A slight thud could be heard on the door, despite the horrible noise outside; Someone hit it with his open palm.
'That's it, he made his choice. He's on his way comrade commissar!' Said the jail commander trying to conceal as much as he could, the hot wave of unexpected joy that was sweeping his heart.
At the head of the desk sat the old man, occupying the commander's comfortable chair, watching the impudent young cub in silence, without the slightest change in his expressionless face. Beside him sat comrade Lee Chen Woe, pale and almost terror-stricken. The air-raid terrified her, she did not like that certain exercise plan at all. The American could get hurt or killed, which would mean the end of everything from her point of view; but above all, the exploding bombs outside were getting on her nerves. She was scared to death and made excruciating efforts trying to brace herself. The sudden knock on their door, urged her to leave her seat and flee anywhere, any place – just run away as far as she could from those horrible sounds. As if the Gods were there to support her at the very right moment, the commander's insulting remark helped her to fight back – and grinding her teeth, she managed to overcome the impulse to rush out and run blindly for her life.
'So the operation is over, I presume...' Could not the commander refrain from adding. He did not dare however to express his full view on the matter, letting the old fox himself admit his failure; while he himself did not mind to offer his most lavish condolences! He almost chuckled aloud.
'He's apt to catch up with our crew, he's a tall man and he must be very eager to get there.' Remarked the head commissar, in his usual calm and confident voice.
'There's no difference in what circumstances he would be arrested, it shall be done as you wished comrade commissar.' Answered the jail commander in a rather relaxed tone. He had an extraordinary knack for switching back to reality, in a matter of seconds. The old fox did not miss it of course. But the jail commander, who did not seem bothered, went on: 'My second in command comrade Diam, who's a very reliable party member, was well briefed and he's in charge out there.'
'Who is in charge of the control room?'
'There're four officers who operate it, taking their turns but if you find it necessary, comrade Diam would man it himself, as soon as he comes back, with the American.'
'Very well, so be it!' Agreed the head commissar.
The air-raid seemed the have ended without their notice. A few sporadic bursts of anti air-craft fire could still be heard though; and then the all clear sounded in an up and down long wails, as one siren joined the other; from the shrill and loud ones nearby to the faint and hardly audible wails, in some remote quarters far off. A minute or so passed and the wails stopped gradually, up to the last far off one.
'You do realize that this attack was carried out by those huge flying monsters, their most heavy bombers, the B52 type?' Remarked the jail commander
'Do you mean high altitude bombing?' Asked the head commissar, showing for the first time signs of anxiety. 'If that's the case, I'm afraid we've suffered heavy casualties this time, our anti air guns can't reach them! We must urge the Russians to expedite the ground to air missiles shipments. That's our only defense against these planes.'
'That's right', grunted the commander in a sudden show of anger. 'We must have suffered heavy casualties this time without being able to make them pay for their atrocities. Have you noticed that the alarm sounded some time after the first explosions? Many good citizens must have been exposed to the attack in the streets, without having the slightest chance to reach the public shelters!' He noted appealing to the head commissar's solidarity. 'Those ground to air missiles should have been in our possession long ago! By the way...' He added heatedly. 'What are we going to do with that hated American? Now, that he's proved useless. Can't my men have him, to make him pay for his compatriots' aggression? Do you know that one of my men lost a brother in law, in their previous attack? My men suffer from a very acute frustration, they're really in a bad state of mind; just think of it, to keep that hated enemy under such luxurious conditions...! After all...' Kept the commander carrying on his argument, releasing his own accumulated frustrations. 'My men are used to treat the enemy with completely different methods! May I remind the head commissar with due respect, the situation might slip out of our hands!'
