Bethany's Sin Chapter 2



Hc had been bound to the coarse-clothed cot by harsh wires around his wrists and ankles, and now, naked and spread-eagled, he waited.

Sweat had beaded and trickled and beaded again over his body, and beneath him the cot was as wet as the rain-filled hole he'd huddled in while the mortars had ripped the jungle into black shreds all around him. But this was worse, because it was quiet and there was no way to know when the next shell would fall or where it would hit. One by one, they had taken them all from the bamboo cages: Endicott, Lyttle, the nameless corporal who had dysentery and cried all the time, Vinzant, Dickerson, and now him. He hadn't wanted to be last. He'd wanted to get it over with, because he'd heard their screams and seen their faces when they'd been dumped back into the cages, left to whimper and moan or contort their bodies, fetus-like, to escape the unendurable reality of torture.

He'd prayed to God that he wouldn't be last. But hearing his prayers, God must have laughed and turned away.

Because now it was his time to be alone. To wait.

He tried to gather memories; he tried to relive them to take his mind off this dark hut that had been built of black-painted boards and then camouflaged with green netting so that it blended in with the jungle. Faces: his mother and father in the front room of their small house in Ohio, snow falling steadily outside the windows, a Christmas tree freshly cut and glittering with ornaments in the corner. His, Eric was dead that year, but bring him into the memory anyway, make everything right, as it should have been.

How do they torture you? Beatings? Bring Eric into the room; let him sit down in front of the fire the way he liked to; let the flakes of snow clinging to his hair and jacket slowly melt away. Let the fire touch his face and Mother's and Father's faces, too. No, not beatings. The others hadn't been beaten, had they? At least not where the wounds and bruises showed. The recollection of the Christmas pine stirred younger, fresher memories. His mother knitting that forest green sweater she'd given him that year. Even though he'd known what his present was, she'd wrapped it in a box with golden comets on the paper. Now count all the corners. One. Two. Three.

But if they didn't beat you, then how was it done? He hadn't seen the others' fingers; had they driven the bamboo spikes under the nails, or was that only done in black-and-white war movies? Four. five.

Six. Seven. Eight corners. firelight licking the walls. He - hadn't Eric gone, too? - had helped his father cut wood out in the deep forest for the fire that morning, and his father had knelt down in the snow and showed him the path a deer had taken as it made its way toward the protection of the hills. "Progress makin' 'em run." Father had said.

"They know the towns are eatin' up the forest land, and it's not right." How do they do it, then? Why had they taken off his clothes like this? Why did they make him wait?

And in the light of the fire Eric - dead Eric - turns his head very slowly. His eyes are white and filled with fluid, like the liquid eyes of a doe Father had shot once by mistake in the fiery days of autumn.

His eyes are unseeing, yet they pierce through souls like shrapnel and they uncover the secrets lying there.

"You did this," Eric says in a whisper. The fire snaps behind him, like the closing of a steel trap or the sound a tripwire makes when you trigger it and you know Holy Christ my number's up. "You skilled me because you knew. You killed me, and l'm never going to let you forget it." That dead, familiar yet horrible face grins. The teeth are flecked with grave dirt.

"Now, Eric," Mother says quietly, absorbed in her knit ting. "Stop that kind of talk. Let's have a nice Christmas."

The man on the cot trembled, squeezing his eyes tightly shut because his efforts to avoid torture had turned into a deeper, more terrifying ordeal than they could ever dream up. He shook his head from side to side, letting the images fade into blue and then vanish, like pictures drawn in disappearing ink.

"Lieutenant Reid?" A man's voice, and Evan knew immediately who it was: the tall, lean Vietcong officer who always wore a clean uniform, the one who detested even going near the filth-covered prisoners. The one with a cat's smile, and eyes that could bore through steel; the Smiling Gentleman, Dickerson called him.

And now the man stepped into Evan's line of vision. In the light of the single overhead bulb the man's bald head glittered with pinpoints of perspiration; he mopped his head with a white handkerchief and then smiled into Evan's eyes, very slightly, the cheekbones jutting out from the rest of his skull and dark hollows beneath. "Lieutenant Reid," he said, nodding. "finally we meet without cages between us."

