White: A short story by Robert McCammon

 

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White

by

Robert McCammon

They have come for Russ Trousdale as he is watching the last half hour of Conan and drinking a cup of ginger mint herbal tea.

They have come through the front door of his apartment as silently as shadows, and catlike in their black suits and hooded masks the three figures slip along the narrow hallway from front door to living room. They have the duct tape on Russ’s mouth before he can cry out, and hauling him from his Barcalounger they are careful not to spill his tea or make any noises that might be heard by the neighbors through the gray-painted walls.

They pull his arms behind him and snap black plastic restraints on his wrists. It is no problem that he is wearing his red-plaid p.j.s; he is going to a place where the clothing does not matter. Russ struggles a bit but pressure on a nerve in his neck from a black-gloved hand tells him to be still, and with the blood thumping in his head and the pee wet in his pants he becomes as pliable as well-worked putty. They are professionals, and they know their nerve endings.

A black hood is put over his head. He is dragged at first, his legs non-compliant, but then one of the professionals does a nerve tweak to the back of a leg that sends a spear of pain shooting into Russ’s brain and the bad boy becomes perfect. He goes where they want him to go. Down and down, it seems. A piece of metal bangs into his left shin. That will leave a bruise, he thinks in the chaos of his terror. And down and down some more. A car door opens, he is pushed up into a cold place where another set of hands grasps his shoulders and forces him to his knees, the door slides shut—a van, Russ thinks, yes this is a van—and the vehicle starts moving.

On and on. How long? Fifteen, twenty minutes? On and on, never stopping. Russ wonders why the van does not stop for red lights. A gloved hand pats his right cheek, as if in pity. He says Why? Why? Why? behind the duct tape but it comes out garbled and no one is listening anyway.

This is a horror show, Russ thinks. It is real horror. It is not vampires or zombies or spirits of the dead. This is a horror show, and I am lost inside it.

Why he has been taken from the warmth and comfort of his apartment on this October night, he has no idea. He has not a lot of money nor relatives with money. He has not taken out a loan from a street-corner shark. He has no enemies, as far as he knows. He has done nothing wrong.

So why?

The van slows. Its tires jubble over speed-breakers. Four of them. Then the van stops, the door slides open and Russ is hauled out again, and this time the hand is ready at the back of his neck if he decides to struggle so he does not because he knows there’s no use in it. He is tall and lanky and weighs about a hundred and sixty pounds, and these hands upon him have the power of football linemen or pro wrestlers after they go to seed. He is handled like a sack of straw. There is no future in struggling.

Walk, walk, walk,” a voice demands in his ear. It sounds hollow and echoes, and Russ thinks they must be in a parking-deck or underground somewhere. Fifteen or twenty minutes from his apartment…a world away.

Russ walks. They don’t try to push him, but they don’t let him dawdle either. They are hard and efficient and they are wearing shoes that clack clack clack on concrete. A keyring makes a musical note. A lock is unlocked. A door comes open with a faint squeal of hinges. Russ is guided onto a staircase, going up. He smells cigarette smoke and disinfectant; he smells the acrid sickly-sweet odor of fear and decides it is coming from himself. He can feel grit like bone-shavings beneath the soles of his feet.

Up and up. Two flights. Three flights, and four. Another door is unlocked. Russ is guided through by hands neither brutal nor merciful. The hands say, This is business, fella, just business. We are good at what we do and we don’t want to spoil our record, so please continue on so we don’t have to smash out your teeth.

He is pushed into the room, which sounds and feels small. “Okay,” the voice says, “you’re here.” It is spoken as if the next pronouncement could be, Welcome my friend or Make yourself comfortable while I go get us some popcorn. But the voice says nothing else. There is a second sound though: what seems to be another voice from a radio, a clipped and official voice, saying Got him, he’s in the white room.

The hands leave him.

The door closes with a heavy thunk, steel involved there. The key turns.

Click.

A terrible sound.

Russ Trousdale stands there waiting, his wrists bound behind him, his mouth sealed with duct tape, his head covered with a hood. His feet are cold on a cold, cold floor. He waits, but nothing happens. He does not move for a long time. Then after awhile he sobs behind the duct tape and he begins to cry but if there is anyone else in the room no one speaks.