'It won't, despite the true facts you've mentioned right now, comrade Nguien. The prisoner isn't entirely useless, and he must be kept in his cell for at least, two more days. I shall send a special dispatch crew, to take him off your hands. Let me see, the day after tomorrow I hope. In the time being, during those two days your men would be allowed to some measures of revenge, but in one solitary way which I'll dictate, and no other! The prisoner will be shut in his cell again, with no more visits! What I do expect of your men to do, is to invade his privacy... Stick strictly to the old methods! Teams of two will take their turns round the clock, with very short intervals. They'll abuse, swear and jeer in our own language, at the top of their voices of course; violence is forbidden! No physical contact whatsoever under no circumstances – is that clear?'
'How long is that pig going to live?' Asked the commander whose hatred for Nick was far greater than the hatred of his subordinates.
'It depends on certain future circumstances. He'll be sent to the front lines to serve as a decoy, and thus he'll be executed by his own compatriots some day or another; by their own means and without their knowledge, up to a certain point of course! Anyhow the longer he survives the more casualties he'll inflict them with. Who knows, he might prove a success in that certain domain, as far as we're concerned. When he'll die at the end and they'll find out how he died – he'll serve in his death as another blow to their already shattered morale.'
The commander nodded his head in mute approval, raising his eyebrows at the same time in a show of appreciation.
At that very moment the sound of many heavy footsteps reached their ears, the hunting party has returned at last with its caught prey.
The orders that were given to comrade Diam, the commander's loyal second in command were strict and short:
No risks and no hazards, not one outlet should be left open to chance...! Compared to the average Vietnamese the American is a giant, and might be in a very desperate state of mind! Particularly while prowling on his own outside the villa, and as it was proved above all doubts that the reeducation through those strange and foreign methods did not work at all, his reactions when captured might be unpredictable...! Thus if he were to escape the ambush, or run away while being led back to the villa the responsibility should fall on the jail commander's own narrow shoulders! Who knows how many search parties he'll have to send to tail him after, and how many days would be wasted in the jungle, in such a case? The whole bizarre affair seemed too far-fetched to jail commander's sharp brain and sensitive instincts. He could not help suspecting a trap, which had been laid by the old scorpion! Thus, the moment that loathsome American tries to escape, he should be shot dead right away! Why should they bother to capture him alive, he simply could not grasp; he should be shot on the spot, unless the whole fake experiment must have been destined to fail from the start! While the consequences would bring forth grave complications... He might lose his good reputation, and the promotion he so much expects is at stake! He's fed up with that cursed operation; an operation conducted by others without his supervision, or at least, his advice. An operation that was run with wrong and utterly stupid methods, and with the assistance of that half-caste bitch! She made him sick, loafing around on his premises, giving orders to his men, and above all, spending her nights with the loathsome enemy! He did not think his little scheme would be found out, but some measures of precaution had to be taken. Comrade Xang the one who lost his brother in law, in the first air-raid was briefed and prepared to admit his guilt, just in case... If the old scorpion would reappear just out of nowhere, and wish to review the hunting party on its way back, carrying its prey; comrade Xang shall have to admit his having assaulted the enemy in the shack, out of sheer feeling of revenge. If on the other hand the old scorpion would express a sudden wish to interrogate the recaptured enemy! Comrade Xang would have to confess his having sneaked in some way to the enemy's cell, and having lost his temper. Thus with every aspect and angle covered and taken care of, the last phase of the bizarre operation, as far as the commander's own ends were involved had to end up perfectly – without the slightest hitch.
It was carried out just as the jail commander hoped and wished it to be carried out. At the moment Nick bowed his head, peering into the somber shack through its low entrance; he was hit hard on the top of his crown with a wooden club. Unconscious he was laid on a stretcher which was brought along particularly for that purpose, and though he was a heavy burden and the stretcher just a bit narrow and small they managed to carry him back fast enough, and left him sprawled on his cell's cement floor.
'We'll have an official meeting as soon as your second in command will report before us. Comrade Lee...' He turned to Nicole. 'Go to your room and pack your things up, including every piece of paper concerning our operation; and have a ready pad and a handy pen with you, when you return. You'll act as the meeting's secretary, to back up any mechanical or electrical failures.'
