Haji Omaran, Iraq – Tehran, Iran
Snow blanketed the bare slopes of the Zagros mountains around the Haji Omaran base. Gently rising cathedrals of white rose into the pale, early winter sky, as a biting wind swirled through the valley. Malachi drew in the frostbitten air on his morning run, each thin, frigid breath filling his lungs. He was as prepared as he could be, managing to convince his station chief to send most of the CIA staffers to meet with Kurdish contacts in Erbil. Still, the security forces remained on base, but he knew that these men were capable fighters. He had informed Captain Kim that the Iranians should target his barracks as he slipped away from the base to the designated meeting point. His lodging was a small cabin that he shared with two of his CIA colleagues, both of whom were in Erbil that morning. As he ran toward the rendezvous point he could hear the sound of the incoming missile screaming through the air. He said a silent prayer for the men at the base as his cabin exploded. He pulled a burner phone from his pocket and dialed the number Kim had provided him. He let it ring three times, which signaled the Iranian extraction team that he was almost ready to meet them. As soon as he hung up, he smashed the phone under his heel several times and kicked it along the road, as he cut up toward the snowy slope where he was to surrender to the Quds forces.
Four armored transport trucks rolled down the Hamilton road offloading the first of the Iranian troops near the base. Small arms fire echoed through the valley. Everything inside Malachi wanted to run back to the base, to warn the men there what was coming, to fight by their side and die if necessary. This was the first ambush on Haji Omaran in nearly two years, and he hoped that the security team would be prepared for what was coming their way. As he climbed up the snowy slope that rose above the valley, the battle on the base escalated. He could hear his people shouting between sporadic gunfire and orders being barked in Farsi. As he crested the ridge, the base was no longer in view, while a succession of grenade explosions rang in his ears.
Four Iranian troops were waiting for him in the shadow of the mountain. He raised his hands in surrender as the troops ran to him. He was tackled to the ground and kicked several times in the ribs. One of the men forced a black bag over his head, as another cuffed his hands behind his back with plastic zip-ties. Something cold and blunt struck the back of his head, and Malachi was unconscious. He was carted by the mountain and thrown in the back of an Iranian transport truck, which turned and drove northeast toward the Iranian border.
Malachi awoke with a pounding headache on a cold, white, concrete floor, wearing a white pair of scrubs and handcuffs, which bound his wrists. The haze he had been in since he was picked up by the Iranians made him suspect that he had been sedated. He had no idea how long he had been out. He looked around to see that the windowless holding room he was in was about ten square feet, painted entirely white; designed to disorient prisoners by depriving them of sense and time orientation. The room was lit by white fluorescent lights on the ceiling fifteen feet above him. A CCTV camera was affixed to the corner of the room. A single steel I-beam protruded from the exterior walls about six inches below the ceiling. It was also painted white as it bisected the room. Each empty moment seemed to stretch on forever as he sat alone with his thoughts, steeling his nerves for the ordeal that lay ahead of him. Through all of the ups and downs of his contradictory life, Malachi had been a praying man, but words failed him in that lonely cell; all he could pray was one simple word. Help.
Eventually, an Iranian man entered the room. Malachi couldn’t be sure if it was several minutes after he awoke or hours. The man was bald with a thick peppered mustache, stocky in stature with sadistic, pale brown eyes bearing down on him like a vulture descending on a splayed carcass. From the way he carried himself, it was clear that this was a man he would prefer not to tangle with, but the brooding sense overtook Malachi that he would have to contend with him and that his life was in the balance. The man brought a stool with him and seated himself in front of Malachi.
He said, through a thick Farsi accent, “Allow me to introduce myself. I am your concierge here at the Evin Resort.”
Evin – the very mention of the word sent shivers down his spine. Evin Prison was located on the outskirts of Tehran, and was a notorious center of torture and other human rights violations dating back to when the Shah ruled Iran. Its brutal reputation only increased under the reign of the Ayatollahs. Portents of untold agony began to overtake him. Brandt nodded politely, not knowing who this man really was or if he was connected to Lt Col. Mahmood.
“And your name is?”
