaki tank top, only seems to flatter her figure.

She regards me coolly, then motions to one of the men. He comes forward, checks the dilation of my pupil. A moment later, he is slipping a hypodermic into the base of my neck.

My head begins to clear immediately.

“Hello Maria,” the woman says. Her voice is that of a teacher talking to a new student. “You know why you are here, and you also know what happens to people like you in places like this, but just to set the record straight, my name is Gomez and I am going to torture you.”

Gomez. It is a name known to everyone who works the trade in Latin America. Cuban, she worked for Fidel for years, until her cruelty became too much even for his people. She disappeared into the East for a while - China, Russia, North Korea, no one was certain where. Maybe all three. Then, ten years ago, she surfaced again in South America, a freelance operative working for anyone with need of her particular skills. Her name was like that of the boogeyman, used to scare children. “If you're not careful, Gomez will get you,” we would joke in the same way you joke about dying in a plane that is riding out rough weather.

I never realised she was so beautiful. She must be well over forty, and yet would outshine many twenty-year-olds. Not that her beauty has any softening effect on me, as I realise that, now, the infamous Gomez has me hanging naked and helpless.

“Ah. I see you recognize my name.” Shit. I've got to be more careful. I stare straight ahead, not looking at her. “Not going to say anything, are you? A good strategy, I suppose. Let's see how long it lasts. Look around you, Maria.”

I won't. I refuse to obey any instruction she gives.

She seizes my jaw and forces my head to the right. I think of shutting my eyes, but that would only betray my growing fear. So I regard the torture chamber with feigned composure. It is clean and gleaming, as spotless as an operating theatre – but the size of a high school gymnasium.

“Why do you insist on resisting me, Maria? You can't. I can make you do anything I want - talk, scream, beg, tell your most precious secrets or betray your most cherished friends. I can make you do things so demeaning, you would rather die than perform them. By the time I am done with you, you will do anything I want, even if it means only a brief pause in the pain. That's why I love what I do.”

“Fuck you,” I growl. I've got to stoke my anger, replace the fear. That's the only way I'll get through this without breaking. “Why don't you just get started, you bag of shit.”

She giggles, a silly schoolgirl giggle, and my heart drops into my stomach. “All in good time, Maria. I am in no rush. I like to do things slowly. Very slowly.” And she turns my head to the left, so I am looking at a large wooden table fitted with straps, cranks and levers. “That is where your torture begins, Maria. Stretched out naked on that table. Is there anything you want to tell me before we start?”

All I can do is shake my head.

“Just as well. I wouldn't believe you anyway. After a few hours of torture, I will have a lot more confidence in what you say.” She turns to one of the guards, a large muscular brute. “Hold her head,” she orders. My face is swallowed up by a huge hand that squeezes my cheeks so tightly my mouth is forced open. It hurts, but I do not cry out. I feel Gomez undoing the pins that hold up my hair; a moment later, it cascades down my bare back. And, while the giant still squeezes my jaw, Gomez carefully removes the two small diamond studs from my ears. That insignificant gesture tears at my soul. It is her ritual announcing that I am now totally naked, and my torture can begin.

There is the buzz of a phone, followed by Gomez's voice, “wait. We have a visitor.” She looks annoyed. Has her fun been ruined? She looks at me and I look at her, remaining inscrutable. Don't let her see any humanity at all.

A buzzer sounds, and Gomez scowls and walks to the door.

KIRSTEN:

The journey takes several hours, and is desperately uncomfortable. I ride in the back of a van, or small truck; still blindfolded, still with hands tied behind my back, a soldier sitting on either side of me. For whatever reason, the windows are kept shut, and it is stiflingly hot. I am sweating profusely; my ragged dress becomes damp, sticking to my back and sides. But worse is the odour of the guards flanking me. The smell, in combination with the truck's rolling, lurching motion, soon names me nauseous. But I won't get any sympathy for throwing up, so I fight the feelings.

Finally, after a long time on the road, I sense that the van is descending a ramp into some kind of garage. We come to an abrupt stop, and I hear a heavy roller-door being drawn shut, the sounds of military boots echoing in a concrete enclosure.

“Vamos.” I am dragged out of the van, and follow my captors blindly, stumbling, barefoot. Through a doorway, along a corridor, then to a spiral staircase. The ridged metal stairs hurt the soles of my feet as we clamber down for what seems a frightening distance.

Nobody speaks. I am conscious of being intensely vulnerable, my hands still roped behind my back, blindfolded, walking to whatever fate awaits me.

A hand on my arm stops me, and I am turned to the left, marched forward a few more paces. A woman's voice. “Remove her blindfold.”

Light explodes into my eyes, and my mouth drops open. “Oh, God, no!”

Maria.

Strung in an 'X' in heavy shackles, the woman I love half-hangs naked in the middle of a brightly-lit room. Her head droops forward, her athletic body drawn into definition by the position in which she is chained. The muscles of her arms, firm and lean, defined and hard: her round breasts riding high on her raised ribcage, chocolate nipples casting minute shadows beneath the lights. The muscularity of her belly, a six-pack most guys would be envious of. Then the gentle, fluffy trail of hairs below her navel that leads to her neat black pubic hair. Her thighs are spread; the muscles are defined, her calves taut and gleaming, tapering to her down-pointed feet, ankles enclosed in shackles like those about her wrists.

Her naked body is so well known to me; but to see it like this, exposed to all, helplessly chained, makes my heart plunge, my mouth goes dry.

I look around. Soldiers; easily a dozen, all staring in undisguised lust at my naked girlfriend. And a woman – looking at me. My eyes fix to her with a mix of dread, and fascination. She is tall and graceful, high cheekbones and full lips, black bat-wing eyebrows and a mane of brown-black hair. I can only guess at her age, but I would say forty. She makes shapeless fatigues look like high feminine fashion. Her athletic muscularity rivals Maria's. And yet, despite her beauty, her eyes are as cold as a crocodile's.

I know she is the one in charge, and I shake my head in desperate pleading. “I beg you, don't hurt her. Please, don't hurt her.”

“Kirsten.”

Maria's voice draws my attention. She sounds as calm and confident as ever, a voice of reason and control, but I can detect an edge of something – fear, anxiety. For a moment, I am looking into her coal-black eyes, and she manages a tired smile. “Don't, Kirsten. Don't give them anything.”

Slap!

The woman is suddenly between us, slapping Maria hard across the face, then spins towards me. I shrink back against my captors, expecting a blow, but the woman instead points toward a table that looks like something from a horror movie. “Secure her so she can watch.”

I know begging is pointless, but I protest all the same as I am dragged towards the awful table. I don't even want to look at it. While two guards hold me tightly, a third unties my wrists – then reties them in front of me. A length of rope is lowered from a ceiling pulley, attached around my bound wrists. I fall silent, sullen, not even bothering to complain as the rope is hauled in, my arms are jerked unceremoniously over my head. This time, at least, I am only hauled up onto the balls of my feet – it could be worse – and the end of the rope is tied off.

I have my back to Maria, my face towards the obscene table. It is surrounded by other things; gurneys, covered shapes. God, I don't want to know. Secured, arms stretched over my head, I stand and wait.

MARIA:

I hear the door open but the only sound following is a shuffling of feet. I start to raise my head, and there is a gasp “Oh, God, no!”

Kirsten. My love – here!

I don't want her to see me like this, spreadeagled in front of these men, naked and helpless. A prisoner at their mercy. Then I see how she is held, that her arms are bound behind her, that she is wearing a torn and grubby shift, that she is barefoot. What have they done to her? My head is spinning. The blood is pounding in my ears. Kirsten is saying something to Gomez, but I can't hear what. I cry out to her not to talk, not to give Gomez anything.

Gomez spins around and backhands me across the face. My head snaps back and I taste blood. It clears my head. She turns from me quickly, and we both know that I have won a small point: she lost her temper. But now she is back in control of it.

And of Kirsten. Kirsten is pleading with Gomez, sobbing hysterically.

“Don't beg!” I call to Kirsten, stricken that my love should be reduced to this, plead with this animal. I want to tell her more, tell her to be brave; but at that moment, the guards drag her away. As they do, I see that her ankles and wrists have been grazed, rubbed raw and deeply bruised. These are not the marks of simple restraint; these are the signs of a struggle so desperate, she was oblivious to the pain it caused. That could only be because the pain she was suffering was a hundred times worse. They have already tortured Kirsten.

“You stupid, stupid fools!” I accuse. “She's just a kid! She doesn't know anything!”

Nobody is listening to me. On Gomez's orders, three men take me down from the chains. First, the giant and another guard release my wrists, and twist my arms behind my back. The giant then takes both my wrists in one massive paw and pushes them up almost to my shoulder blades. His right biceps goes around my throat, killing any chance to call out to Kirsten. He pushes against me, pinning my arms between us. and lifts me so I am curved against him, my face to the ceiling, my feet off the floor. He grinds his hips into me. His uniform rubs against my bare skin from my shoulders to my buttocks. It makes me aware of my nudity, my vulnerability, but I block my mind to it. The other two have freed my ankles, and now, the three carry me across the torture chamber.

Pain is inevitable. I am going to be tortured. Accept it. Accept the pain. I can do it. But why Kirsten? Why did they have to torture my poor, innocent Kirsten? Then it hits me. She did know something. She knew about me. Oh God, how she must have suffered for me. Why did I ever let this happen? It's my fault. I wanted her here, with me. Oh God I'm sorry. Forgive me, Kirsten.

They stop. I turn my head and see the table prepared for me. And Kirsten – strung up by her wrists not six feet from the table. I try to call her name, but I am swung into the air, and crash down hard onto the torture table. Before I can recover my breath, they have strapped down my wrists and ankles.