Evan said nothing. He closed his eyes to escape that light-haloed face. Was that why his clothes had been taken away - because they were filthy with mud and excrement, and the Gentleman might have been offended?

"Why do Americans find a strength in silence?" the Gentleman asked softly. "In unfriendliness? Surely you know that for you the war is ended. Why insist...? Ah, well. I expect you'll be like all the others were at first. Except for the young corporal, and unfortunately he's be coherent."

Evan ground his teeth.

"I'd like to ask some things of you," the man said, trying hard to enunciate correctly. "I'd like to get to know you better. Would that be agreeable?"

Don't speak, Evan warned himself. don't let him in, don't.

"I'd like to know where you're from, were born," the Gentleman said. "Surely you can answer me that? Ah, well.

Wherever it was, I'm sure you miss it very much, don't you? I have a wife and two girls. A fine family. Do you have a family as well?

Lieutenant Reid, I don't care for monologues."

Evan opened his eyes and looked deeply into the face of the man who stood over him. Deeper. His gaze probed through the facial muscles, back through bone. The Gentleman was smiling like a long-lost friend or brother. And as Evan concentrated, he watched that face suddenly change, begin to melt like the face of a waxwork figure. The teeth lengthened, became fang-like; the eyes were centers of a seething red hate that seemed to grip at Evan's heart.

Yes. This was the true man behind the facade of smiles.

"You see?" the Gentleman said. "I'm your friend. I wish you no harm."

"Go to hell," Evan said, immediately wishing he'd remained silent. The Gentleman laughed. "Ah. A response. Not a good one, but a response. How did you join your military, Lieutenant? Were you -

what is it called? - inducted? Or did you join by choice, out of a misguided patriotism? That doesn't mean very much now, does it?

Im sure it doesn't mean very much to the young corporal. I fear he may die."

"Then why don't you get a doctor for him?" Evan asked.

"'ll all have doctors for your injuries," the man said in an even tone of voice. "'ll all have good food and drink and real beds. If you show your worth. We won't waste our time and effort on those who would be...unappreciative. I was hoping you would show your worth, Lieutenant, because I like you and I - "

"Liar," Evan said. I can see through you. I know what you are.

He could see himself, bleary-eyed and shaken, standing before a whirring camera to denounce the evil military imperialism of the United States. Or would they parade him through the streets of Hanoi with a rope around his neck and let the little children throw filth at him?

The Gentleman stepped nearer. "There's no point in this. I can make things good for you, or I can make them bad. We have some things we would like you to do for us. It's your choice, really. I can see you're afraid because you do not know what is ahead for you.

Neither do I, because soon the matter will be out of my hands. There is another here who wishes to harm you." His eyes glittered tigerishly. "Someone skilled in the arts of fear. Now, Lieutenant Reid, why don't we talk as civilized men?"

A drop of sweat rolled into Evan's eye and burned as if it were a torch. He remained silent.

"Do you hate yourself so much?" the Gentleman asked softly.

"Ah, then. I'm very much sorry for you." He stood over the cot a moment longer, and then he disappeared into the shadows like a wraith.

And for a long time - an hour? two hours? - nothing moved.

When the next shadow came, it came quietly, standing in the circle of light over Evan's cot before he'd even known it was there.

"Lieutenant Reid," the figure said, a voice of silk that made a chill work its way up his spine. "Let us consider for a moment the female of the species."

Evan blinked. The wires were red-hot at his wrists and ankles, and he couldn't feel his hands or feet anymore.

A woman stood over him; she was Vietcong, dressed in a neat uniform with a black scarf around her throat. Her hair was gathered into a sleek black bun, and the eyes in that face were almond slits of cold contempt. She ran her gaze across his body. "Most dangerous is the female," she said softly, "because she strikes without warning.

She appears soft, and weak, and directionless, but that is the basis of her power. When the time is right" - she drew a fingernail across his stomach, and a red welt rose slowly - "the female has no hesitation."