Time creeps on. Does an hour pass? Time has become a thing that has no meaning. He waits and waits, and is afraid to move. He feels himself being watched. They might not like it if he moves. If he does not move they will know he is a good boy, that he wants to obey, that he wants this mistake to be fixed and everybody go home, go home, go home where you belong.

So he does not move for the longest time.

But finally he does move, just a foot or so to his left, just a rebalancing of weight, and his hip hits something. The edge of a table, it feels like. Is someone sitting there? Has someone been sitting there all this time? I’m sorry, he thinks. Whatever I’ve done or whatever you think I’ve done, I am sorry. Please please please…this is a mistake…please…please…

A key slides into the door’s lock. Beads of sweat roll down Russ’s face beneath the stifling hood. The door opens. He feels himself shiver, because the movement of air means someone—more than one—has entered the room. Then the door closes again, slammed so hard it makes Russ jump. That slamming is not good, he thinks. It is an angry sound, and it says You are ours now.

His wrist restraints are snapped off. Before he can rub the blood back into his hands he feels a sharp blade slicing through his clothing. In another instant they are pulled off him and he stands naked. Then he is pushed into a chair. His right hand is seized and pressed flat against the tabletop by a wrestler’s brute strength. This man could crush his hand if he pleased. Something is being done to his hand. His fingers are being spread wide, to the point just beyond pain. Russ grits his teeth and cries out behind the duct tape, but whatever is being done to his hand continues on. His left arm is seized. What feels like more duct tape is wrapped around and around his body, sealing him to the chair and sealing his left arm to his side. It takes awhile and a lot of tape. They want to make sure he can’t move. The sweat streams down Russ’s face, he thinks he might drown in it beneath the hood. Please, he thinks. Please.

The job is done. “Good,” someone says. The door opens and closes again, this time with a whisper instead of a shout.

“Showtime,” another voice announces.

Russ’s hood is yanked off.

Two bright spotlights stab right in his eyes. He squints furiously, blinded by the white glare. He can make out two figures sitting before him at a table maybe eight feet long, but he can’t see their faces or anything about them. He looks to right and left and sees the glare reflected off shiny white tiles. The ceiling also is shiny white. It is like being inside a freshly-cleaned mouth, behind a set of clenched white teeth. The smell of disinfectant is strong in here. A bad sign, he thinks as his eyes struggle with the lights.

Then someone standing behind him reaches out and strips the tape off Russ’s mouth so quickly Russ thinks his lips have come with it. The hand withdraws and Russ tries to look behind but he can’t make his neck turn enough to see; the person behind him is right in his blind spot.

“Russell G. Trousdale,” says one of the figures at the other end of the table. It is a man’s smooth voice. It is the voice of a salesman, a sweet talker, a man who can charm the vultures out of their trees. “The G stands for Gerald. Correct?”

“I’m not supposed to be here what’s the trouble really this is a mistake really something’s wrong I’m not—”

“Shhhhhh,” says the salesman. “Let’s be quiet a minute, Russell. Let’s just settle down and be quiet.”

“I swear to God I don’t know I don’t have anything I swear to Holy God I shouldn’t—”

A professional hand squeezes a nerve in the back of his neck, and Russ stops talking because the pain has silenced him. His eyes well up with tears and run down his face.

Quiet,” says the man. “Let’s just contemplate our sins for a minute.”

At last the hand leaves his neck.

Russ says nothing. He is breathing hard and his heart is beating hard and for the first time, squinting into the glare, he sees that the fingers of his hand have been spread out and wired down to little nails in the tabletop. He tries to move the hand, to lift it up a fraction, but whoever did this has done it before and knows his job very well.

“We have a situation,” the man says. “I imagine you know what it is, Russell.”

“I don’t I swear I don’t listen to me listen—” Stop, he tells himself. That’s only going to bring pain. Just stop. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Sweat in the eyes. Breathe, damn you! Settle down…try to think. Easy, easy. Think. Try it again. Slow. “There’s been,” he says, in a voice he would never recognize as his own in a million years, “a big mistake.”

Silence. But is there a fan working somewhere? Russ can hear the faint hum of machinery.

