A lone match struck in the darkness, flared to strength and cast an orb of dim light on an aged, graying face. It leaned into spark a cigarette off the sulfuric flame, extinguished it with a breath and a hint of a putrid stench. The darkness returned save a lone, glowing ember at the cigarette’s end.
A thick German accent sounded over a high, aristocratic voice, “You’ve no idea who I am, do you, Herr Butler?”
The man across the darkness swiveled his head, struggled against the binds that lashed his arms and legs to a metal chair. “What the hell’s going on?” He asked through panic-breaths. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
The cigarette glowed brighter from a deep drag as a third man in the darkness struck Butler with a heavy fist. He yelped, almost toppled sideways from the force. He went silent. Tears welled in his eyes. The German gave a breathy exhale, enunciated each word as though chocolate meant to be savored, “You have stolen something very precious to me.”
“I-I don’t know what your t-talking about–”
He shouted over Butler, “Betrüger!”
Another heavy blow flooded his mouth with blood and salty sweaty. He did topple this time. It was slow, or perhaps instant, but he felt himself hang on two legs for then tumble to his shoulder like some kind of stunned droid.
The German sighed defeat as he rubbed his forehead between his eyes, “Herr Roke, erhohen mein freund, bitte.”
A primal grunt stuttered with amusement. Then, with an effortless stoop, the monstrous creature lifted Butler and the chair, flipped them in mid-air to right them on the floor with a singular motion. Butler felt the beast’s presence span twice the size of a common brick-wall over the scent of a back-alley ashtray soaked in stale beer. Butler would have dry-heaved were he not too occupied by fear.
The German spoke graciously, “Danke, Herr Roke.” He leaned forward so that the cherry of his cigarette inflected a minor light across his Aryan features. “Now, Herr Butler, I say again; you have stolen something precious of mine and I would like it back.” His voice lowered venomously, “Where is die zeitsteuereinheit?”
Butler was lost; he knew no German, let alone whatever the hell a Zeiten-heimer was,“I d-don’t know what you’re talking about?”
The man mumbled German at the ceiling with defeat that apexed into a clearer phrase, “Herr Roke?”
A heavy thud thumped the back of Butler’s head, meant to jarr his thoughts. He was pretty sure he felt marbles roll around in his brain when the world started to spin. His head fell forward in a daze. Another German mumble, almost cheerfully annoyed, and the cherry flared up, gave way to a bright flood-light on the wall to the left. It blinded Butler as his head rose again. There was nothing but the light– and darkness on either side of it– as loafers shuffled over concrete.
A metal clinking began somewhere in the room’s depths. Given the pungent smoke’s ailing waft, Butler guessed the German had displaced himself. A moment later, the metal sounds gave way to the scuff of loafers that approached through the shadows.
The German was merely an average-sized silhouette with something small in its hand. Identification of the object was impossible through the watery spinning of Butler’s vision. While his eyes welled wet, his mouth dried. The German leaned toward his neck, protuberance in-hand over the reek of a recent, expensive cologne bath. He injected something into Butler’s neck. Heat crept through him, small and insidious, as if his internal thermostat had been jacked all the way up. He felt his brow grow wetter, mouth drier, his t-shirt cold around his armpits.
“Now, Herr Butler,” the German said as he turned back for his seat. He sank into it with the satisfied groan of an old man, “Nature is a beautiful thing, is it not? It has lived longer than anything in the universe– it is the universe, in fact– and especially on Earth, it is a wonderfully complex and varied organism.”
Butler felt his tongue fatten. Sweat flowed like a leaky garden hose. He wanted to cry harder, but wasn’t sure how to. He didn’t know what the German wanted, nor why he seemed to so presently hell-bent on his ecology lecture. All he knew was small, throbbing waves of heat turning to molten lava with each second.
“As with all great organisms,” the German was saying. “Nature has found a way to take something simple, and build off it, as a foundation if you will.” He made a small, refined gesture. “I have just injected you with Formic Acid, Herr Butler. In moments your innards will feel as if they have been held to the core of the Earth.”
Butler already felt that, couldn’t imagine it getting any worse– in fact, he didn’t want to try, “B-but, I’m j-just an average guy. I d-don’t know about your Zeitenheimer.”
The German sighed, “Herr Roke, have you ever known a man to survive the Formic Acid?”
“Nein, Herr Schmidt,” Roke said with a bestial rasp.
“Believe him, if not me, Herr Butler,” Schmidt said.
The acid increased its toll; Butler trembled, shook more with each breath, “B-but I s-s-swear, I d-don’t kn-know anything.”
The German seemed disappointed rather than angry, “Perhaps, then, your wife will tell us.”
Wife? What wife?I don’t have a wife.
“W-wife? Wh-what wife?” Butler asked. “I d-don’t h-have a wife.”
“Herr Buttler, we know all about you, you need not lie; you are Roger Butler, your wife is Penny, und we know where she is,” the German warned casually “If you do not tell us what we want to know, we may have to escalate our interrogation.”
“B-but I-I’ve n-never b-been married!” Butler shouted through the pain.
“Herr Schmidt!” A new voice said from across the room.
“Ja? Excuse me for a moment,” he said politely as he passed the flood-light for a door behind Butler. There was a hushed whisper, then Schmidt’s voice, “Und you’re certain?” Another hurried whisper, then, “Very well.”
Schmidt passed through the floodlight again for the opposite end of the room. There was a shuffle of loafers, another sound of rifled metal, and Schmidt reappeared to inject something else into Butler’s neck.
Schmidt stepped back as Butler felt the pain lessen, “Herr Butler, I must apologize, you are… uh, the wrong man.” He nodded at Roke behind him. A grunt sounded before massive, meaty hands tugged at the knots that bound Butler to the chair. “Please accept my sincerest apologies.”
Roke pulled the last of the binds free, yanked Butler up. Schmidt maneuvered him toward the door, “It would be best if we parted ways– perhaps better if you spoke of this to no-one.”
In the daze of pain, drugs, and the acid’s antagonist, Butler hardly comprehended his surroundings as he was ushered into the hall. When his mind focused again, he was turned ’round, facing Schmidt from the far-side of a doorway, and half-blind from the bright hall-way around him.
“Guten Abend, Herr Butler, pray we do not meet again,” Schmidt said.
The door shut. Butler stared at it a moment longer than he ought’ve, his mind ablaze with questions. They’d obviously had the wrong man, he’d known that from the start, but what convinced them? He suddenly recognized a gift horse’s mouth and bolted in terror. The exit signs along the bright hallways led him into a city’s back-alley in late afternoon. He kept running, faster than any software engineer could or should, all the way through town to his apartment, and inside a closet at its rear. He cowered there in fear, terrified into sleep atop his hugged knees.
He was awoken by heavy knocks on the door that pestered him incessantly. He crept from the closet, hugged the walls along the bedroom, inched out, then sprinted to the door’s peephole. A delivery-man stood on the other side with flowers and chocolates.
He cracked open the door, “Y-yes?”
“Delivery for R. Butler,” the man said casually.
“Wh-what is it? Who’s it from?”
“Cards in the flowers, sir, I just deliver ’em.” Butler hesitated, inched the door open enough for the delivery to slide through. The man passed through a tablet with a stylus, “Sign, please.”
Butler’s shaky hand scrawled a signature, passed it back. A moment later the door shut, the delivery on the kitchen table. Butler lifted the card that read, “Sorry about the torture. Schokolade mit Liebe, H.S.”
Butler’s eyes rolled back into his head as he passed out.