It hadn’t crossed Malachi’s mind that his captors might not know his name. If they didn’t know his name, which he could not be sure of one way or another, it could be valuable information they would try to extract from him. Keeping his identity hidden might help him stay alive. If this was, indeed, a point where he had leverage, he would continue to use his anonymity to his benefit. His mind raced to conjure an alias.
He said the first name that came to mind, “Firestone.”
“I must admit, Mr. Firestone,” said the concierge, “Many of us did not expect you to show up at the rendezvous point. Why have you agreed to come to us?”
“Because I said I would.”
“Yes, but, why? Why would you allow yourself to be captured by the sworn enemy of your country? What moves you to such treason?”
“I have my reasons, and they are my own,” said Malachi, “But I am not sure you are interested in my motivations. What do you want from me?”
The concierge leaned in toward Malachi and grinned, “Ah, but I am interested, Mr. Firestone. It is my job to know these things.”
“Then I am afraid you will be disappointed.”
“I see,” said the man, scratching at his mustache, “You might not be so brazen by the time we are done with you.”
Malachi could see that the chess match had already begun. He knew that he could not divulge anything about his reasons for defection with the concierge. He didn’t know what the concierge knew, or whether he was agreeable to Lt. Col. Mahmood’s involvement in the Fulcrum plot.
“My contact is Lt. Col. Mahmood; I was told I would meet with him.”
Defiant anger flared in Malachi’s eyes, “You know damn well who he is. When will I see him?”
“That all depends, Mr. Firestone.”
“Depends on what?”
“How helpful you are to me.”
Malachi glared at his host as if to communicate that, regardless of what horrors this man might inflict on him, he would remain resolute and unbending. Though the true state of his mind wavered between this determination and deep doubts, he made sure none of this was present as he sought to bore through the concierge’s eyes into his soul. Malachi knew the greater part of pain was the fear that accompanied it, and he dug deep in his own heart to find courage, hoping that God would meet him there with sufficient strength for the great trials that surely awaited him.
The concierge opened the door and barked orders in Farsi to two prison guards. Within a few minutes, the concierge’s lackeys returned with a step ladder. Their demeanor was that of demented, witless thugs. They brought two beam clamps with rollers and brakes and affixed to their ends was a length of rope. One guard grabbed the turf of Malachi’s hair and yanked him roughly to his feet. As he did this, Malachi felt a tingling shock that ran all the way down to his heels. The other guard secured one end of the rope to Malachi’s bound wrists, as the other man placed the clamps on the I-beam and ran the rope through the rollers. They hoisted Malachi up by his arms until he was hanging fully suspended from the beam with his feet about six inches from the floor, just out of reach or the tips of his toes. He could already feel pain stab through the tendons in his shoulders, elbows, and wrists as his body settled.
“When I return, I hope. for your sake, that you are ready to talk,” said the concierge.
Malachi said nothing as the men left his room. Pain surged through his arms and torso. He looked around him, taking in the maddening sterility of his white holding cell. He knew there would be no sense of time in this room and that they were trying to break him with pain while driving him mad with sense deprivation. He knew that his greatest enemy at this point would not be pain, as immediate as it was; it would be fear, fear of not knowing what would come next as his mind contemplated the dark possibilities of personal torment. The haze of endless moments hid all sense of time; he had no idea how long he hung from the beam. The only sense that any time had passed came when his shoulders dislocated with a sharp snap. The pain was beyond excruciating and immediate as it shot up his axillary nerves to the tips of his fingers like someone had let a pair of buzz saws loose in his arms. The tendons cracked and fractured like a green sapling would split when torqued. His arms continued to stretch under the downward weight of his body until he was able to touch his toes to the ground in an effort to hold his body up.
Each moment melted into a single, horrific monolith before passing slowly into the next endless instant, and the blinding whiteness of the room began to take its toll on Malachi’s mind. The pain rushed through his being, and the emptiness of the room seemed eternal, as the sanitary white light from the fluorescent ceiling lamps poured down upon him. Unable to think with any clarity, his prayers could not extend beyond choked pleas for mercy and strength. He knew he would be in real trouble if he could not begin to separate his mind from the pain. As the pain persisted and grew he felt as if he was being robbed of his humanity. Something about suffering has the sinister effect of reducing a man to a wretch; a captive of terror that cannot think or hope for anything other than escaping the savage shackles of torment. Suspended and helpless, he could feel the pain bore into his soul, threatening to steal his hope. He knew that a danger more lethal than death was stalking him, so he buried his chin against his chest and closed his eyes. After a deep breath he began counting so he could organize the chaos in his mind enough that he would not drown in the depths of the abyss of pain that sought to swallow him whole. He counted between the surges in pain. After multiple attempts, he could only count to five, but he found that when he counted he could separate himself from the pain in those fleeting seconds.
“One…t-two, three, four, f-f-five,” he would mutter beneath his labored breathing.
As soon as he reached five, the swells of suffering pulled him under, and he floundered again. The abyss of agony seemed bottomless, as he fell deeper into the timeless torture.
Breaking the surface between the swirling currents of pain, he shouted as he counted, “One! Two! Th-Th-Three! F-Four!”
He was momentarily overwhelmed, before letting out a victorious shout, “FIVE.” Not wanting to lose momentum, he continued on to six, but was unable to reach seven.
This continued on, and he found that between the longer intervals, when the pain waxed, he could count to ten before the pain washed over his body and mind. He kept his eyes tightly shut, knowing that the blank whiteness of his cell would only offer another challenge for his mind to contend with.
Again, he began counting beneath his breath, purchasing a foothold on the slippery slopes of the deep hole that was swallowing him. As he approached five, he decided to utter a quick prayer, “F-From the d-d-depths, I cry t-t-to you, O LORD.” As quickly as he muttered the prayer, the pain overtook him like a rolling wave.
As the time and the pain worked their sinister torture, he found a rhythm of prayer.
“I d-don’t know if I-I-I made the right choice in coming here.”
The pain rose again unbearably.
“B-b-but, but, I lift my soul t-t-to y-you,” he sighed deeply, knowing he could not trust his own soul for any solace of hope.
His arms throbbed as the pain eviscerated him with merciless blades as each second compounded upon another. It was some time before he was again able to gather himself.
“I d-d-d-don’t even know who I am…”
Again the pain rose, robbing him of the ability to think or feel anything but the surge of fried nerves, fraying tendons, and knotted muscles.
“…b-but I am willing…”
Another swell overtook him.
“…w-willing to, to find out…”
The onslaught of misery cascaded from his fingers to his toes.
“…shh-show m-me Lord, and strength-st-strengthen me…”
As pain mounted upon pain, Malachi’s feet found firm footing on the floor beneath him. While this should have been a relief it presented a still more serious threat. With no strength in his dislocated shoulders, the weight of his torso shifted his center of balance forward, and he was slowly suffocating. Each breath presented new struggle, the task of inhaling and exhaling consumed him to the point that the present battle became survival. He was not sure where the strength came from, if it was answered prayer or some sub-rational instinct, but he swore to himself that he would not yield to death. If life was to at last leave him, his captors would have to take it. He would not surrender. The rage to persist filled each breath with determination, so, with rage and strength Malachi continued on in the lonely white madness of that private hell where he kept the light from fleeing his eyes.
Time was so immeasurable that it was worthless to even think of it as he hung from the ceiling, so he could not tell how long he had been suspended when the concierge returned with a bottle of water and a guard accompanying him.
“Are you enjoying your stay, Mr. Firestone?” he asked sadistically.
The guard pulled up his step ladder in order to reach the beam clamps. He released the brakes that held the rope that Malachi dangled upon. Malachi fell crashing to the floor face-first. He had no strength to pull himself up to a sitting position. So, he rolled over on his back, gasping for air as blood sputtered in his mouth and nose from the impact of the fall. The concierge gently placed his hands on Malachi’s back, helping to hoist him into a seated position. As Malachi gathered himself, the concierge handed him the bottle of water, which Malachi cupped in his cuffed hands. He could not use his shoulders to raise his arms, so he bowed toward his bent elbows in order to draw a precious few sips of water.
“Honestly,” Malachi rasped, “I noticed a draft. You might want to have your maintenance crew look into that.”
The concierge laughed, “I see you haven’t lost your sense of humor.”
“Dead men usually don’t,” Malachi said, glaring at him.
“Are you going to tell me what I want to hear?”
“And what is that?” Malachi asked and struggled to sip down more water.
“What is your name? Why did you defect? What is your mission?”
Malachi wondered why he had leapt to this without asking him for any intel on NATO’s presence along the Iranian border.
“You mean the EAC hasn’t consulted the concierge of Chateau de’ Evin?”
The concierge laughed again, “Perhaps not, Mr. Firestone. But, it is my job to find out. During your stay here, you will discover just how good I am at finding these sorts of things out.”
“I’m sure I will.”
“I will leave it at that for now; hopefully you have gained a taste for how this establishment is run. Get some rest. You will need your strength before our next meeting.”
The guard removed the rope from Malachi’s bound wrists, as he and the concierge left the room. Without a pillow or blanket he laid on his back, grateful that he had a few moments of respite from hanging suspended from the I-beam above him. He kept his eyes tightly shut to block out the emptiness of his room, and allowed his mind to wander to the beautiful landscapes locked in his memory. He found himself floating in the Pacific next to his brother, with the waning sun brightening the western horizon as fire blazed on the eastern hills. He set his mind on kinder thoughts. If he managed to survive this ordeal, he would see Jacob soon. His soul was knit to Jacob’s and he knew, beyond his ability to perceive, that Jacob needed him. He knew how hard the fighting had been for Jacob as they discussed the war during their shared duties at Haji Omaran; he also knew that if the war persisted, it could ruin his brother. Even in the early days of the war, cynicism began to creep into Jacob’s mind, which Malachi knew could be lethal for a soldier. As he remembered their shared moment from years ago, he reached out in prayer for Jacob; that God would sustain him with the strength he needed to hold on, that his haunted soul, scarred so deeply by the war, might find peace and hope. He prayed that Jacob would begin to grasp the purposes God had for him, which Malachi had always sensed were suffused with weight and meaning.
Whether it was night or day was beyond knowing, but sometime after the concierge left his cell another man came in his room and roused Malachi out of his sleep. He had long, wavy black locks of hair that flowed mid-way down his neck, a closely-trimmed, graying beard, and pale hazel eyes that were filled with mercy. This man had a sadness about him; maybe it hung upon him because of the horrors of the Evin Prison that he was witness to. He helped Malachi to his feet slowly, and motioned for him to follow as he left the room. The thought crossed Malachi’s mind to make a run for it, but where would he run to? He followed the man down the dark hallway, several dozen yards into a medical room, where another Iranian man waited. The man motioned to Malachi to lie down on the gurney. As Malachi laid on the gurney, the man who brought him in, presumably a doctor, gently inspected his dislocated shoulders, prodding at his deltoids and inspecting the gap between the conjunction between his humerus, clavicle, scapula, and acromion. Even the slight touch of the doctor sent shocks radiating down Malachi’s arms and through his chest and back.
After his shoulders were sufficiently examined, the doctor gave an order to the other man in the room in Farsi. Malachi understood bits and pieces of Farsi, however he hadn’t a clue what the doctor was saying. Shortly thereafter, the orderly placed two large syringes with about 20cc’s of lidocaine on a small table next to the gurney. The doctor proceeded to inject the gaps between his shoulders. First, the injections felt like ice, as the fluid expanded in the dislocated space, but then they gave way to numbness. The blessed numbness. This wasn’t the first dislocated shoulder that Malachi had to have relocated, and he had them relocated without numbing. Malachi knew that the numbing was a kindness that the doctor did not need to extend to him as an enemy and a prisoner. As soon as the lidocaine had taken effect, the doctor took his left forearm and rotated it externally at the elbow while applying constant downward pressure on the humereus until the joint snapped into place. The pain gradually subsided as soon as the shoulder was relocated, then the doctor repeated the procedure on his left shoulder.
When the doctor had finished he bent down to Malachi’s ear and whispered in Farsi, “Khoda Hafiz,” before quietly making his way out of the room
Khoda Hafiz, Malachi knew this phrase – God protect you. He wondered whether or not the doctor was a guardian angel. As soon as the doctor left, the orderly sat Malachi up abruptly from where he had lain. After this, he placed a new set of handcuffs on his wrists. He motioned for him to get off of the gurney and follow him. The orderly led a shirtless Malachi back down the hallway, but in the opposite direction of his original holding cell. He was lead into a much larger room where the concierge and a group of six men awaited him, including the two brutes that had suspended him in his cell; the other men were no less thuggish than the two.
