The Palace of Justice

The following story, title: The Palace of Justice, was originally published in Wet Ink in 2005.

Struggling up the shadowed steps at the front of the Palace of Justice with his black leather, oversized briefcase, Midgley was forced to turn a little sideways to prevent it from banging against the edges. The effort made him break out in a sweat. At the top of the steps he took the neatly folded handkerchief out of his breast pocket and wiped his brow, at the same time puffing a quick smile at the soldier standing by the main entrance. He was ignored.

Inside the cavernous hall, with its peeling, grey-painted walls covered with threadbare flags, Midgley’s steps echoed loudly. He tried to walk quietly as he marvelled at the marbled floors and pillars, and the high, ornate ceiling. Against one of the pillars, a group of four soldiers stood smoking. They turned and stared at the newcomer. One of them said something in a low voice and the others laughed.

Five people sat on a bench against the far wall. Now and again one or other of them would look anxiously in the direction of the soldiers. Peasants, Midgley thought, and turned away. In the centre of the hall, an army officer sat behind a table on which there was a ledger, an ink bottle and a telephone. As Midgley approached, the officer continued to make an entry in the ledger, forming each letter with the care and attention of a schoolboy who has just learnt to write. Midgley stared down at the man’s combed, greased hair with its perfectly defined, undeviating parting. The pen nib made faint scratching sounds on the paper. He was aware of the four soldiers by the pillar, watching him. Worried that the officer perhaps thought it was just another peasant standing before him, he cleared his throat and said:

‘Excuse me, I have an appointment to see the General.’

‘A moment.’

The officer did not look up from the ledger. Two minutes of indifference later he picked up the phone, said something into it that Midgley did not catch, then returned to his writing. Midgley wondered if the phone call had been about him.

The officer, without raising his head, pointed towards the people sitting on the bench and said,

‘Sit over there, please.’

Midgley walked across to the bench and sat down, placing his oversized briefcase carefully on the floor between his legs. He felt obliged by the proximity of the peasants to acknowledge them with a brief nod, but his attention made them fidget uneasily and turn away. One of them smelt of sweat. Midgley tried not to breathe too deeply, and held in his elbows so he did not touch the clothes of either of his immediate neighbours.

Ten minutes later his thoughts were interrupted by a soldier marching across the hall, noisily, as if it was his own private parade ground. Midgley was reminded of a wildlife programme he had seen on television once, when a well-fed lion padded past a herd of impala: there was the same sense of unease and cessation of all activity. Everyone, both the peasants and the soldiers, stared.

The soldier was well over six foot tall and did not have a single hair on his head. His face was large and long, which made his eyes appear both small and high up. The top button of his shirt was undone, his tie loosened and his sleeves rolled up. Bright red braces seemingly railed in his massive chest. He walked straight up to the bench and, ignoring the locals on either side, shouted,

‘Mr Midgley!’

as if his visitor might be deaf. He grabbed one of Midgley’s hands in both of his and pulled him off the bench as easily as a gardener will pull a baby carrot from the soil. An almost audible sigh went around the hall as everyone relaxed and returned to whatever it was that had preoccupied them before.

‘Another beautiful morning!’

The soldier with the red braces shouted, peering out through the main entrance,

‘and they force me to work in this cesspit, without light or air.’

He placed his hand on Midgley’s shoulder and laughed.

‘It’s not human, I tell you.’

Midgley was aware of the peasants on the bench edging slightly, almost imperceptibly, away from him, as if they had been in a doctor’s waiting room and someone had walked in with a particularly virulent disease.

‘Where’s Emilio?’ the soldier asked in a booming voice that echoed around the hall.

Midgley smelt alcohol on his breath.

‘With one of those women of his, I don't doubt. What a man!’

‘Emilio retired. Some time ago now. Did no one tell you?’

‘Sensible man. Wish I could do the same. Follow me.’

And without further ado the soldier turned his back and marched off.

‘Did he speak to you about me?’ he shouted over his shoulder.

‘No,’ said Midgley, bending down to pick up his oversized briefcase with both hands. As he chased after the man, Midgley thought, this must be the General. He seems a pleasant sort. But what did he mean by, did Emilio tell me about him?

The two men entered a small office at the back of the building. It was furnished only with a desk and chair, two filing cabinets and a visitor’s chair. Files were stacked on the floor, and boating magazines covered the desk. A fan helicoptered slowly in the middle of the ceiling. A window looked out over a chaotic Cezanne landscape, all sharp angled patterns of light and shade, shacks composed of driftwood and corrugated iron and held together by a thick coating of red ochre dust.

‘Schnapps?’

‘A small one.’ Midgley felt it was only polite.