My arms are pulled straight above my shoulders, the heavy leather straps holding them palms up. I manage to lift my head to look down the length of my naked body. My ankles are strapped between adjustable wooden blocks that press at the bones. I try to twist my feet. I can't. I can't move my feet an inch. They are being held for torture. She is going to torture my feet. My toes. Oh God, give me strength. She is going to torture every part of me until I talk.

Gomez is at the side of the table, turning a wheel. My legs start to spread. The bottom half of the table opens into a 'V.' Gomez is not looking at me; she is watching my crotch. She keeps turning the wheel, forcing my legs farther and farther. The apex of the 'V' is halfway up my buttocks, leaving my sex totally vulnerable.

The wheel turns. My legs are being forced wider; it's like doing the splits. Uncomfortable strain spreads up my hamstrings and quads. My hips begin to hurt. I turn my head, sucking my lip against the growing pain. Further still: there is a loud pop! from one hip as the joints accommodate the strain; now, my legs are widely apart, easily a metre and a half. I can't help it; I give a groan. I arch and twist trying to relieve the pain that is tearing at my hips, but I know this is nothing. Nothing.

There is another wheel at the top of the table. Each turn moves the top section of the table higher. My wrists are strapped to that section. I am being stretched. With my legs spread so wide I can't even fight it. I groan.

Kirsten screams, “Stop it! Stop it!”

I try to lift my head, but the next turn of the wheel bangs it back to the table. All I can do is look up at her. We are so close. I want to kiss her one last time. She strains toward me. I can't even do that; I'm stretched too tight. I want to tell her I love her, but I can't. They'll use it against me. Against her. A trickle of blood runs down her bare arm from her bound wrists.

Another turn of the wheel and I groan in pain. I lie, gasping for air. Oh God, it hurts. The next turn of the wheel will bring real pain, the pain of the rack.

Kirsten is screaming “No! No! No!” and shaking her head.

“Kirsten …stop. I'm okay …” My stomach is taut as a drum. I can only gasp out a word at a time.

“Stop hurting her. Please, stop hurting her!” Kirsten is begging.

“Kirsten, stop …”

“Maria. Oh God, Maria. I'm sorry. Oh God, I'm sorry.”

KIRSTEN:

I can't believe this is happening. It is a nightmare – the only thing worse than being held prisoner and tortured, is to be a forced witness to the torture of the woman I love. She is beautiful beyond words, tender and sweet, smart and funny – and now these animals want to hurt her.

I tip my head back and tug in futile misery at the ropes binding my wrists, half-hanging me here. Behind me, across the room, there is scuffling, grunts, and then Maria shouts something, words in my defence – as I, the one who betrayed her, hang uselessly silent. Seconds later, she is brought into view – carried like a sack of rice between three thugs. In moments, she is slammed down onto the table in front of me. I whimper in frightened protest as she is bound to it, stretched lengthwise, arms above her head, and secured in place.

The woman I had seen earlier steps to the side of the table. With a glance at me, and a sweet smile, she puts her hands to a wheel, and begins to turn it. Cranked on some kind of ratchet system, the lower portion of the table splits apart, forcibly spreading Maria's legs.

I am transfixed in horror. Never mind the possibilities of torture presented by such a device; it is hideous on its own, opening Maria's long and muscular legs, presenting for all who care to look the dark treasure between her thighs. Once, its secret had been mine alone. She had lifted her hips to my gentle touch, opened her legs to my tongue, and I had lapped at her sweet juice as if it was nectar. But now, as her legs are spread wider and wider, I feel as violated as she.

The woman keeps turning the wheel.

Maria's legs are already stretched widely apart. But the woman keeps going. I see the muscles in Maria's sleek legs drawing taut, tendons pulled tight. She is being forced to do the splits! It's all I can do not to cry out in horror. I hear a pop! and Maria's head rocks back, proof that she is already in pain.

Finally, when Maria's legs are obscenely spread, the woman stops. But she moves, instead, to the head of the table. There is another wheel; and the moment she turns it, I realise what it is for. The upper half of the table separates from the lower, and Maria is stretched by the wrists.

The effect is instant. Maria, my beautiful Maria, gives a groan of agony. It spears me with horror, and I jerk wildly on the ropes holding my hands above my head. “Stop it! Stop it!”

Hearing me, Maria starts to lift her head – but she is stretched again, and pain throws her head back. She is stretched again: I can see her ribcage, in stark definition, heaving as she fights to endure the pain. The muscles of her shining arms and the tendons through her armpits are taut like cables as her body is wrenched to its very limits.

I can't take it any more. I begin screaming, begging them to stop torturing my Maria. Maria is trying to speak to me, but I don't want to listen, I just want them to stop, stop, stop. She is stretched again – and then the goons move in, two men closing on the table, blocking my view.

At the same time, another guard comes up to me. I have time only to gasp in fear, as he shoves a wad of fabric into my mouth – Maria's own panties. I give a muffled wail as my new gag is secured with a strip of cloth about my head. I am rendered mute, hanging helplessly, a silent witness to whatever tortures they now choose to inflict on my defenceless lover.

SIX – MARIA'S TORTURE

MARIA

It hurts to be this stretched. It hurts badly. This is the most testing yoga stretch and then doubled: there is burning in every muscle, all down my arms, through my shoulders. Worst of all are my legs; it feels as if I have been split apart. Physically, I didn't think it was possible for my legs to be spread so wide, so straight. It is only sheer mechanical force that has achieved such a position, and the pain through the joints and tendons of my hips is crippling. It is all I can do not to let my discomfort show.

Gomez makes it clear that I am not actually being tortured yet: “I had a chance to interview another woman employed by the CIA. Younger than you, I think. Maybe 25. It is so hard to remember, because by the time our little conversation stopped, she looked much, much older. Her name was also Maria, or rather Mary. Mary Campbell. Did you know her?”

She looks down into my eyes. I return the stare, if only to affirm my resolve. Of course I knew Mary. She had been a protege of mine at the very beginning of her career. Gomez knows that. She knows everything that Mary knew. She knows that I saw the report from the defector, too. No details, only that Mary had broken in a matter of hours. That Gomez kept torturing her, while Mary screamed out everything she knew, over and over. That Gomez made her beg her for mercy, then beg her for death. That Gomez kept torturing her anyway. The doctor kept her alive and conscious for six days.

Gomez is smiling down at me. “Did you ever see her naked?”

I want to spit in her face. I want to tear her eyes out. And I lie here helpless. I can't move. Knowing this, Gomez gloats and taunts me, savouring my helplessness. “She was very - how do you Americans say - cute. Or is it sweet? I do not know the difference. No matter, she screamed for me. Right on this table, as naked as you are. She screamed until the only sound she could make sounded like chickens running in a yard. Then I loosened her a little so I could watch her squirm.”

I know what she is trying to do, but I can't help but imagine poor Mary writhing naked and screaming on this torture table. I can't help seeing the excitement in Mary's face when she told me she had her first undercover assignment. And I can't help remembering how I didn't tell her she didn't belong with the Company, that she should be surfing in California with her boyfriend. That is what I wrote on her fitness report, but my superiors ignored it, said she was tougher than she looked.

“You will scream for me, too, Maria. Perhaps not as quickly as sweet Mary Campbell, but you will scream just as loudly. And you will talk. Oh, you do not think so now, but you will, believe me, Ms. Roxas.”

Oh Christ she knows my full name. How? That was covered!

They got it from Kirsten.

“I know you will tougher to break than little Mary, or Kirsten here.” She leans down close to my face and says to me in Spanish, “I know how you held out in Mexico, Maria. Very impressive, but they were only amateurs. You will talk for me.”

My heart freezes. If she knows about my eight hours tortured by the drug dealers, what else does she know?

“They pulled out your toenails, didn't they, Maria? Every one of them. And you didn't admit you were an agent. And strappado too, no? Did you scream then, Maria? Did you scream for them?”

Yes I screamed. I screamed and I begged. Because that is what an innocent Mexican shop girl would do. And finally they believed me, and dumped me in a field. But I won't scream for you, because it is not going to get me free.

“You know why you made it through that, Maria? Because there was the possibility of an end to the pain. Because they wouldn't believe anyone could stand eight hours of torture and not talk, and you knew that. You knew that eventually they would let you go. It gave you a goal. But I won't let you go, not until you have told me everything you know. There is no end other than confession.”

You're not just trying to scare me. I know that you mean every word. I know that hell, for me, starts here and now. You are going to hurt me beyond imagination. You are going to do things that will make me beg for death – but death will be beyond my reach, no matter how I might beg for it under your torture. I have never felt so helpless in my life. Tears run down the sides of my cheeks. I can't stop them, any more than I can stop my nipples from stiffening in the cold. Any more than I can stop the torture that is soon to begin. But I don't make a sound.

“Now,” Gomez says, clapping her hands, “Let's see how I compare to those Mexicans.”

I hear her footsteps move away from me. I can no longer hear Kirsten. Is she still there? Why is she so quiet? What have they done to her?

Gomez is back, standing at my head, holding long-nosed pliers. From the corner of my eye I see motion. It is Kirsten thrashing around at the end of her rope. She is silent – gagged. But I am not thinking of her; I am thinking about Gomez, who has walked down to my right foot.

THE INTERROGATOR

I have seen Gomez work before. It was not something I enjoyed. She tortured a pretty young American beyond endurance, until the girl was a raving lunatic. It was a mercy when she died. I do not want to see Kirsten end up like that. The other one - the one named Maria - I really don't care. She will suffer the most horrible of torments, and for what? Well, that is between her and Gomez.

I am here because I cannot get Kirsten out of my mind. I drove here separately from the truck; in fact had not intended on coming at all. But all morning I sat at my desk thinking of her. Remembering her screams and how she begged me to stop torturing her. Remembering how beautiful she looked and how her beauty seemed to grow with her pain. Remembering how I had broken her to my will.

By the time I arrived Maria had already been splayed out on the torture table, naked and sweating as Gomez stretched her taut and then beyond into the realm of agony. Still she had not screamed. But Kirsten had, and it was to Kirsten my eyes were directed.

Her arms were stretched far above her head where her wrists were bound to a rope that hung from the ceiling and kept her on the balls of her bare feet. The short prison dress she wore - no more than a rag really - was hiked high up on her thighs. She was gagged but I could still make out an occasional word or two as she screamed out in protest, “stop” or “oh God” or “Maria.” Despite the pain it must have caused her she thrashed about on the end of her tether like a kite in the wind.

At first I thought it was no more than the natural reaction of watching another woman tortured so brutally, especially one that was a compatriot. But it did not take me long to realize that there was more in her stares than mere empathy for another human being. They were lovers. And as this realization grew, so did my anger and my hatred for Maria. I was happy now that she would suffer in the most horrible way imaginable, and that Kirsten would have to watch it. After that, well, who knew?

KIRSTEN:

I am given a clear view as the woman finally starts to torture my lover.

After ten minutes of posturing and threats, during which I half believed they would turn out to be a sick bluff aimed at forcing information from Maria, the woman produces a pair of slim, petite pliers, and poises them over the nail of Maria's smallest toe.

“Shall we talk?” she invites calmly.

“Fuck you, Gomez,” Maria says in a strained voice.

Nothing I can do will prevent this. Gomez grasps Maria's little toe, and thrusts the pliers onto the nail. Their sharp lower jaw sinks deep into the nail bed with a soft 'pop,' dark blood quickly appearing, and Maria manages to jolt, despite the severity of her restraint. A groan follows as the pliers are squeezed onto the nail, and Gomez begins to turn and tug.

There is nothing gentle about it; she is wrenching at the nail as if it's a tooth to be pulled, yanking poor Maria's toe so hard that it must be almost dislocated; blood blossoms more quickly around the pliers as the nail begins to lift from its bed. Maria gives an involuntary groan. The pain must be savage. Sweat is beginning to bead on her bare breasts like condensation. She is shaking visibly. I try to scream out, but I have been denied voice; I cannot protest, cannot even beg on her behalf.

When Maria's toenail finally comes free, she gives a grunt of pain. The last few strands of bloody flesh stretch and separate, the nail torn away and discarded. Maria is heaving for breath, stretched so tautly she cannot move a millimetre. Her teeth are clenched tight.

“That was a warm-up,” Gomez says chillingly. “This one will hurt.”

She crosses the gap straddled by poor Maria's widely-splayed legs, to the other foot. From her equipment tray, she picks up a small hammer, a three inch nail.

Maria gives a low moan as the iron tip is worked gently under her large toenail. Gomez raises the hammer. “Suffer, bitch.”

She hits hard. The hammer strikes home with a solid thunk! and the nail is driven deep under Maria's nail. Maria gives another long groan as blood plumes around the point of entry. Gomez strikes again, and blood splats onto her face. She laughs. I feel like vomiting; I can see that the tip has gone right down into Maria's toe, half tearing the toenail from its mooring. I would be screaming by now, and I can see the sweat shining on Maria's skin, her stretched, spread body shaking in her efforts to endure without shrieking out.

Calmly, Gomez selects another nail, lodges its tip at the end of another toe, and begins tapping with the hammer. I close my eyes, but I cannot block out the 'tink-tink-tink' and the agonised moans of my Maria. The nail is driven deep under her toenail, until its tip finds bone.

Then another nail. I can't fathom how Maria manages to refrain from screaming in agony; before long, her six largest toes are bristling with nails, one protruding from each. Bright lines of blood streak the pale soles of her trapped feet. Just watching her ordeal is exhausting; I am aware of hanging limply from the rope binding my wrists, my hands numb, the sweat glossing my skin and soaking my dress in ragged patches. I am half-grateful for the gag; compelled to silence, I cannot protest – which would only call attention to me, and invite possible torments as savage as those I am being forced to witness.

Maria must be in a world of pain. Her poor, tortured toes; her body contorted by the rack on which she lies, legs widely splayed and arms pulled almost to dislocation above her head; her hands are purple with the pressure. She is a vulnerable and pathetic sight.

Gomez idly takes one of the hammered nails in her fingers, and begins to work it back and forth. Maria gives a gasp, rocks her head back in agony. “I don't know how much of this you can take, Maria, but there's a whole lot more I can do to you. We haven't even started.”

“I'll die before I tell you anything,” Maria gasps.

“Die?” Gomez gives a laugh, deriding Maria's apparent naivete. “The one thing I can guarantee is that you won't die. Not yet, anyway. Though you'll soon be praying for it.”

Gomez's words to Maria are enough to send a shock of fear so savage through me that I pee myself, a small warm trickle down one thigh. I squeeze my eyes shut against tears. Maria's reaction is not so apparent, but when she gives a shout, I open my eyes again: Gomez has the end of one protruding nail in her fingers.

“We need to talk,” she says calmly. “About operatives: names, locations, assignments. Liaison points. Intelligence.” With each word, she twists the nail. Maria's toe looks as if it will be twisted off, and as the nail grinds around under her toenail, she gives barely-suppressed shrieks of pain. Her stretched body is shaking violently.

Gomez pushes down hard on another hammered nail, and Maria gives another yell of pain. “Talk to me, Maria. Talk, and maybe you'll be able to walk again one day.”

“Go to hell,” Maria chokes weakly.

Gomez walks from between Maria's spread legs, returns to her instrument table. The device she returns with is something I have read about, seen photographs off, but never seen in reality. An electric baton. Two small electrodes at its tip.

Slowly, deliberately, Gomez touches the electrodes to the iron tip of a nail, then pushes the button. The sound is like a firecracker going off: BANG!! A bright spark, a puff of smoke, Maria's whole foot jolts with impossible violence, and Maria gives the first true scream I have heard her utter. It is bloodcurdling. Gomez shocks her again. A third time, and the nail suddenly explodes from her foot, pinging across the room. Her shattered toenail is flung away, tiny droplets of hot blood spray in a crimson corona.

Maria's long cry of agony continues for half a minute.

The torture continues. Gomez touches the baton to another iron nail, zaps it half a dozen times. By the time she pauses, I can smell burning flesh, can see steam – or smoke – wisping up from Maria's tortured foot. Her screams are terrible. The cruelty of the torture is incredible: by means of the nails hammered beneath Maria's toenails, the charge is fired inside Maria's foot, directly into the torn and damaged nail beds.

I don't want to witness such savagery, but a horrified fascination compels me. Gomez applies six or seven shocks to each nail, before the nail is blown from Maria's foot by the pressure. A splat of blood hits my face at one point. By the end of it, Maria's toes are a mess of torn flesh and shattered toenails. It seems incredible to me that Maria doesn't pass out from the pain.

The next point of contact is the sole of Maria's left foot. For a few moments, Gomez caresses the pale skin with the baton's tip. Maria tries to tug her foot away, but it is held in place. I know Gomez is waiting to hear Maria beg, but it doesn't happen. So she pushes the button. Sparks crackle against the sole of Maria's foot, Maria gives high-pitched screams of agony.

When Gomez is finished, the once-perfect sole of Maria's foot is marked with tiny brands, pairs of pea-sized burns. The smell of burnt skin assaults my nose. I hang helplessly in the ropes, sobbing in anguish, horrified beyond words, but too scared to make any protest.

Gomez crosses to Maria's right foot. The baton's tip is gently placed against her delicate instep, and there is a moment of almost-silence, the only sound Maria's gasps for air. Then the crack and snap of electric shocks. Maria screams on cue, helpless to do otherwise, involuntary shrieks and howls of agony as her foot is subjected to ten thousand volts.

There are dozens of shocks. I lose count after the mid forties; and hang with my eyes closed, hearing endless cracks and sizzles and screams and shrieks. It seems to be an hour or more before silence finally descends, and I cautiously open my eyes.

How long has it taken to get this far? An hour? And hour and a half? Maria looks exhausted. Gomez looks as if she's just getting started..

The devices she produces next remind me of work-bench clamps; two squared metal bars with small, triangulated teeth, opened or closed by a simple turn-screw.

Oh, fuck. They're thumbscrews. The realisation hits me as Gomez fits the first over Maria's already-ruined toes. With poor Maria's feet so far apart, Gomez can only work one at a time. She closes the first screw until it is snugly clamped over Maria's toes, then begins her routine of questioning again.

“You know I can't tell you, you psychopathic fuck,” Maria groans.

Gomez tightens the screw, and the pain quickly has Maria gasping – the exposed nail-beds now being crushed by tiny iron teeth, her toes pressed in the tightening vice.

“One name. Give me one name, and I'll loosen it.”

“I have nothing to say to you,” is Maria's gasped reply.

Gomez turns the screw. I hear a grinding sound, and Maria draws breath sharply. Fresh blood oozes from between the vice's jaws. With the next turn, there is more grinding; the turn that follows, I hear a distinct “crack,” the sound of crushing an acorn. Maria's body is shaking visibly, her fists clenched beyond the ropes that hold her stretched taut. She is biting her lip to avoid screaming. Part of me wants her to hold out, to defeat Gomez; part of me prays she will talk and save herself further agony.

But Maria will not be broken, not mentally at least. The next turn breaks more bones, and dark red pulp begins to ooze from between the almost-touching plates of the screw. I can smell it – god, I can smell it! – the tangy, iron stench of her bone marrow. This time, watery bile lurches up my throat, stings the back of my nose.

Two further turns; by the time Gomez has finished with Maria's left foot, her toes have surely been destroyed. I don't want to think about it. I watch with horror as Gomez now crosses to Maria's right foot, and fits the second screw over her toes. I cannot watch, but I hear everything.

“Names.”

“I can't,” Maria says, and this time I detect real fear in her voice. “I can't tell you.”

“You can – and you will,” Gomez says flatly, and begins to tighten the screw. This time, she does it millimetre by millimetre; compressing Maria's toes a fraction at a time. Maria has already been weakened by the nails, and the damage to her other foot. At the sound of the first bone breaking in her right foot, she gives a long cry of agony.

“Please, stop,” she begs.

“Fuck you,” Gomez snarls, her retribution for Maria's earlier defiance. She turns the screw firmly, another crack! echoes across the torture chamber, and Maria shrieks again. But with the next turn, she stays silent, and makes no further sound as the screw is tightened and her toes are all slowly crushed.

I finally have the courage to look towards the torture table again. Maria lies motionless; her bare feet scored with dozens of tiny burns, her toes black and ruined between the vices. Her stretched body is shining, as if she has just been swimming.

“Bring water,” Gomez says, and I realise that Maria has fainted. After about a minute, one of the guards present upends a bucket of water over Maria's face and upstretched arms, and she wakes with a cough and a low cry of agony.

Gomez leaves the closed vices in place as she prepares the next stage of torture. I realise that it is progressive; the cumulative effects of hour after hour of unending agony, of damage and injury to one body part after another, that will finally break Maria's resistance. There is no single torture that will persuade Maria to talk. But Gomez knows her craft, she is patient.

“You will give me the names.”

“I can't, I can't …”

I have never imagined I could hear such dread and pain in Maria's voice. It barely sounds like the woman I know. I want nothing more than to tear her free and take her away, but something tells me that, even if the ropes on my wrists were somehow to miraculously loosen, I would still hang here, equally bound by fear.

SEVEN – THE PEAR

KIRSTEN:

Gomez has a new object in her hands. At first, I think it is a hand grenade; a bulb-shape, metal, with some kind of handle protruding from the base.

“Did you know that I have a university education, Maria?” Gomez asks coolly, as she plays with the grenade. “I studied Spanish history … it seemed appropriate, given my country's colonial heritage. And if there is one thing in which Spanish history is rich, it is torture.”

Gomez moves to stand between Maria's painfully-wide legs again. “I did my thesis on the use of torture. And when I graduated, I did three years at medical school. Not enough to satisfy my family – they wanted me to become a doctor – but enough to know how much a human being can take.”

She holds the instrument forward, so that Maria can see it clearly. “This is called a pear. Watch.” Holding the instrument in careful fingers, Gomez turns its handle. Before our horrified eyes, the bulb splits into segments, like an opening flower-bud. Gradually, it expands outwards, until it is easily three times its original diameter. Its diabolical implications are obvious, but Gomez takes the time to explain regardless.

“Inserted into the mouth, or vagina, or anus, the pear is then slowly opened. It is exquisitely painful – and in many cases, it is fatal.” She closes the device. “It wasn't easy to get hold of one. This is a restored fifteenth-century Pear, used by the Inquisition in Southern Spain. You should be honoured.”

With those words, she puts one hand on Maria's hard belly, positions the nose of the pear at the entrance to Maria's vagina, and pushes, hard. Maria gives a rising wail as, against considerable resistance, the instrument of torture is slowly forced inside her. I feel instantly sick.

I must have fainted, because I am next aware of pain in my arms. I am hanging with my full weight on my wrists. My head is spinning. I am covered in sweat. It takes a few moments to get the support of tiptoes again and ease some of the pain on my upstretched arms. My eyes find focus again – to see an unspeakable horror. The metal handle of Gomez's device protrudes starkly from the black nest between Maria's open thighs.

“I'll ask you one more time. Give me the names of your operatives.”

I hear Maria's voice – weak, but firm. “There are no operatives.”

Gomez gives the Pear's handle a turn. Maria gives a groan. “Oh, God!”

“I'll ask again. Give me the names.”

“… No … please …”

Another turn. Maria's groan is louder. I can't imagine the pain. The device itself is already vastly oversized, its insertion must have been incredibly painful; and with every minuscule expansion, the agony must increase exponentially. This, I realise, is what Gomez likes best; rather than repetition of pain, each refusal to cooperate is met by greater and greater agony, a slow, measured increase.

As if to underline my realisation, Gomez turns the handle again: this time, Maria's cry is more pained. I can visualise the pear's four segments gradually flowering outwards; blades that spread wider than any baby, distending her birth canal. I wonder what will happen once the pain overrides her rational mind. Surely she will talk? How could she not, when such brutal torture is inflicted upon her?

Gomez turns the Pear again. This time, Maria gives a scream. Her head is tipped back, I can see her face shining with sweat, her eyes wild and staring at the ceiling, seeing nothing, blind with pain. She is unable to struggle, unable to do anything but lie there and feel the torture that ravages her body. I bite on my gag, my eyes clouding again with tears. There is nothing I can do.

“The names!” Gomez shouts. “Give me the names of your operatives now!” She twists the handle, and Maria's screams echo in the torture chamber. She bites down on her shrieks quickly, but lies whimpering in agony. Gomez circles the table, seizes Maria's face. “You stupid fuck, you really think you can hold out? Talk now, or I'll tear your pretty little cunt apart.”

Somehow, despite the agony in her racked and tormented body, Maria manages to spit in Gomez' face. Far from being heartened by the defiance, I feel sick to my stomach. Gomez simply smiles, delicately wipes her face with fingertips, and returns to the pear.

She twists the handle; once, twice, three times. Maria's screams are dreadful, and on the third turn, I hear a muffled 'pop.' I don't want to speculate, but I can see blood seeping along the thread of the Pear's handle. This time, Maria doesn't stop screaming, but draws breath and screams again. Now, Gomez twists the handle slowly, savouring every desperate, agonised shriek from her victim.

“Stop! Oh, god, stop!”

I am shocked to hear Maria pleading for mercy. The pain must be beyond all endurance; but Gomez has no interest in stopping. She continues to twist the handle, the pear continues to expand. Maria screams and howls at the top of her lungs, until her voice is hoarse. Over her screams, I hear more cracking, popping sounds; above Maria's pubic mound, the skin seems to bulge oddly. The pear is now, quite literally, tearing her vagina apart. At last, my own fear is overridden by outrage at what I have been forced to witness. I begin to thrash on the end of my rope like a hooked fish, wuffling and shrieking into my gag. This can't be happening!

Gomez turns the pear's handle a little further. More noises come from inside Maria. Then, quite suddenly, Gomez turns and glares at me.

“What's your problem? Huh?”

I freeze, suddenly paralysed by fear. Still looking at me, Gomez reaches to her equipment table, grabbing up the electric baton. At once, panic overwhelms me. I begin jerking and thrashing on the rope that holds my arms above my head; but in two steps, Gomez is upon me. She thrusts forward with the baton, placing its cool metal prongs in my sweat-wet armpit. In reflex, I hold my breath, freeze, anticipating the shock. But nothing comes. Gomez watches me. I stare, wild-eyed over my gag, at her. The baton's tip rests in my armpit.

Gomez smiles and touches the button.

It feels as if my shoulder has exploded, my arm ripped from its socket. I am jolted violently in the rope, and agony sears into my armpit, along my arm, down into my torso. I try to scream, but the gag silences me. My legs fail, and I hang, stunned by the pain, as Gomez returns to her work with Maria. My ears are whining from the impact of the electric shock; but the sound morphs to Maria's renewed screams as Gomez turns the pear's handle. I just want to pass out, to die and deny Gomez the chance to hurt me any more. I don't want to hear Maria screaming. I don't want to hear the sickening creaks and pops of the pear's slow expansion.

It seems to go on and on. Gomez shouting questions, then giving the pear's handle another tiny twist, and Maria's screams of agony. But eventually, her cries subside to moans and whimpers, and there are no more turns of the pear.

Slowly, still hanging, I open my eyes.

Maria lies, still stretched out, drenched in sweat. The pear's handle seems to have disappeared inside her, only the very tip still protruding from her now blood-soaked pubic bush. More blood has pooled on the floor below her splayed legs. She looks bizarre; her lower abdomen is distended visibly, the shining skin between her hip bones is stretched by the horrific device inside her. I can barely believe that she is still alive; but her heaving breasts are proof that she has not succumbed to the torture.

Gomez is not finished.

First, she returns to the wheel at the top of the table. Firmly, she turns it: once, twice. I see Maria stretch visibly, and this time she gives a loud wail of pain. Then, slowly, deliberately, Gomez retrieves, again, the recharged electric baton.

“You know I'm going to get the information from you,” she says coolly. “Why make it harder than it has to be?”

“Fuck you!” Maria manages to gasp.

Gomez levels the baton at Maria's mouth and pushes the button. Sparks snap at Maria's lips; she shrieks, twisting and thrashing her head about, but Gomez just laughs, zapping her again, and again. The squeaking snap of sparks is horrible; tiny puffs of steam or smoke rise each time contact is made. Maria's shrieks and screams are almost piteous, far from the defiant shouts of an hour ago. Gomez touches the baton to Maria's nose, and cheeks, and ears, but most of all her lips and mouth, forcing scream after agonised scream from my lover.

Maria loses consciousness at least twice over the next hour. Finally, with her victim's mouth swollen from countless shocks, Gomez transfers the electric baton to her armpits.

As the metal prongs touch sweaty flesh, the snapping, sizzling sparks draw shrieks of agony from Maria. Despite the fierce tension on her racked body, she bucks and thrashes about as the torture continues. Not just quick shocks, but long, sizzling, crackling currents for as much as ten seconds at a time, until her armpits, too, are blistered and smoking from the shocks.

Her breasts, rounded and shining, are the next target. Gomez puts the baton's two prongs either side of Maria's nipple and fires the button; the blue spark literally jumps through the sensitive stub of brown flesh. Maria's screams are terrible.

I have endured electric shock torture; but I realise that it was nothing compared to this. The horse, too, though agonising, was child's play; Maria's very womanhood has been torn apart by the pear. In addition, her toes have been shattered, torn apart and crushed to pulp, and now her breasts are being subjected to the merciless violations of electric shocks.

I can't help but remember how sensitive Maria's nipples are. I only needed to blow across her nipples to see them harden, to see the dark brown areolae tighten and crinkle. Now, they are receiving sparks of lightning. Maria shrieks and yells with each shock, her screams sometimes lingering long after the current has ended. Gomez varies the length of each touch; some are just a brief shock, some last for long, sizzling seconds, leaving a smoking brand when the baton is lifted. After thirty or forty shocks each, her nipples are black, and Maria's chest heaves with each agonised breath.

Gomez finally turns to one of the watching guards. “Bring the generator.”

MARIA:

Pain.

The pain, the pain …

In and out of sanity. Trying hard to remember who I am. Trying hard to remember what I must do. Trying to remember why I am in such pain.

Screaming again. Screaming is all I can do. I cannot escape. I cannot struggle. I cannot stop the pain. I can only scream. The pain tears my body, my flesh seems to be stripped, lacerated, torn away by red hot hooks; but when the baton is lifted, there are no wounds, barely a blister.

The shocks stop.

But there is no real reprieve, and I lie groaning. Groaning with the terrible pain in my stretched joints. My hips feel like they have been broken, my legs spread and held so wide that I wonder if I will ever walk again. Groaning with the mind-numbing, screeching pain in my tortured feet. My toes hurt so badly, so very, very badly … but worst of all is the pain between my legs. My insides have been ripped apart. The pear is still inside me, its deadly petals have blossomed and torn me so that I feel I am dying.

My eyes will not focus, but I see shapes moving. Shapes … khaki shapes … a tanned shape in a white dress … oh, god, I love that shape …

“Kirsten … my Kirsten …”

I shouldn't have said that. She doesn't reply.

Gomez is still there. Still hovering, a beautiful succubus from Hell, untiring, never stopping. I want to plead with her, want to beg her to finish me now, but I know she will not.

She is standing between my legs. Oh, God, don't touch the pear, don't touch it …

She touches it. Pain explodes up inside me, so savage I would scream, if I could find breath. Just the tiniest movement, but it stirs my ruined vagina and seems to tear me anew.

“Look, Maria. Take a good look.” Gomez grasps my hair, wrenches my head up between my distended and upstretched arms. I am looking along the plain of my own body, my skin is wet, my lower abdomen is swollen, distorted by the pear. There is a wire attached to its metal handle, and it takes me a moment to register the horror. The other electrode is attached to the metal vice that crushes the toes of my right foot.

“This is your last chance. If you do not give me the names I want, I am going to electrify the pear. It will be pain unlike anything you have experienced. If you do not give me the names, you will go insane. You will not die, but you will sink into a nightmare and never emerge. Do you want that, Maria?”

“Please …” I don't want to beg. I don't want to cry. But the tears begin to slide down my face anyway. The fear knots in my chest, chokes my breath. I want so badly to escape, but I am painfully and inescapably restrained, presented and helpless for whatever tortures Gomez chooses for me.

I could talk. I could tell her. I know I can avoid more pain, just by giving her names. But … but … with my head still lifted, despite the crippling pain, I let my eyes stray to where Kirsten hangs limply on the end of a rope, her dress clinging to her body with sweat, her limbs shining, her head drooping. I cannot betray those who have trusted me …

“I won't talk,” I whisper.

Gomez lets my head drop. I hear her talking. I hear her throwing switches. I know the generator is charging. Surely nothing could be worse than the pain already ravaging me, surely, surely …

The current hits.

My back arches despite the strain on my body. New pain, diabolical pain, white hot pain explodes deep inside me. I am screaming, screaming and shrieking, helplessly screaming out in agony.

I didn't realise I had fainted until awareness returns in a wave of pain that makes me cry out. A second needle sinks into the side of my neck.

“This one is for the pain. You'll feel everything twice as acutely, now. I'm warning you, Maria, loosen your tongue or lose your mind, it's your choice.”

I am breathing so fast. Panic. I try to struggle. I can only beg. “Please, please don't, please …”

“Five hundred volts.”

I have never screamed so much. My back is breaking, my hips lift from the table. My joints are cracking as my own body stretches itself in a helpless arch. Electricity thunders into my ruined vagina, pain beyond description, pain beyond endurance, pain beyond any human experience …

It seems to last forever. When the current stops, I fall heavily, unable to breathe for a few moments. My whole body tingles. There is smoke coming from between my legs. Nothing could have prepared me for this. I cannot take any more, I cannot …

When the current hits again, I hear the thump of it. My body arches again, and before I scream, I hear my own bones and ligaments creaking. Then come my screams, I am deafening myself, roaring in agony, unable even to struggle, I can only feel pain, and scream.

Kirsten, oh Kirsten, goodbye Kirsten …

The current has stopped. Have I been calling her name aloud? I can't tell. I can't hear anything anyway. My body feels like it's on fire. Like red-hot coals on my skin.

Bang. Screaming. Agony, agony, filling my pussy, ravaging my body, tearing me open, surging mercilessly up inside me, I scream and scream …

It has stopped. Did I faint again? What is going on?

I am still on my back. It takes a moment to realise that the pear is no longer inside me. It takes another moment to realise that somebody is loosening the rack, my tortured body is released from strain. Why? Did I talk? Did I finally betray all my secrets?

Somebody grabs my face. Squeezes until my mouth opens. I see the pear in front of me, I cannot fight as it is forced into my mouth. Oh no, no!! I feel the metal against my teeth, I taste it, bitter with my own blood. It fills my mouth, fills it utterly, stretching my jaws.

Gomez is not looking at me. She is simply turning the handle while talking to someone else. I try to alert her, try to cry out; I feel the pear expanding, blossoming inside my mouth; pressing on my teeth, forcing my jaws wider. Oh, god! The pain explodes through my jaw, my whole face seems to stretch, my mouth gets wider and wider … I hear a cracking sound, the agony lances through my jaw, up into my head, down my spine …

I am blind with pain as they pluck me from the table. I cannot think, let alone fight. How long have I been unconscious? Where is Kirsten? She has gone … in her place is … oh god … like a carpenter's sawhorse, but at its apex is a narrow serrated metal blade. My legs feel broken; even if they would support me, my ruined toes cripple me, and I can only slump to the cool concrete floor as my wrists are wrenched behind my back, tightly bound. With the expanded pear virtually dislocating my jaw, I cannot even beg for mercy.

A rope is attached to my lashed wrists, then wrenched upwards.

I scream, an odd, hollow sound, as my tortured body is subjected to the awful strappado. A torture that had once all but broken me. Movement returns to my agonised legs, now; I pedal my bloodied feet in agony and desperation as I am wrenched up into the air. My shoulder blades grate together, my arms are all but dislocated.

“Leave her for a while.”

Like a slung carcass of meat, I slowly twist, hanging on the end of the rope. My arms twisted up behind me, my body bowed. Sweat drips steadily from my naked skin, splatting into a growing puddle on the floor beneath my toes. My arms, my wrists, they are now the centre of my agony; my shoulders feel ready to pop from their sockets. The rest of my body hurts in slow, huge waves of pain, my distended jaw hurts so badly the tears run down my face.

The rope creaks.

EIGHT – KIRSTEN IS RACKED

KIRSTEN:

“Put her on.”

No sooner have they hoisted Maria off the floor, hanging her from the same rope that held me, Gomez directs her thugs to take me to the torture table. The awful table that had struck such horror in to me when I was first dragged in to this place. Not my turn! Terror steals my ability to move; my legs collapse under me, nausea comes in a watery spurt of vomit, my voice erupts in a trembling wail of dread.

“No, oh, God, no, please,” I am begging. I have only just witnessed Maria's suffering on the table; now Gomez means to do the same to me! It is a fate far, far worse than death, it is a horror beyond nightmares. My body is young and strong, toned and worked in the gym; and yet I have no power to fight, I feel limp and helpless. As they strip off my dress, strip me naked and lift me on to the table, I shit myself, a warm mess down the backs of my legs, the ultimate degradation.

Regardless, my ankles are strapped between the wooden blocks, the blocks closed to squeeze on my ankle bones. My arms are pulled up over my head, my wrists tightly fastened with the heavy leather straps. I don't want to be secured, I don't want the torture, and yet I am in a daze, unable to resist.

Loosely spreadeagled, naked, I lie on the table. My head rolls side to side. I can smell my own armpits, strong with the odour of fear. My breasts are drawn flat on my chest, but my nipples poke up like cinnamon thimbles, vulnerable and inviting to the cruel ingenuity of my torturer. I can see, a few metres away, Maria, her ruined and shining body suspended in strappado, her wrists tied behind her back, her face distorted by the open pear in her mouth.

She was beautiful, once. Now her hair hangs lank and greasy around her twisted shoulders; her breasts are dotted with angry red burns from the electric prod, her nipples black and badly swollen; thick lines of blood run down the insides of her legs from her torn womb to drip from her ruined feet. She seems unaware of anything else around her. They have positioned a wooden horse beneath her, a vile variation on the one they made me ride; this one has a serrated edge, like a tree-feller's saw.

I wish Gomez would torture her.

The thought is almost automatic, but it is fierce and desperate. As long as Gomez is torturing Maria, she will leave me alone. What does she want with me, anyway? I have nothing more to tell! Surely Gomez knows that? Surely she doesn't think I have any more information? I've told them everything, every last thing I know, it was tortured out of me long ago. I have nothing more to give, and yet she means to torture me more?

I can't see Gomez. I raise my head, try to see where she is. I can see two of her goons, but not her.

“Please,” I call out with shaking voice. “Please, let me go. I have money. I'll do anything. Anything you ask, just let me go.”

The two men grin, swapping a look, but neither one moves. One of them glances over my naked and sweaty body, and the realisation floods me, a surge of hope. “Please, you can do anything you want!”

One of the thugs hooks his thumbs through his belt loops. “What you do for us?”

“I'll suck you,” I gasp. “I'll suck you so good, I promise!”

The soldier's grin becomes less steady, and I see a new look in his eyes. He is tempted, seriously tempted, and he takes an uncertain step forward, while his companion glances around.

“Take one more step, and I'll cut both your cocks off.”

The booming contralto belongs to Gomez, and both guards start in surprise as she strides towards them across the torture chamber. Alongside her is – you! The neat military uniform, the walking-stick. The man who first tortured me is back. In an instant, my hope evaporates, and a trickle of pee escapes between my legs. I give a moan of terror and weakly turn my wrists in the straps, wishing I could free myself.

“Don't waste your energy, senorita,” Gomez laughs as she draws near. She is retying her hair back into a casual ponytail, ready for action. She doesn't shave under her arms, but the hair there is tidy and trim, even sexy. She is a goddess. Somehow, it feels so much more humiliating to be the victim of a woman with such charisma and poise and beauty.

Gomez stops alongside the table. There are tears already running down my face. “Please,” I beg her, “please don't hurt me!”

“Save your voice, too,” Gomez says casually, and her hand finds the wheel near my hip. She turns it slowly; I sense a soft, fluid vibration as gears turn, and the table splits open, drawing my legs apart.

“No, no, no, no,” I am bawling, shaking my head, but otherwise unresisting as my legs are gradually parted by the machine. Slowly, my thighs yawn wide, the muscles in my legs drawing long. “God, what are you going to do to me?”

“I'm going to torture you bad, sweetheart,” Gomez says.

My feet are over a metre apart when she stops turning the wheel. It's enough to send a mild burning into my hips, enough to leave the muscles of my thighs defined and tight. My belly is heaving in the rapid breath of fear as Gomez moves to the wheel beyond my fingertips.

“I don't have anything against you,” Gomez explains gently as she begins to turn the wheel. The heavy straps on my wrists grow tight as the upper section of the table shifts; millimetre by millimetre, by the arms, I am pulled upwards. “But by torturing you, I can persuade her to tell us everything she knows.”

I begin to cry so uncontrollably that saliva bubbles in my mouth. I shake my head. “No, no, don't do that, please don't do that, she won't talk, never, please don't torture me, torture her …” Even before the pain begins, I have been taken beyond my own threshold; I am ready to denounce Maria, to condemn her to more suffering in order to spare myself.

Gomez twists the wheel again, drawing my arms upwards. My shoulder blades ride with the table, while my ankles wedge tighter against their straps, my buttocks shifting slightly as my body is dragged upwards.

“Maria!” I cry out in growing desperation. “Maria, please! Don't let her hurt me!”

At my cry, Maria finally shows that she is conscious. Hanging awkwardly, the pear's handle protruding grotesquely from her distorted mouth, she raises her head and sees me. There is a terrible look in her eyes, one I cannot quite fathom; sadness and something more.

“You heard your lover,” Gomez says with evident delight. She sashays from alongside the table to where Maria hangs agonised by her back-twisted arms. “You're going to talk, or you're going to watch me pull your girlfriend apart like a goddamn bug!”

“Oh God, nooo!” I shriek in terror. “Maria, Maria, please do something!”

“I'll make her do something,” the man says lightly. My one-time torturer now goes to where the rope suspending Maria runs to a ring in the floor, and pulls it free. The rope whines through its overhead ring, Maria plummets.

The crack!! as she lands on the serrated peak of the horse is so hard I feel it through the floor. Blood splashes down the sides of the evil construction. The force of Maria's landing is so great that her pelvis has surely cracked. It takes a full second for the reaction, but when it comes, it is a terrible animal howl of pain, distorted by the pear in her mouth. The interrogator is already drawing the rope back in, until Maria's muscled arms are pulled up behind her again, securing her on the horse.

My eyes are fixed between Maria's shining thighs; the apex of the horse seems to be buried right up in her pubic bush, as if it has split her in two. I can't imagine the pain of such a terrible wound, but from the continuing wails from my lover's throat, I know it is beyond human endurance.

Gomez has been watching from alongside the table on which I lie, but now returns her attention to me.

“Please,” I beg. I try to lift my head, to see if she plans to tear out my toenails the way she did with Maria. But Gomez instead walks around to the upper end of the table again, and takes the wheel in her hands. “This is called the rack, Kirsten,” she explains slowly. “It works by stretching the victim. Contrary to what you might think, a human body won't stretch far. It's not supposed to stretch. So when it does stretch, it hurts. Really, really hurts.”

Of course I have heard of the rack. It's the stuff of movies. I used to read about it excitedly in comic books. I pretended to be stretched out on a rack in schoolyard games. Never, never did I imagine I would be strapped to its modern descendant, sobbing and wailing like a baby and begging for mercy.

Gomez twists the wheel and the rack pulls me tighter.

I have my head tipped back, I'm looking at an upside-down view of Gomez. She is so beautiful, high cheekbones, full lips. Her skin is shining. “Please,” I'm begging, “please don't torture me, please stop …!”

But Gomez ignores me, her eyes coldly on my body as she twists the wheel again. I hear the leather straps creak, the table shifting, and I feel my limbs pulled tighter. Then another turn, and the tension grows, gradually, like the way I'd stretch in the morning. I'm as taut as I can go, it seems; but it's involuntary, an external tension, one my muscles are fighting to resist.

My belly is shifting quickly. There are droplets of sweat on my chest and in my armpits. I am paralysed with terror, I just want to close my eyes and die, to escape this living hell Gomez has chosen for me.

The next turn of the wheel sends real strain down my arms; my ribcage lifts slightly, my armpits hollowing, a dull ache entering my hips as my parted legs are drawn tight. I wail in dread as I feel my body stretching. My muscles are rapidly losing the strength to fight.

I realise that Maria has stopped moaning, and, desperately, I turn my eyes to her. Beyond the shining plain of my flattened chest, I see her, straddling the horse, its blade still wedged up into her crotch, her body dripping sweat. Her eyes seem barely focused, but are fixed on me anyway, the pear still grotesquely distorting her face. Her jaw is swelling badly.

“Please, Maria, please, tell them what they want to know, please tell them,” I whisper hysterically.

But Maria gives no reply, and Gomez twists the wheel again. The table-rack shifts and I feel the strain grow. My muscles are really beginning to burn. A deep ache begins in my shoulders and hips. I hear a pop from my spine – just gas trapped in the joint, but the pain is growing.

“Well, Maria? Are you ready for some fireworks, ha?” Gomez suddenly calls to my lover, and, unexpectedly, gives the wheel a full turn. The rack groans and moves a centimetre or more, and hot fire flashes down my arms, along the tendons that run near bone. Now it hurts, and I give a high squeal, clenching my teeth and closing my eyes. The pain spreads, from the base of my spine and up past my kidneys, down the insides of my thighs.

“Stop, please, stop!” I beg Gomez, but she merely turns the wheel again. This time the wrenching sends streaks of pain flashing down my arms, and I give a cry. The pain is bedded in my joints; my shoulders, my elbows, my hips; but it follows along tendons and muscles and nerves, harsh and sharp. I never imagined that being stretched could be so painful.

Gomez cranks the wheel a little further, and I give a low cry as the pain grows worse.

MARIA

I can see what Gomez is doing to Kirsten, but I can't move, can't respond. My jaw and my teeth have cracked from the savage intrusion of the pear in my mouth, the muscles of my jaw feel as if they have been torn from their moorings. My arms are on fire, my shoulders feel dislocated; I am awash in pain, and Kirsten's wails and shrieks seem distant and irrelevant.

She calls my name, and I raise my head, looking towards her. My god, she actually looks sexy on that rack … her body splayed out, her legs stretched apart so that the muscles of her thighs and calves are defined, her abs rigid and taut. Her nipples look delicious, standing out like fat cinnamon berries on the shining flat of her chest.

I want to save her. I would love to save her. But the fate of many depends on my silence, so I look at the woman I love and know that her fate is out of my control.

Half a minute later, a man I have never seen before unties the end of the rope holding me so painfully aloft, and drops me into a whole new universe of pain.

The moment I land onto the iron apex of the horse brings agony beyond description; I feel the serrated edge split me from labia to anus, I feel my pelvic bone fracture with tendrils of agony that crackle through my hips and up my spine. Even with the pear in my mouth, I find myself screaming like never before. I cannot bear it, and when I can finally find desperation enough to move, I try to tip myself off the vile torture device. But my tormentor is already pulling in the rope, drawing my arms high up behind me again, forcing me forwards. My clitoris is already just a mangled remnant of flesh, but the exposed nerves grind down onto the metal edge of the horse, and I scream again with the agony as my weight rocks forward on my broken pelvis.

I can't even see; the pain sends flashes of light across my eyes, I can barely breathe. Somewhere in the cacophony I can hear Kirsten crying and begging, and I realise Gomez is turning the wheel of the rack again.

Gomez does it slow. It's Gomez's favourite thing, to make a victim suffer the anticipation before the true pain, and Kirsten is gibbering in mindless terror, begging and pleading and trying everything she can to avoid torture. But it's naive; Gomez has heard it all before, she lives for it, the futile pleading of prisoners is the mark of Gomez's success.

Kirsten is stretching, now. I have seen the straps draw tight, I have seem her limbs pull to their furthest extent; now, the elasticity has been drawn from her body and she is being pulled beyond her natural limits. I know the pain she is feeling, it hurts, and it hurts badly, but it's nothing compared to what lies ahead.