This room was not white; the gray concrete floors were bare, and the only perceivable marks on them were russet spatters of years’ worth of bloodstains. Malachi’s heart sank. Above him was a hook held in place by a large chain, where he assumed he would be suspended again.
“Mr. Firestone, are you ready to tell me what I need to know?” asked the concierge as he affixed a hooked chain to his shackled wrists and hoisted the chain around the hook hanging from another I-beam just below the ceiling. The concierge handed the tail end of the chain to one of the men in the room and he pulled the chain so that Malachi’s arms were again raised above his head, but this time his feet were firmly planted on the floor beneath him.
“I have nothing to say to you, sir,” Malachi said defiantly.
“Very well,” replied the concierge as he nodded to two of the men standing next to him.
The first man, a tall, powerfully built man approached Malachi as he reeled back and punched Malachi squarely in the solar plexus, robbing him of breath. If Malachi had had any food in his stomach, he would have wretched the contents on the floor; instead he dry-heaved. Before he could catch his breath, the other man proceeded to wail on him with repeated blows to his ribcage until a few of his ribs broke on either side of his torso. Malachi gasped for air as the sharp pain of broken bones filled his chest cavity.
“Why did you defect, Mr. Firestone?” asked the concierge with wild cruelty in his eyes, “What is your objective?”
Malachi did not answer as he writhed in agony.
“What is your name, Mr. Firestone?”
The concierge nodded to two other men, carrying cat-of-nine-tails whips made of thin flexible metal cables that had small steel hex-nuts at their ends.
“This can all end if you speak with me honestly,” said the concierge, “and you can meet with Lt. Col. Mahmood shortly.”
“Get on with it,” Malachi spoke with a trembling voice, reminding himself that his victory was to be earned by silence. They would have to kill him before he would divulge this information.
The concierge nodded as two men stood astride Malachi’s left and right side. The first man let loose with the whip across Malachi’s upper back, savagely ripping the skin between his shoulder blades and raking along his spine. Blood immediately gushed from the stripes on his back. An instant later, the man on the other side whipped at the small of his back, in the vicious aftermath of that lash, his spine was exposed as flesh was torn from his lumbar region.
“You might as well kill me. My name belongs to God, not to you.”
The two men alternated blows, as Malachi let out screams of agony as his back was being torn to pieces. Exposed ribs on either side of his spine were white islands in a sea of blood as Malachi’s back and sides were drenched in agony.
“This will continue until you speak.”
“Not if I die first,” Malachi said with tears streaming down his cheeks.
“That can be arranged.” The concierge nodded again as the men beside him delivered blow after inhuman blow. Malachi’s back had taken on the appearance of macerated red meat. They whipped him several more times. Malachi had sustained scores of individual lashes. Brutal, inhuman pain wracked his body as Malachi tried again to count, and imagine himself running along the bare, snow clad peaks of Haji Omaran. But the pain choked out all conscious thought, as Malachi pressed into the savage wounds on his back, allowing the pain to be his dark companion. The only sound was Malachi’s screams, as he endured a lashing that beat him to within an inch of his life. Eventually adrenaline subsided and Malachi stood extended until he could bear no more. No sooner than he had reached his breaking point, he passed out, succumbing to the cruel whipping he received.
When he awoke again, he was back in the medical room. The doctor who had just relocated his shoulders began stitching the worst of the lacerations that now scarred nearly every inch of his back. Malachi noticed that the orderly that had assisted the doctor in relocating his shoulders was not in the room.
“This will help ease the pain for a time,” as he gently patted his wounds with a cloth soaked in lidocaine. As the numbness began to take hold he had Malachi sit up so he could wrap his torso and back in gauze to soak up the blood that still oozed from his wounds. In broken English he said to Malachi, “May God protect you, Malachi.”
Startled at the mention of his name, Malachi asked, “How do you know that name?”