‘Just look at this beauty!’ The General pointed to a small colour photograph of a second-hand motor cruiser in one of the magazines as he poured the drinks.

Midgley leant forward over the desk. ‘Are you buying it?’

‘I’d like to, oh yes, but while we have this war, I have no time for being on the water. It is most unfair.’

‘You like boating?’

‘I do not like it, no. I love it. I love the freedom, the peace of the open sea.’ The General sighed and sat down heavily in his chair. ‘But we must not waste time. You have things to show me that are every bit as interesting, I believe?’

Midgley smiled. He lifted his briefcase – ‘May I?’

The General shrugged. ‘You have come all this way ...’

Midgley placed the briefcase carefully on top of the magazines. He undid the catches and opened the lid to reveal an array of silver instruments laid out with surgical precision on black velvet, like a display in a jewellery shop, all razored edges, steel surfaces, polished spirals and ornately carved redwood handles. Each instrument was in a bed that had been cut to its individual shape, and was held in place by a Velcroed strip of black material. It was obvious from the high position of the display inside the case that there were other levels beneath.

‘Ah, I recognise this.’ The General picked out a thin cylinder, about twenty centimetres in length,
pin-holed and with a sharp, slightly curved spike at one end.

‘One of our most popular lines. It has been improved and modified – this is the Mark-3 – but basically it is the same instrument it has always been.’

‘When you're onto a good thing ... Isn’t that what you say?’

‘When you're onto a good thing, stick to it.’

‘Stick to it, ah yes, that's right.’ The General smiled. ‘I like your English expressions. They are very stupid.’

And Midgley returned his smile and thought, What a nice man. Really very civilised. Not how I imagined at all.

‘What is this? It looks like a small ice cream scoop.’

‘It works on the same principle. You place it over the animal’s eye, push forward this lever here... You see? It parts the upper and lower lids, then you simply close these two arms – just like scissors – and these two curved blades – you see them in here? – they slide in behind the eyeball, severing the optic nerves and scooping out the eye.’

‘Very neat. And very painful, I imagine.’

‘Possibly.’

‘You do not know?’ The General looked up, eyebrows raised.

Midgley rested his hands on the back of the visitor’s chair.

‘We leave it to people like yourself, General, to do the field work. We continually research the efficacy of our products, of course, monitoring their success or otherwise, but we also rely on feedback from valued clients like yourself.’ It sounded rehearsed.

‘Yes, yes.’ The General waved his hands dismissively. ‘But you should know if an instrument such as this is painful. I deal in pain, Mr – What is your name again?’

‘Midgley, General. But then I would ask, what is pain exactly?’ He smiled. He envisioned the two of them having a cosy chat, grasping the opportunity to get to know each other better. Friendship was the way to build a good business relationship, that was for sure.

The General leant forward over the briefcase. ‘Are we being philosophical all of a sudden, Midgley?’ Some of his words were slurred.

‘I only wanted to point out that pain is a complex phenomenon, sir. It varies from animal to animal. As such it can be hard to calibrate.’

‘It strikes me as too neat, this instrument, that is what I am saying. It is too – if you will – surgical. You perform the scissor motion like so and, presto, the eye is removed.’ He mimed, with gross exaggeration, the removal of one of his own eyes, ending with a hand held out to Midgley as if displaying the gelatinous globe. ‘Where is the subtlety in that? Where are the degrees of suffering, the nuances of pain?’ He fell back in his chair. ‘In my profession, Midgley, it is necessary to escalate the pain. The escalation, that is what is important.’

‘I have other instruments. Maybe they will be more in line with what you’re looking for.’

The General grunted and took a gulp of schnapps, staring fixedly at Midgley. Without shifting his gaze, he picked up one of the boating magazines, open near the back, and held it over the display of instruments. ‘You like this one?’ A small motorboat had been circled.

Midgley nodded and frowned, attempting to look interested. ‘It’s very nice.’

The General sighed, as if disappointed with his reaction, and threw the magazine to one side. He lifted a length of rope from the briefcase, two carved wooden handles at both ends. ‘Ah yes, you cannot beat the hand-crafted instrument. For us this would be a luxury.’

‘I would like to make you a gift of that, General.’ Midgley was surprised by his own spontaneity.

‘Yes?’

‘I need that one for my display, but will have another sent to you on my return to the office next week.’

The General shrugged. ‘Very kind.’

To Midgley he sounded indifferent. ‘It’s nothing, General. I like you.’

‘He likes me, but he does not like my boat.’ He said it again, only this time he shouted it through the open doorway, into the corridor: ‘Mr Salesman likes me, but he does not like my boat.’

He has been drinking schnapps all morning I would guess.

But he said: ‘I do, of course I do. