By William Peter Blatty
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 William Peter Blatty
All rights reserved.
Ninety three million miles from the sun, in the damp of a windowless concrete room in a maze of other rooms and cells and passageways where grace and hope had never touched, the Interrogator sat behind a tight wooden table with a mind gone blank as the notepad before him. The Prisoner radiated mystery. After seven days of torture he had yet to utter a word. Silent, his head bowed down, hands manacled, he stood beneath the blinding grip of the spotlight in the middle of the room like a barrier to comfort.
'"Who are you?"
The Interrogator's voice was straw. All the questions had been asked. None had been answered. Now they all had worn away to this single probe as if locked within the Prisoner's name were his nature.
"Who are you?"
Drained, the Interrogator waited, squinting at the sweat-blurred lines on the pad. In the hush of the chamber he could hear his own breathing and the desultory faint sharp clicks of his pen point tapping at the table's stained dark oak. For a moment his ears twitched up minutely, straining toward a sound heard dimly through the walls: the scuffing of shoes, a body being dragged. He could not tell if the sounds were real or imagined. Here even the dust in the air was heard shrieking. Another odd sound intruded. What was it? The Interrogator rested his pen on the table and lifted a haunted gaze to the Prisoner, silent and motionless yet so vivid that he seemed a disturbance embedded in time. Drops of blood were falling softly to the mottled stone floor from the ends of his fingers, now one, now another, where the nails had been wrenched from their sockets.
The Interrogator shifted his weight uneasily.
He looked down at the quiet pen.
"Who are you?"
The silence held its breath.
The Interrogator's thumb probed under his spectacles, dislodging them a little as he rubbed at the corner of a watery eye. He carefully removed them and polished each small, round gold-rimmed lens with a frayed and faded white cotton handkerchief that faintly smelled of naphtha. Finished, he fitted the glasses back on with slender hands the color of parchment, then nodded a command to a burly torturer.
"Go ahead," he quietly ordered.
The torturer moved to the light, where he paused, gently patted the Prisoner's cheek, then suddenly delivered a thudding blow to the Prisoner's groin with a rubber truncheon. The Prisoner absorbed it, sinking to his knees but emitting no sound. The Interrogator's fingertips touched at a scar that bisected his pale thin lips into a snarl, and under the collar of his olive drab coverall, that bore no sign of rank, his neck felt strangely warm and taut. Against all reason the Prisoner frightened him. Like the dark and heavy stars that show no color to the far observer, he blazed with a terrifying inner light.
They had come upon him by chance. On a Sunday, 25 September, near the northern mountain village of Spac, a force of police, trained dogs, and militia had been hunting a suspect in the attempted assassination of Chief of Security Mehmet Shehu. Shots had been fired by unseen marksmen as Shehu, in the city on a tour of inspection, departed from Security Police Headquarters, then housed in the ancient brownstone prison in that section of Shkoder called Rusi i Madh. One man was caught, a peasant from Domni who, under torture, finally implicated a second man from his village, a clothing merchant named Qazim Beg, who was believed to be escaping to Yugoslavia. Hunting parties sped to the routes considered the likely paths of flight: to the west, the mud-brown River Buna and, north, the so-called "Shepherd's Pass," a high coil at the crests of the Dukajini Mountains. Though swollen by unexpected rains, the Buna's roiling, buffeting waters could be crossed at the narrowest pinch of its waist, slightly more than two hundred yards; but because it was known to so few Albanians and was close to the suspect's village, the Pass drew the larger force of searchers, fifty-eight armed volunteers and three dogs. Their climb was daunting, a robber of breath that spiraled through sandstone, marl, and shale to freezing heights of desolation: these were "The Ranges of the Damned." But at the Pass the hunting force found no one and began a return that would have been without incident except for a curl of fate that would later be seen as first contact with The Prisoner. One of the dogs, a ferocious mastiff of enormous muscle and bulk, had been loosed toward a crackling sound in a wood and was later discovered lying still amid gold and orange leaves on the forest floor in autumnal light as if fallen asleep and turned away from all yearning. Its neck had been broken. The leader of the force, a young smith named Rako Bey, felt a shadow pass over him at the sight, for he could not grasp the power of a human capable of killing the dog in this way. His breath a white fire on the darkening air, he scanned the wood with narrowed eyes, sifting hawthorn and hazel in search of his fate and seeing nothing but the cloud that is before men's eyes. The sun was descending. The forest was haunted. Bare branches were icy threats, evil thoughts. Bey thought of his mother. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and urged the force on and away from this place.
The group had a secondary mission in Quelleza: the capture of a murderer, a village baker, and while this objective was not to be gained, at the end of a labyrinthine path another would, for their search would lead the hunting force to the Prisoner, who was a book that had been lovingly written for The Interrogator by Fate.
The hunt for the baker promised danger. The murderer's kin were mountain clansmen and likely to resist the attempted arrest, for the murder, after all, had been part of a blood feud whose tangles were myriad and numbing to the mind. A husband, a reticent man from Micoi, had dragged his unfaithful wife from their house in accordance with the bessa, the unwritten code that forbade any vengeful act indoors, and in sunlight he had shot her once in the head. Then the silver bullet in her quiet brain had been given to the husband by the victim's brother as a token that the deed had his prior consent. There it all might have ended. But the woman's lover, in a crime of passion, berserk, found the husband at home and killed him. Because the wife's lover was a rival clansman, the husband's brother, the farmer, took revenge. He, in turn, was sought out by the father of the dead lover, whom he foiled by refusing to venture out of doors from the house where he lived with his wife and one child, a rosy-cheeked, brindle-eyed two-year-old boy, and thus was confident the bessa would protect him from harm. Thus, for weeks nothing happened while the farmer and his mounting fear roamed the house like nervous ghosts, one's soft set of footfalls imaging the other's. Strange rappings were heard on those edgy nights, and the farmer and his fear, grown familiar from their lengthy confinement together, were at times heard conversing in quiet tones, and once a hearty laugh rang out between them. Then, on a night when the stars were lost, the farmer bolted from a fitful sleep, awakened by cries from a goat of his herd. It bleated repeatedly, as if injured. Cocking an ear, the farmer listened, confirming that his fear was soundly asleep as its whistling snores rattled dryly through the house, and so he irritably arose from his muttering bed, fumbled into his lamb's wool jacket and trousers, and then sleepily wandered out into the blackness to see to his goat. So are good deeds not always rewarded. He climbed the first mound of a steep double rise jutting up between the house and the urgent bleating, unaware of the trap that had been cunningly set for him by the father of the lover. The avenger, a mild-eyed baker named Grodd, lay hidden in back of the second rise firmly clutching the goat by a leg while repeatedly twisting the animal's ear. But then misfortune struck, things collapsed, for perhaps due to drowsiness or distraction, or a root or a rock where there should have been none, when the farmer had achieved the craggy peak of the first of the hillocks on his way to the goat he lost his footing and was suddenly plunging through space toward the base of the far ravine below. "I am falling," he dismally reflected, and then he murmured aloud, "This should not be," for his behavior all his life had been exemplary, though this record was now in some peril as he muttered clichés about life's caprices, but this looming blot on his reputation was timely avoided when he ended his fall with a definitive emphasis as his head struck a sharp-edged rock. Grodd heard the sickening crack of bone and soon after was shaken by the realization that his quarry might die by other than his hand. When he'd grasped the full horror of the situation; when he stood beside the farmer and then knelt and felt the gouts, the bold gushings of blood, the baker groaned and decried the unfairness of it all. Did he not wear a charm to ward off the evil eye? Had he not with his finger traced a sign of the cross into every loaf of bread he had ever baked? How had the demons taken charge of this night?
Grodd carried the farmer into his home, roused his wife, and then ran to the nearby village where he wakened the doctor and then rushed him back to the house. But it came to no use, the old doctor told him after assessing the nature of the wound, for complex surgery was needed, and quickly, or the farmer would be dead in a matter of hours.
"It's subdural hematoma," the doctor explained.
"It is demons!" cried the baker, distraught.
The wife hastily blessed herself.
The old doctor shrugged and left.
With the anguished Grodd breathing curses by his bed, the fallen farmer, still unconscious, very soon contracted a fever, slipped into pneumonia, and within three days was visibly dead.
Inconsolable, Grodd burst into tears.
"It was the demons who killed him!" he shouted at one point.
"Yes, it was only the appearance of pneumonia," agreed the wife.
After that no one cared to say anything at all.
The code of the bessa could not be satisfied except by the killing of a male. And so one year after the death of the farmer, when wariness and vigilance had relaxed, Grodd the baker returned to the farmer's house where he happened to come upon his two-year-old son as he played alone in a dreamy field, and there, amid the sun-washed, breeze-blown poppies that were bluer and more vivid than Bengal light; among the hazel and cherry trees and the dogwood, the mustard and the parsley and the brabble of larks and the swaying, star-flung Michaelmas daisy petals as white as the Arctic fox, Grodd watched as the boy chased a black-winged butterfly; listened to a cowbell's tinkle in the distance, remembered his youth, heard the little boy laugh, took a breath, and then shot him between his brindled eyes. It was Grodd that the hunting force had been searching for when they happened upon the Prisoner. Some thought it was not by chance.
FROM THE DE-BRIEFING OF RAKO BEY, LEADER OF THE VOLUNTEER FORCE TO QUELLEZA, TAKEN 10 OCTOBER
Q. And what led you to the house in the first place?
A. Nothing, sir. Grodd was related to the blind man who lived there, but then he is related to most of the village. Nothing led us there, Colonel. It was fate.
Q. Maintain propriety.
A. Sorry, sir.
Q. Our fate is in our hands.
A. Yes, exactly.
Q. About the house, then ...
A. Oh, it was just another house outside the village. We surrounded it a little after sundown. It was cold. We broke in and found the blind man inside. And the other one.
Q. The other one?
A. Yes. We found the blind man sitting by the fire. The other was at the table. There was food set out, a lot of it: cabbage, bread, cheese, lamb and eggs, onions, some grapes. When I saw the lamb and eggs I knew the other one had to be a guest, an outsider, so I kept my gun leveled at him. He could have been Grodd. Though I was doubtful.
A. Because Grodd was supposedly blue-eyed and slender.
Q. I don't understand.
A. Well, he didn't fit Grodd's description.
Q. You didn't see the Prisoner as blue-eyed and slender?
A. No, of course not. He is dark-eyed and stocky, a brute. Why are you staring like that?
Q. Never mind. Did the Prisoner resist?
A. No, he didn't.
Q. He did nothing?
A. No, his head was down, he didn't move. He had a small woolen blanket on his lap and his hands were out of view underneath it.
Q. Did he speak to you?
A. No. The blind man did all the talking. He asked us who we were and what was happening. I told him. I demanded their identity cards. But when the oldster stood up I saw his blindness and I told him, "Never mind, grandfather. Sit." The other fellow dug for his card in his pocket, and then he handed it over and I checked it. It said that his name was Selca Decani and that he was a seller of feta cheese from Theti. But I think he was more than that.
A. I don't know. I can't explain it.
Q. I am handing you the Prisoner's identity card. Did you scrutinize it carefully?
A. Well, no. I mean, he obviously wasn't Grodd so I just glanced at some items, looked at the photograph, and gave the card back.
Q. I invite you to examine the photograph again.
A. He looks slender here. He isn't.
Q. But it's he?
A. Yes, it's he.
Q. And the color of the eyes? What does it say?
A. This is strange.
Q. What does it say?
A. It says blue.
Q. You recall now they were blue?
A. They were black as wet olives in a barrel. I was with him all the way to Shkoder Prison. They are black.
Q. Very well.
A. Are you testing me?
Q. Continue your report.
A. The card is wrong.
Q. I said continue.
A. Well, we were leaving them, almost out the door, when suddenly the blind man spoke very oddly.
Q. Oddly how?
A. Just an odd tone of voice. I can't describe it.
Q. And what did he say?
A. He said, "He is not one of us. He is alien."
Q. What did he mean?
A. I wasn't sure. We came back and trained our guns on the fellow, and I asked the old man to explain. He didn't answer. I said, "Grandfather, hurry, speak up. My daughter will be three years old by the weekend and I promised to be with her. Hurry up, please, give an answer." And the oldster said, "Take him." I looked into the fellow's eyes and then decided to club him with the butt of my rifle.
A. I don't know. Just something, some movement in the back of his eyes, some inner struggle. I had the feeling he could kill us if he wished.
Q. You're quite tired, I think.
A. I haven't slept.
Q. We'll come back to this. What happened next?
A. I knocked him out and we chained up his legs, and then we took him to the station house in Quelleza. We asked the police if the man had checked in with them when he first came into the village. That's the law.
Q. So it is.
A. They said no. This was highly suspicious. I explained things completely to the local commissar and to the commandant of police.
Q. That was well.
A. So then the commandant asked him some questions. Well, the man wouldn't speak, not a word, and we started to wonder about whether he was a mute or some kind of an imbecile, perhaps. But all the wires to Theti were down, there'd been a storm, and we couldn't check out any part of his story. As it happened, though, we ran into wonderful luck. In Quelleza at that moment was a merchant from Theti, a big fellow, bald, very talkative; anyhow, they found him and they brought him to the station and they asked if he'd ever seen the Prisoner before. He said yes, and that he couldn't quite remember his name but that our man was very definitely from Theti. Then the commissar asked if he was Selca Decani, and the merchant said, "Of course he is! Exactly! It's Selca!" and "How in the world could I have possibly forgotten!" Then he started to study our fellow intently and a curious look came over his face and he told us though he didn't know how it could have happened, but he'd somehow made an error, for until that moment it had slipped his mind that Selca Decani had been dead for many years, and that our fellow looked nothing like Decani at all. What made his mistake so amazing, he told us, was that he had known Decani quite well and had been saddened and depressed by his death for many months. It was all very strange. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Dimiter by William Peter Blatty. Copyright © 2010 William Peter Blatty. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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