“It matters little how I know,” said the doctor, “but your name is safe in God’s hands.”
In a faint whisper Malachi responded, “Thank you, my friend. You extend mercy that I have not asked for.”
“It is time to return to your cell,” said the doctor, as if the words he uttered caused him great pain.
He helped Malachi out of the medical room and back to his cell, unsure if the doctor would betray him or if he was an angel of mercy. As they reached the door he whispered again in Malachi’s ear, “Do not forget that your God is still with you.”
Malachi sat on the floor in the middle of the vacuous white room, knowing that he could not bear resting his torn back against the wall, and wept. He closed his eyes as his body throbbed with pain, then pushed against the bandaged wounds with his right index and middle fingers shortly time after the doctor left the room. With bloody fingers he scrawled a message on the blank white wall beside him in defiant capital letters – MY VICTORY IS SILENCE. There would be no yielding, no surrender. No torment, no pain would dissuade him from silence as he buried his own name and his reasons for defection in the far recesses of his consciousness, trying to build an impenetrable cocoon around them, wound with adamantine thread that no savagery could assail.
As he stared into the blank wall before him, he lost all sense of time. The surges of pain made the walls appear like they were moving, pulsing like a heartbeat, cascading like buckets of translucent paint pouring over a vertical surface. He felt his ability to make spatial distinctions disappear, just as his perception of time had been swallowed by the sterility of his cell. He was still dizzy with pain. Hunger gnawed at him, and he was so thirsty that he was starting to feel the onset of delirium. As time lurched and the effects of the medication wore off, unassuaged anguish returned and assaulted his senses without relenting. Upon the wall before him he began seeing an image of a two gnarled olive trees with a pair of lampstands behind them, shining through the now living surface of the white wall before him. He was unclear whether he was hallucinating as he stared at the wall that gave images like an incandescent projection upon a shimmering screen. Through the swells of agony, he sought to cleave his conscious thought from his sensory awareness, seeking some sort of solace as he returned to his prayers he had offered earlier in the same room.
“Lord, who am I?”
Malachi stared through the image that appeared upon the wall.
“Look no further than your name,” a still voice echoed in his heart.
Malachi had turned from that path many years ago, trading it in for the path of a rebel and a warrior. Was this how God was trying to get through to him, in this prison of hellish torment that encased him in the Dantaen jaws of that cell? Did he, indeed, have a plan for Malachi that challenged the glaring contradictions of his life? If this was God’s way of reaching out to his restless Prodigal, it was in the lonely isolation of pain that God’s voice was amplified in the shattered shards of his soul. Unbending pride had been Malachi’s greatest sin; it kept him from submitting to the road he had always known lay before him. In the brokenness and isolation of the prison, Malachi had descended into the depths of his own heart to find that God was there, prior to all else he held dear. God was uttermost within him, and in the agony, he found repose in the very Presence he had spent so many thousands of days fleeing.
My Messenger echoed time and time again in Malachi’s mind, as he peered into the meaning of his name.
“Your messenger? I have no words, Lord; not for myself, much less anyone else. All I have are the scars of a misspent youth,” he murmured through the carnage that had taken possession of his body and mind. No longer able to pray, he turned to his imagination to hold the blinding whiteness of his cell at bay. An image of a vast snow-capped mountain range separated by a densely wooded valley choked with thorn bushes flashed before him. He stood before a narrow path that wound through that endless valley that lay in the mountains’ shadow. The doom of a solemn, inescapable call rose up and illuminated the well-worn tracks of the path that bent into the unlit recesses of the vale. He looked all around him for another route that he could traverse, but he found none; only the lonely road, his lonely road, stood before him, beckoning him to venture upon it. As he continued to gaze upon the scene, the more familiar it became – he knew this place somehow; something inside of him had always known it. The only way out of the wilderness ahead of him was through it. He spoke into the silence of the path before him, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.”
“This has been your path Malachi,” the Voice whispered to him, “this is where I taught you My words. You might hear my Word on the mountaintop, but you can only grasp its meaning in the valley. Soon I will lead you out of your wilderness so that you can lead my people out of the wilderness of this world.”
He sat in the corner of his cell with his head bowed upon his knees as sleep overtook him.