The jail commander coughed and turned his eyes to the window, as if the dark purple clouds of the setting dusk caught his sudden interest.
Very troubled still Nicole rose to her feet and set off, to carry out the head commissar's orders.
'Won't it be much more advisable to have this meeting after I've seen my men and questioned them first?' Remarked the jail commander with much ado. The old scorpion may rush to his own grave, whether he's aware of it or not, but that's none of my business. After all he's bound to retire every day now. In any case I've no intention to participate in this meeting, before preparing my own notes, see my men and have a word with Diam. Decided the jail commander without any hesitation.
'We shall have a conclusive meeting in two weeks time, comrade Neguien, you have no reason to worry.' Assured him the head commissar dryly.
Coming out of her room, Nicole had a glimpse of comrade Diam heading for the jail commander's office. Three guards climbed out of the cellar stairs in his wake, whispering between themselves excitedly. They stopped their hushed conversation the moment they saw her, and let her pass saluting her with obedience. But she could perceive a flicker of disdain in their eyes, or was it sheer spite. She was too upset herself to decide what it could be and anyhow, the whole affair was over. So, whatever it was did not bother her at all. She knew quite well that she did a fine job out of it, and no one could deny it.
The door to the jail commander's office was left ajar. He might have seen me emerging out of my room, comrade Diam... He isn't it seems a man one would underestimate; but I hardly know him and I may never see him again. She thought reassuring herself.
When she entered comrade Diam was already half way in his oral report, relating proudly Nick's recapture. She went back to her seat, under the jail commander's scrutinizing gaze; put the pad she brought with her on the desk, while she listened attentively to the end of comrade Diam's report.
'All in all it was an easy task, he didn't have any chance to resist, that's why he wasn't hurt. But above all, I was present when he was installed back in his cell.'
'A strict solitary confinement, no more strolls in the yard – and no more visits!' Interrupted him his chief, glancing menacingly at Nicole
'Your attention comrades, I'm presiding this meeting and I'm still present in this office!' Cut in the head commissar, he did not have to raise his voice they were all silent. 'Brief your second in command comrade Neguien!'
Though a bit shaken the jail commander cleared his throat, and told his second in command, what was expected of him. While comrade Diam was on his way to the control room, his chief sent his hand forth, and pulled aside a wooden panel – exposing a rectangular opening, that linked the control room with his own office; enabling a visual contact with the control room's crew.
As the actual moment of the meeting's opening drew near, Nicole grew more and more restless. The loathsome useless enemy has to die! These were more or less the jail commander's conclusions, which were quite clear – and the head commissar agreed with him... The short lived operation, in which she had invested so many hopes, has failed and is practically over. Whose fault is it then? Who would have to pay for its failure then? Who is going to be charged with the responsibility for the operation's failure? Wasn't it one of the main reasons behind my assignment to that job, to fit in as a probable scapegoat in exactly such circumstances? Could I trust the head commissar at all, would he support me...? She did not have the slightest doubt, what would be the jail commander's views on the matter. She could discern them on his ugly face. The head commissar's views on the other hand, were unknown to her yet and his personality was an unfathomable void! I'd better realize, she thought with her back to the wall, weighing coldly her odds I hardly know the head commissar... Would he retreat and abandon me? There was nothing she could do, but wait for the imminent consequences and fight back if necessary.
'Everything is ready comrade commissar.' Addressed him the jail commander after a very unpleasant period of silence, in a rather cheerful manner.
'We shall have a preliminary hearing now; a conclusive sum-up of that issue shall take place at the end of the month, when all parties concerned shall have their conclusive reports ready.' Having declared his intentions clearly the head commissar made a short pause, to let Nicole catch up and went on with his dictation with a much more slower pace this time:
'A preliminary hearing on experiment number EC-J001.' After another short pause, he added: 'Top secret, date, March the eleventh, nineteen sixty eight.'