“A mistake,” the man repeats. “A mistake, he says.” Speaking to someone else in the room. He leans forward in his chair but the spotlights still hide his face. “Russell, we don’t make mistakes.” His voice has a mean smile in it. “You know, that kind of hurts my feelings.”

“I shouldn’t be here,” Russ says. “I was just home watching tv. I was going to go to bed in—”

“I don’t care, Russell. Why should I care about your tv habits and your bedtime? None of us here care about that.”

“Listen…please…who are you? How do you know my name? What’s this about? I can fix this, okay?”

“You can fix this? Is that what I heard you say?”

“Yes. Really. I can—”

“Well, that’s what you’re here for. To fix this. Otherwise you would still be home watching tv and getting ready for bed. We don’t do these things for no reason. That would be a little wasteful of manhours.”

“Fix what?” Russ asks. “What am I supposed to fix?”

This,” says the salesman in his smoothest voice. “What you just volunteered to fix.”

“I don’t owe any money,” Russ says. “Okay, I went a little crazy with my Visa last month. I bought a new dishwasher. But I’m good for it, I swear I—”

“Stop swearing,” comes the soft reply. “It does no good to do that.”

Russ thinks he is irritating this man and he doesn’t want to. He veers back to higher ground. “I want to fix things. Whatever. I just…I just don’t know why I’m here or who you are.”

“You’re here because I wanted you here. I am the man who wanted you here. Simple enough?”

Russ thinks he can’t breathe, he can’t draw a breath, he is near passing out. “Listen… please…I haven’t done anything wrong. I was just in my apartment.”

“Uh huh.”

“Can you move those lights please? They’re killing my eyes.”

There is a long silence. Neither figure at the other end of the table moves and the lights are not touched.

“You,” says the salesman at last, “have some problems.”

“Problems? What problems?”

“Things that need to be fixed, just as you’ve volunteered to fix them. Now…Russell, I want to ask you a question and I want you to think very hard about this before you answer. And answer truthfully now, all right?”

“Yes. All right. Whatever you want to know.”

“That’s good.” The salesman speaks as if praising a wayward child. “The question is: what comes between red and blue?”

What?”

“That’s what I’m asking. What comes between red and blue?”

“I don’t…” Russ thinks he is going to throw up; it is very close, and he has to swallow some down as it rises up his throat. “I don’t understand that question.”

“I’ll ask it again, then. What…comes…between…red…and…blue?”

“I don’t know, I don’t understand that.” An American flag, he thinks. Sure! Of course, that’s what the man means. “White!” Russ says, almost shouting it. “White comes between red and blue!”

A silence stretches. Somewhere a fan is whirring, moving the heavy air.

“You know that’s not the right response,” says the salesman. “Russell, we’re not getting off to a very good start, are we?”

“White! It comes between red and blue in the American flag! Isn’t that what you want?”

“No,” is the reply. “Okay, here’s an easy one. You work as a data technician at NIC, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Doing what and for how long?”

“Verifying data. Numbers. I guess…eight years. That’s all I do, I verify numbers from a daily checksheet.”

“Hm. Eight years of that. But you don’t make it sound very important.”

“It’s what I do. It’s my job. That’s what—”

“Do you take your job seriously?” the man asks. “Do you feel you’re doing a service for anyone?”

“I am. I guess I am. I mean…somebody has to do it. But that’s all I do, I verify lists of numbers.” Russ dares to ask, “Why is my hand like that? What are you going to do?”

“It’s not what I’m going to do, Russell. It’s what you’re going to make me have to do. Are you going to cooperate?”

“Sure. I swear…I mean…yes. Those lights…can you please move those lights?”

“No, Russell, I can’t.” The man says nothing for awhile; he just sits and lets the silence speak. Then he clears his throat and asks, “What is in Locker 9772 at Grand Central Station?”

“What?”

“Russell, you’re going to get on my bad side by not answering these direct questions. I’ll repeat: What is in Locker 9772 at Grand Central Station?”

“I don’t know. I…don’t know anything about a locker at Grand Central Station.”

“Really?”

“Yes! I swear to God I don’t!”

“Take the first one,” the salesman says, and the man standing in Russ’s blind spot turns on the electric knife he is holding and deftly carves off Russ’s index finger just below the knuckle.