She paused for long moments, her eyes motionless; one hand left her side, moved beyond the circle of light. "The female's capacity for revenge and retaliation is legendary, Lieutenant; why else does the male try to control and placate her? Because he is afraid." The hand came back; something dangled from the fingers.

"The bite of the female can be excruciating. And deadly as well. For instance, this" - the woman held a small bamboo cage in her hand, dangling it over Evan's stomach - "female here. You see?" In her other hand there was a jagged bamboo shoot. She jabbed it several times into the cage and began to smile. Something scuttled within the cage. "Now she has received an injury that will make her senses scream for revenge." Once again she jabbed the shoot into the cage; Evan thought he heard a sharp squeal, and a strand of dark liquid oozed from the bottom of the cage onto the floor. Not blood, no, but -


"If you do not wish to talk," the woman said, "perhaps you wish to scream..." She unsnapped a latch and, holding the cage at arm's length, shook it over Evan's cringing, sweat-filmed body.

And what fell out onto his thigh drove a whine of pure terror from his throat. A jungle spider perhaps half the size of his hand, flecked with sleek, greenish brown hairs. Black eyes the size of pencil points searched for the source of its agony. It scrabbled forward, through the risen blisters of sweat, along his thigh; he lifted his head, eyes distorted and wild, and saw the red cup of the spider's mouth centered be tween black mandibles. He wanted to scream and thrash, but with his last threads of willpower he kept himself still.

The woman stepped back, the light splayed across her shoulders, and he could hear the noise of her ragged, excited breathing.

The spider moved onto his testicles and poised there, eyes twitching. "Get off me, you bastard," Evan breathed at the thing, feeling his nerves beginning to give way. "Get off get off get off..."

The spider crawled forward, across the testicles onto his stomach, through the forest of light brown hair.

"Do you still wish to be silent?" the woman asked.

The black eyes twitching in all directions, the spider began crawling for Evan's chest; it paused on his breast bone for a moment, tasting his sweat. Evan felt his pulse pounding, and inwardly he screamed a scream that left him hollow and on the edge of black madness. The spider crawled upward. For the vein that throbbed in his throat.

"Silence will kill you," the woman whispered, cloaked in darkness, only her mouth moving - and it as red cupped as the spider's.

The spider moved to the base of his throat and stopped there. A drop of fluid oozed onto the man's flesh. He smelled the sickly -

sweet aroma of the poison, and his body began to tremble, out of control.

The spider waited.

And in the next instant the woman stepped forward. Her shadow fell across the man on the cot, blighting him. She raised her hand, the one with the bamboo shoot in it, and jabbed it down onto the spider. There was a quick squeal and a thick, sour odor; the spider fixed itself onto Evan's throat. He felt a razor touch of icy pain and then a sticky warmth, as the venom flooded from the sacs; the spider shook, emptying its fluid into the white beast below it.

The man cried out in animal fear and wrenched violently at the wires; the spider scuttled across his throat, leaving a thin, brownish trail, dropped to the floor, and scurried for the darkness. But the woman crunched her shoe down onto it and ground it into a bloody mass.

The man was still screaming and writhing; blood smeared his wrists and ankles. The Gentleman stepped into the light, eyes narrowed and eager, two armed soldiers accompanying him. One of them grinned.

The woman was fascinated by Evan's reaction to pain. Her tongue came out, licked along the lower lip. In another moment Evan lifted his head, the cords in his neck straining and a small red puncture marking the spider's bite. When his head slumped back, his breathing was harsh and irregular, and beneath the half-closed lids his eyes rolled back and forth like bone-white marbles. The Gentleman motioned for the wires to be loosened.

"The one called En-di-cott has possibilities," the woman told him. "A1so the one called Vin-zant. They will cooperate. The others are useless." She nodded curtly at the Gentleman and watched the other two unbind the American, then turned and vanished into the shadows.

After she was gone the Vietcong officer looked distastefully down at the mangled spider and shuddered. Using the spiders had been her idea. He saw with a rise of disgust that a strand of venom lay across his shoe, and he hurried away to his quarters to clean it before the French leather was ruined.
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