'Must we use these foreign terms of date ?' Objected the commander.
'Yes we must comrade Neguien!' Retorted the head commissar. 'There are some foreign parties involved in this operation, who share our interest in its results!'
There was no need for more explanations he thought and a quick glance at comrade Neguien's surprised face, assured his assumption.
'Subject matter,' he went on dictating in his steady and monotonous voice: 'Test operation "New Horizons", experiment number EC-J001 U.S. Marine Nicholas Spree – enemy's prisoner of war. Attending the meeting are the following personalities: the Defense Committee special envoy, known as The Head Commissar acting as the meeting's chairman. Comrade Neguien Vong Hue, commander of the Ho Chi Minh reeducation center. The Defense Committee's special envoy's assistant: comrade Lee Chen Woe, acting as the meeting's secretary. Comrade Neguien Vong Hue's second in command, comrade Diam Voe Tieh, operating the reeducation center control room, and its facilities. This same assembly shall gather again for a conclusive meeting, not later than the end of this month. The exact place and date of the next meeting shall be forwarded to its participants in due time, during the next week not earlier.'
Things are looking much better! Thought Nicole with much relief. If the whole thing was just an experiment, well then, it may fail without causing any harm to its participants!
The head commissar passed a long look around the desk and went on:
'As you may all understand, experiment number EC-J001 has failed. Its subject should have resisted the temptation to flee, and should have denounced comrade Lee Chen Woe; be it to one of the guards or through the electronic devices installed in his cell, which he is aware to their existence. Anyhow the poor results of the experiment do not concern us. We were asked to conduct this experiment at the request of a certain ally of ours, some kind of a package deal or call it a barter deal; there isn't much difference between the terms, that's the whole lot.' He seemed reluctant to release some more details, and indeed decided thus, not to extend the matter anymore.
'Well, that's the first experiment of its kind, that we had ever conducted, particularly its bizarre methods, and we might be asked to carry on with such experiments. Although we don't know yet if that ally of ours, would wish us to carry their bizarre ideas on. We must provide that ally with all the facts and all the conclusions of that experiment. On the other hand, there is our own defense committee, which might overrule the whole issue entirely. These are the facts in general. In my opinion and I would repeat that opinion of mine to the committee, future experiments under such an operation should be canceled! A war has been declared on us just recently, by the most powerful capitalistic state in the world! And this war escalates from day to day! We can't spare neither the means nor the time for such experiments and we'll have to ask our ally to relieve us from tasks of that sort. Furthermore, I still find our own old methods as much better measures, in comparison with the methods we were instructed to employ in this experiment. My first conclusion is that we don't have to change our old methods, as long as we're able to crush a subject down to the right required terms, within two up to six weeks time. I'm quite sure that a poor specimen like the subject of our first experiment, would have become a loyal party member in a matter of days, if we had treated him with our old methods alone. Don't you agree comrade Neguien?'
'I've no other experience but our old methods, comrade commissar!'
'I thought so comrade Neguien, is there anything you wish to add?'
'No, not yet!' Answered the commander resolutely.
'In that case this hearing is closed!' Declared the head commissar, and rose to his feet. 'Comrade Lee pass me the protocol, we have to sign it.' He read it standing on his feet, while the jail commander and Nicole waited in silence, standing erect and ready. Putting the brand new document on the desk, he bent over it and signed it himself, then passed it over to comrade Neguien. Right after the protocol was signed, by all the meeting participants, the commander and his second in command escorted them out, to the waiting car in front of the villa's entrance.
'I've an apology to make, comrade commissar,' smiled the jail commander as they were ready to leave. 'My impatience must have been intolerable!'
'We were all a bit impatient tonight comrade Neguien, it must have been that ferocious air-raid which caused it. The odds are against us no doubt, but united and with mutual efforts we shall win this war!'