There is a moment in every life that is known as the point of no return. It means going beyond a boundary that sometimes should not be crossed, because one can never come back from it. Russ has just found his point of no return with searing and hideous pain, and the scream he releases that echoes back and forth between the white walls in this chamber of fear says he can never really go home again.

“Shhhhhh,” says the salesman. “Take a few deep breaths. I can wait.”

“Oh my God my God…oh…I haven’t…oh Jesus…I haven’t done anything…” The blood is pooling. It smells thick and coppery, and now Russ does throw up in his lap.

“See,” the man tells him, as earnestly as a father, “there doesn’t have to be all this mess. This disorder. I hate that. If you answer the questions, you can…well, you can’t go home, but we’ll take you somewhere and you can get a good night’s sleep. How about that?”

“I haven’t done anything!” Fury has broken through the agony. “Jesus Christ…aren’t you listening to me?”

“I’m not hearing what I want to hear. Take a minute, relax and refresh. I don’t like the sight and smell of blood, either. Makes me want to upchuck.”

Through the throbbing pain, Russ realizes the noise of the fan has gotten louder. Sweat drips from his chin. Tendrils of blood run across the table. The stub of his index finger twitches. He throws up again, but not a lot comes out. “Oh Jesus,” he whispers. “Please…”

The salesman says, “Direct your mind to this, then. The man you met on the corner of Madison and 33rd Street, next to the deli, on the evening of the fifth. What was his name?”

“What man? I didn’t meet any man! I’ve never been to a deli there!”

“You were seen by professionals, Russell. As I say, we don’t make mistakes. And these people are a pay grade above us, so you know they’re reliable. Listen, one name is what I need. Just the name. Okay?”

Russ shakes his head back and forth. The beads of sweat fly. He is near passing out. His stomach rebels once again, but the patient salesman waits. Russ thinks that if the man needs a name he will give him one, and end this torture. “Joe Frankewitz,” he offers.

The man laughs. Actually laughs out loud, as if at a comedian’s finest joke.

“Russell,” he chides, as a haze of heat moves through the glaring lights. “You know that wasn’t his name. Take the middle one,” he says.

The electric knife chews Russell’s middle finger away, and before the scream can come out the number-cruncher’s brain goes dark.

He comes back to the world with cold water thrown into his face. He starts to sob but holds it back. He will not give them the pleasure. The pain is eating him up and the tears are running down his cheeks but he will not give them the pleasure.

“Gentlemen,” says the salesman, “he wants to fight us now. Look at him. See it in his eyes? We woke up the beast, didn’t we, Russell?”

“A mistake.” Russ’s voice is ragged and heavy with pain. “You’ve got the wrong man.”

“That’s what they all say,” is the answer to that. “We’ll give you a few minutes to put the beast to bed, Russell. We’ve got the knife and you’ve got the fingers. A few left, I mean. Then you have another hand. Then you have elbows and shoulders. So see, we’re going to come out of this just fine. Then we’ll go home and have our hot chocolate and kiss our wives and look in on our sleeping children. This is about those sleeping children, Russell. We don’t want people like you disturbing their sleep by doing bad things for their future. We’re all family men here. You answer our questions, you leave the room. You fail to answer our questions and…yes, you’ll leave the room, but not the way you would like. So take a good deep breath, clear your mind, and answer this one: On the second day of this month at nine o’clock, who did you pass that packet to in the bar of the midtown Hilton?”

It is now Russ’s turn to laugh. Snot spews from his nostrils. “I don’t…no packet. I’ve never…I’ve never set foot in the midtown Hilton.”

“We already know who the packet went to, Russell. We just need verification. How about a last name? Okay, stubborn! How about initials?”

“DJ.,” Russ says.

“Gentlemen, we have a winner here. Two fingers gone and he’s still resisting.”

“RH.,” Russ says.

“Amazing,” says the salesman.

“PK.,” Russ says. “SB. CR. VG. AM.”

“Oh fuck it,” says the salesman. “Got the tourniquet ready?”

Russ thinks he hears someone say yes.

“I hate this part. The spray. Shit. Okay, it’s a go.”