Gomez knows how to get the most out of it. Too fast, and as limbs pop out of joint, shock would dull the pain and render the victim unconscious. But stretched slowly, gradually, and all of the body's mechanisms of resistance are able to keep up with the damage. Thanks to Gomez's expertise, Kirsten is going to feel every last millimetre of her torture, right up until the moment her diaphragm tears and she is no longer able to draw breath.

The effort of watching is too much, I can't focus through the constant roar of pain that is crippling my body. I can feel warmth on my thighs; I'm bleeding badly, losing too much blood, and I begin to sag as vision shrinks to a pinpoint of light …

KIRSTEN

When Gomez turns the wheel I give a scream. My body is tearing apart on the rack, a pain more all-engulfing and raw even than the electric shocks and the horse. This is like being doused in gasoline and set alight, it's pain inside and out, along every inch of my body. My arms, especially, feel hot and cold with savage pain, as the wrist straps drag them fractionally further and further upwards.

“Oooohhhhhh gooooodddd …. aaaaaahhhhh!! ….” All I can do is shriek and yell.

Gomez makes another turn. The table's mechanism allows her to stretch me with no effort at all; but each tiny millimetre of stretch is agony. There is nothing I can do; I would confess to anything, I would condemn anyone, I would do anything at all to stop the pain, but my torment is in Maria's hands alone.

The table shifts, and low, evil creaks and groans come from my joints as I am drawn fractionally longer. I shriek anew. My parted legs feel like they're being torn from my body. And with the next turn of the wheel, there are slow pops and creaks from my own shoulders, either side of my ears; a new, terrible fury spreads along my arms.

“Are you watching this, Maria? Are you seeing this?” Gomez calls, over my shrieks of pain. “I'm pulling her apart! One night of this and she'll be ruined for life, she'll never walk again because of you! Are you watching?”

On the last shout, she twists the wheel hard. With a dreadful, sickening crack! I feel my left shoulder dislocate. The agony is excruciating, exploding into my entire upper body, and nausea lurches. I cough up warm, watery vomit, almost choking, before finding breath to give a long belly-deep scream of pain. Slowly, groaning, grating, my right shoulder rips out of joint; the pain as the ends of bone separate is hot and terrible, ligaments and muscle fibres tearing.

In agony and horror, I slowly tip my head back. My own arms stretch up to the straps, my hands are purple lumps like dough; my forearms and biceps are stark and straining under the terrible tension. I can feel my elbows starting to come apart; but when Gomez turns the wheel again and the rack stretches me again, it's my hips that suddenly explode.

I scream. I scream again. My eyes roll back until I can see nothing, but still I scream; then I feel the distinct crack of my left hip dislocating. Shards of glass seem to burst from the broken joint all along my leg, up my pelvis, through my lower back. I can't breathe for a moment, the pain is so severe. My sweat-wet belly heaves. A moment later, my right hip pops out of joint also, and the agony doubles. I scream and scream and scream.

MARIA

I feel the needle only as it is withdrawn from my neck, but the effect is instant and brutal. The pain of the horse is like straddling a red-hot rail, the pain in my shoulders is almost as bad, and I groan as the drugs force me back to consciousness.

Kirsten.

I can hear her screaming. I wish she'd shut up. I wish she would die. I can't stand those screams, they sound inhuman.

A hand grasps my hair and lifts my head. The man is beside me.

“See what's happening to her!” he hisses through clenched teeth.

My eyes flutter open, and strobe a view of Kirsten on the rack before me … god, she still looks sexy. Her body is splayed and tight and shining with sweat. Her short dark hair is plastered to her brow. Her muscles are defined and taut. The tiny blonde hairs that I love so much on her belly and limbs have patterned her sweat. Her screams and gasps remind me of the way she would orgasm to the taunting and teasing of my tongue.

“It's time for you to talk, pretty senorita,” Gomez calls.

“Talk. Talk, before it's too late,” the man holding my hair urges.

Slowly, my eyes roll around to him. Even through the thunder of pain that makes every nerve in my body shriek, I recognise something in his voice … My god. She means something to him! Why? What history do they have?

The man's face clouds, as if he realises I have read him too easily. Hastily he lets my head drop, the pear jarring my jaw and making me groan.

Gomez has circled the table and stands in front of Kirsten, looking with disdain over her spread and distended body. “I'm going to leave you for a while, now, Kirsten,” she says.

“Oh God, no, no, please don't leave me like this, please,” Kirsten is begging. “Stop the pain, I beg you, stop the pain!”

“If Maria doesn't agree to talk when I come back, I'm going to torture you more.”

“Noooooooo!” Kirsten bursts into tears, she cries like a baby there on the rack, even as Gomez and her companion walk away. Twisted and hunched on the horse, through the horror of my own pain, I can feel my resolve crumbling. I am the only one who can save Kirsten from more suffering; even a bullet in her head is better than the agony she will be forced to endure.

I realise slowly that Gomez has already done considerable damage. Kirsten has been stretched so tightly her limbs are already dislocated. God, it must hurt. I'm sorry, baby …

As if sensing that I am watching her, Kirsten manages to lift her head a few centimetres. Her eyes are dark with agony, her mouth curled down into an expression of sheer demented torment. “Please,” she begs me, “please, oh God, please Maria, if you love me, talk, tell her what she wants to know! Save me, please, save me!”

I give no sign that I have heard her, but the tears begin to spill from my own eyes. Kirsten gives a wail of misery and her head falls back.

“I hate you,” she moans, “I hate you, I hate you!”

There is no respite for either one of us as the hour creeps. My shoulders are screaming, the rope still holds my bound wrists high up behind me, forcing my agonised pelvis down onto the jagged ridge of the horse. The pain ravages my most intimate parts in slow, terrible waves, as if I'm being split open with an axe again and again. Agony roars from my wrecked toes, my ruined nipples and my tortured lips; there is barely a nerve in my body not screaming with pain.

Only metres away from me, Kirsten shrieks repeatedly. She is suffering terribly. She is held so cruelly tight, her shoulders and hips wrested out of joint by the tension, ligaments and muscles tearing. My beautiful baby, my Kirsten, screaming out how she wants me to die, how she hopes I suffer in hell …

On and on it goes. I can feel myself fading in and out of consciousness again; at times I feel the whole awful horse is spinning, with me on it. The pain thunders through my body and I find myself crying out.

But always I hear Kirsten, shrieking in pain, distended on the rack. I never agreed to this when I joined the Agency … they never told me about this … what's the point of my silence if everything I care about is destroyed before my very eyes?

NINE – THE ELECTRIC PROD

KIRSTEN:

Gomez is back.

It has been an eternity. A lifetime. And yet I have barely any memory of what has happened before this nightmare moment in time. Was I ever free? Was I ever human?

I realise only slowly that Gomez has been moving around the table preparing – preparing what? – for several minutes. Though I'm all but paralysed by the pain, I fight to see through the blur of sweat and tears, past the horizon of my own upstretched arm.

The electric prod.

“Ooohhhhhhhh,” I am reduced to wordless expressions of terror. I can only watch as Gomez brings the evil, pronged tip close to my body. She touches it to my armpit and my body tries to tense in reflex, sending shards of the most ferocious pain along my muscles. But for now, Gomez is playing with me, slowly running the inactive prod down my side, letting the cool prongs ride the ridges of my ribcage.

She uses it to caress the cable-tight tendons inside my thigh, combs it through the tangle of my pubic hair, probing gently into my vulva, then slowly up over my belly and over my breastbone. It's as gentle as a lover's touch, but there is nothing loving about the caress. It's a demonstration of what she can do, of what she is capable. It's showing that I can't stop her from touching me anywhere she likes with the prod.

Finally she strokes my jawline with the prod's tip. The tension is too much and I begin pleading and begging with her not to do it, not to hurt me, not to press the button …

Gomez smiles, rests the tip of the prod again in my left armpit, and fires. It's like being stabbed through with a red-hot sword; the electric charge explodes through the sweaty-salty skin of my armpit, searing through my flesh and jarring the muscles in my dislocated arm. The pain is a thousand times worse than anything I could bear, and I give a long scream of agony. Another shock to my armpit. Tendrils of fire seem to reach deep into my chest and encircle my heart, spear along each rib and tear through my lungs. Another shock; I can smell the sickly-sweet odour of searing sweat.

She transfers the prod to my right armpit; the prongs are hot. Then a brilliant flash and the agony rips through my shoulder and plunges down into my ribcage, spearing along my arm. The shocks make the agony of the rack a hundred times worse, but are never quite long enough for me to black out from the intensity.

Gomez is loving it. She sucks her lip as she deftly pushes the tip of the prod against my armpit, pushes the button, and with a crack! and a spark and a puff of smoke, I scream and jolt and howl in agony. Over and over I shake my head, begging her no, but over and over, she zaps my armpits, dozens of shocks to each.

Finally she pauses the torture. My armpits are burning, my arms tingle, my heart pounds, my body is running sweat. The pain of the racking still roars through my limbs, the fury of my dislocated shoulders tearing now at my shoulder blades and all along the muscles of my arms.

“No more,” I beg of Gomez.

But she moves, instead, to stand between my widely-spread ankles. I begin wailing even before she positions the prongs in the soft folds of my vulva; when she fires it, my pelvis jumps up from the table with a snap of smoke and steam, wrenching my already-dislocated hips. I scream again in agony. I have never felt anything as awful as this; being violated with the prod, my legs open and my hairy cleft presented for Gomez's entertainment. With a mix of amusement and indifference she tortures me, putting the prod against my sensitive flesh and discharging shock after shock into me. As a woman, she should know, she should know what she's doing to me! That's the trouble – she does. She places the prongs either side of my clitoris and looks straight into my terrified eyes as she touches the button.