The knife hums. It carves through Russ’s right wrist, and suddenly he is a free man on that side and the blood gushes and he looks at his mangled hand still trapped there and he passes out like a heavy stone falling into black water.

What feels like a handful of snow is pressed into his face. He sputters and wails as he awakens into the pain. Now the stump of his right wrist is bandaged and sealed up, and his left hand is nailed down, fingers spread and defenseless.

“I’m missing a football game for this, Russell,” says the salesman. He sounds very irritated at the stubborn nature of this naughty boy. “I’m a big Jets fan.”

Russ lowers his face. Can he speak, through this pain? He tries and fails.

“Something to say?”

Russ tries again, with all the strength that remains. “You,” he rasps, “have the wrong man. I swear…swear to Jesus and Mary.”

“A deeply religious soul, we have here,” says the man to his silent companions.

“I have not…done…anything wrong. I verify numbers. That’s all.” With an effort Russ lifts his head and stares into the merciless lights. “What is it…what is it you think I’ve done?”

“Now that would be cheating, wouldn’t it? To give you a playback? Don’t think so.”

“Please…tell me. What have I done?”

“Answer me one, I’ll answer you one. The last time you were on the Staten Island ferry was when?”

“I can’t remember. The ferry? I think…maybe…April or May.”

“Oh, Russell! Come on! How about last Tuesday night?”

“No. Wrong. I was home last Tuesday night.” He swallows hard, still fighting the pain. “I’m always home.”

“Last Tuesday night,” the salesman goes on, “at a little after seven, you walked aboard the Staten Island ferry with an older man. He had a gray beard and he was carrying a briefcase. What was his name, and what was in the briefcase?”

“No fair,” Russ whispers. “I answered a question. It’s your turn.”

“Oh, I lie. Give you ammunition to fire back at me? No. I’ll repeat it, and I really do want this answer: what was this older man’s name, and what was in the briefcase?”

To his surprise, Russ is able to raise up a mocking smile. “Abraham Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address.”

The salesman leans forward once more. Russ hears something crackle, like plastic. “You,” says the voice from the center of the glare, “have won the grand prize. For telling us exactly nothing, you get…” He makes a motion with his right hand.

Russ trembles as he hears the chainsaw start up behind him.

The sheet of clear plastic crackles again as the two men at the far end of the table draw it up to their chins.

The noise of the chainsaw comes nearer. The gasoline smell overpowers the odors of sweat, puke and terror.

“Please,” Russ begs, trapped in the glare of the lights and trapped in his own personal midnight. The stump of his right arm flails, hopelessly, at the air. “Please…what have I done?”

“You were born,” says the salesman, but Russ can hardly hear him over the noise of the approaching saw.

It doesn’t take very long.

The man who wields the chainsaw is a professional and he has had much practice. He doesn’t mind this part of it. It’s a job.

Blood rains upon the plastic and blood spatters the white walls. Blood flies to the ceiling and blood streams across the floor. Blood mists the air and blood gushes from the center of Russ Trousdale’s body as it is cleaved into two halves. Blood and blood and blood, and above it the pallid shock-frozen face that will always be asking the last question until time erases the flesh. Either that or the hungry flames of the cremation pit in the basement of this building, which will be in about fifteen minutes.

Another man vanished in this strange world. Unhappy loners vanish every day.

When it is done and the chainsaw has ceased its growling, the man who speaks like a salesman switches off the spotlights and says to his associates, “Well friends, you have to say…this guy had a lot of guts.”

They laugh. Every time this happens—and it’s not too often, but it does happen—he says the same thing.

“I need a beer,” he tells them. “A cold one. Wash up first. Anybody with me?”

Sure, they say. You buying?

“Abso-fucking-certainly,” he tells them, and he sighs the sigh of a man who has done as good a job as he can, under such trying circumstances. “We’ll get what we need from the next one,” he decides, and he shrugs as if casting off the weight of the world.

After they leave, a pair of techs in orange suits and breathing masks come to collect the two halves of the body. They push the parts and everything that has tumbled out into plastic bags and carry the remains off on a gurney with squeaky wheels, headed to the elevator that is basement bound. Then when their work is done, four illegal immigrants arrive to swab the room down with mops, and they will work as late and as long as it takes to restore it to its original clean, pristine and shining white.

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