A fifty-thousand-volt spark jumps straight through my clitoris. The searing agony is beyond description, beyond understanding, and I jerk my hips exactly as I might in orgasm, giving an almighty scream that echoes around me. The prongs touch the pucker of my anus and discharge their voltage, making me shriek and howl in pain. Despite the terrible strain placed on my body by the rack, my pelvis tips and spasms with the shocks.

She stops. Twenty or more shocks and I am burning between my legs. I groan. I can't take any more torture. I don't know if Maria is still watching, I no longer care, I just want death to take me from this place of horror.

I feel something against my lips. Water …?

No. The prod.

The shock discharges into my mouth and my head snaps around as I scream. Gomez follows my efforts to avoid the prod, chasing my mouth and zapping my lips repeatedly. It feels like being hit in the mouth with a baseball bat, again and again, and yet the damage is nothing. Still I scream, still I try to evade the evil metal prongs; but Gomez is too experienced in this, and the cruel sparks of agony jump through my lips, shocking my gums and cheeks.

At once I feel sick and the table is spinning and …

MARIA

Pain draws me from my dazed state as the man pulls again on my wrist-rope. Up-and-behind me, my bound arms are wrenched a little higher, forcing me further forward on the cruel edge of the horse. I give a low wail of pain as my ruined sex grinds harder down.

I feel so cold. My legs are wet. There is blood on the floor beneath me.

The man's hand is in my hair again, and he forces my head upwards. My eyes fix on Kirsten, lying barely-conscious on the table-rack.

“Look at her,” he says, his voice thick with … lust? Sadness? “She thinks it's over, but Gomez hasn't even started to torture her yet. How can you do this to her?”

It's not me doing it, I want to say, but my mouth remains jammed open by this agonising pear. The man goes on: “You can stop it. You can save her. You got her in to this; help her!”

I give a moan and try to shake my head. The man gets the message, and lets my head drop. The movement sends shards of pain through my contorted body. “As you wish.”

Gomez gives Kirsten the same injection they gave me. Kirsten wakes with a moan and then a long, agonised cry as it all floods back to her. Gomez returns to the wheel beyond Kirsten's fingertips and slowly, deliberately, gives it a turn.

KIRSTEN

Pain floods me. I find myself wailing. My eyes are open and I'm giving a high-pitched mewl of anguish as I'm reminded of the tearing agony all through my limbs. Then I hear the slow creaking of the table, and fresh pain shatters my arms and legs with an intensity that makes me scream out again. More creaks and pops rend my spine with molten agony.

Even as I stretch, I feel the absolute fire of my elbows separating; it makes a noise like ripping a sapling from the ground and sends sparks of white-hot pain flashing up to my wrists. Again I scream – or try; the breath seems stolen from my body and all I can do is squeal in a weak voice. Almost as terrible is the pain, is my horror at feeling my very body tear apart, the mortifying shock of injuries that I know will render me crippled for months, if not for ever. There is not an inch of my body free from pain; every nerve is screaming as my entire framework begins to rip apart under the unnatural strain of the rack.

And yet, Gomez twists the wheel again. My voice is a hoarse wail of anguish and agony as my wrists break with loud cracking sounds to the pull of the straps. My eyelids flutter as nausea again fills my torn abdomen and I cough a small spurt of bile. Maria, how could you do this to me? How could you let this happen?

Gomez lets me lie, lets me suffer, for an eternity. I pray for the oblivion of unconsciousness to take me; but I am very much aware as Gomez eases the wheel into its next turn. As I am stretched, there is a bang from my lower back, my body is shocked through by the sudden separation of vertebrae, and the agony that shoots up my spine takes my breath away. Literally.

I can't breathe. My eyes bulge at the realisation that I am unable to draw air; my entire chest is burning with pain and it is an impossible fight to pull air into my lungs.

I finally manage to gasp a little, but it isn't enough. I'm suffocating. I can feel it. My ears are roaring, my heart is pounding, blood racing through my lungs frantic to find oxygen. I'm dying, oh, god, I'm dying …

There is a slow creak, and Gomez eases off the wheel a little. The shifting of the rack allows my disjointed limbs and distended spine a little movement to retract, but even that is agony, and as the tension on my ribcage eases a little, I gasp breath and wail in pain again. The sweat springs fresh over my body and I grab air with yelps and barks despite the agony.

“Tell her, Kirsten,” Gomez instructs me in a low voice. “Tell her, while there's still a chance you might walk again.”

“Please, please, please Maria,” I manage in a whisper. A moment later, Gomez turns the wheel again. My voice rises to a squeal, my knees and spine creak and groan, and my ribcage lifts agonisingly. Again I fight to breathe; but another small adjustment of the wheel, and I find myself airless, paralysed, held so tightly and broken on the rack that I will suffocate without Gomez's mercy.

I can't move. I can't breathe. I can only feel, the fire of agony roaring through every wrecked joint, every torn muscle. Gomez walks from the rack; I can see her in peripheral vision. She has crossed to Maria, she's asking something of the man who tortured me once before. It's oddly silent; sounds are growing muffled in my ears, but I distinctly hear the sharp slap! as Gomez's hand smacks across Maria's face.

I can't breathe. Oh god, the pain …

I can hear the creaks and cracks of my own body as muscle after muscle fails, as tendons succumb to the strain, as joints further creep apart. My ribcage feels like it's about to break from my body, blow open and leave me disembowelled on the rack; I half wish it would, and release me from this unending agony.

Let me die, oh, just let me die …

“Get over here, now! Bring the kit!” Gomez is suddenly shouting. There is running, voices; she and the man are loosening Maria's rope, lifting her down from the horse … something terrible has happened …

I can feel the life slipping from me. Oh, the mercy! Numbness, spreading from my wrists and ankles, along my limbs. Growing cold. I haven't breathed for two minutes or more, and finally I am slipping peacefully away. The pain is fading.

“Fuck it, fuck it! How did this happen?” I hear Gomez shouting in fury. God, I pity whoever is at the receiving end of her wrath. The man is shouting back. As for me … Gomez can't touch me. I can feel already that I'm dead, too. Dead, and beyond her reach.

The pain has gone. Warm, relaxing light is spreading through my mind.

I am vaguely aware of Gomez, back, looking down at me, reaching up to the head of the rack and pulling a lever. There is a bang and the table-rack suddenly, violently retracts. My limbs and spine snap back from their distended positions, my ribcage falls, and a shock of red-hot agony explodes through me. Suddenly I'm screaming, screaming loudly, and I'm back in my body, gasping air, and Gomez has me back in her satanic grasp.

No longer stretched, but still crippled. My back burns unbearably, my limbs are without strength, tingling wildly and every joint feeling as if it's packed with broken shards of glass, unable to move. For now, Gomez and her comrades are ignoring me, crowded around the pale and lifeless corpse of Maria, my Maria, who gave up her own life to save me.

Weakness and dizziness overcome me. I feel faint, I feel a wave of cold sweat …

THE INTERROGATOR

There was nothing I could do to stop Gomez from torturing you, my sweet Kirsten. The first words I spoke to her - and the last until Maria died - were, “That one knows nothing,” with a nod toward you. She simply raised her eyebrows and shrugged. She did not care. And in that underground chamber, Gomez is queen.

They put you on the rack. It would not be long before you were a cripple. And she would not stop there. She would not make a great effort to keep you alive, but your death would not be much easier than Maria's. I had to stop her before you were lost to me, whether through death or maiming.

That is why I killed your friend Maria. Actually I did not mean to kill her; the thought of her dying from the drop onto the horse never entered my mind. At least my conscious mind. It was a desperate effort on my part to make her talk. I did not pause to consider the consequences. And of course that drop did not actually kill her. Any more than the rack, the thumbscrews, the pear, the electric charges or any of the other individual tortures to which she had been subjected. I will admit that if Gomez had not been preoccupied with torturing you she probably could have kept her alive for quite a while longer.

When Gomez realized her victim was dead she went - how do you say it - ballistic. But it does not matter. There was nothing she could do about it, and she has no power outside of her chamber of horrors. And she could not prevent me from taking you back into my custody.

I thought for a time that I would keep you here with me. I even fantasized about nursing you back to health. Then you would be mine. But I am really a practical man and I did not trust our limited medical facilities to return you back to health. So with great despair I had you dropped in a field and made an anonymous phone call to the American embassy telling them of your location.

I think in time you will recover, at least physically. I know you will never forget me. And I think that using my connections…well let us just say that it would not surprise me if we were to meet again.

TEN – EPILOGUE

KIRSTEN:

I wake to noise. A familiar rapid thwop-thwop-thwop, a slight gyrating motion like lying on top of a washing-machine in spin mode. I'm in a helicopter, on a stretcher.

“Call you tell me your name? What's your name?” The voice is American, young, a man. Demanding, over and over. God, questions, always questions.

“Kirsten,” I groan. “My name is Kirsten, please don't hurt me.”

“I'm not gonna hurt you. You're in safe hands, now; you're on the way to a military hospital. You're going to be fine.” I open my eyes and see the interior of the helicopter, army-green, a man in fatigues and a buzz-cut, round glasses, looking down at me. A red cross on his arm.

“Who …? How …?” I don't even know what to ask.

“Some local farmer found you lying in a ditch on the outskirts on the town … do you remember how you got there?”

Memories come. Dark, terrible memories. I chase them away with a shake of my head. “No. I don't remember.”

The Marine must have seen the tears that cluster in my eyes, because he quickly reassures me. “That's okay. You don't have to say anything. Just rest.”

“Okay.” I feel exhausted, even after that brief exchange, and I let my eyes close.

“You know, you're real pretty, Kirsten,” the Marine says gently. “Are you … uh … married?”

I can't help but smile.




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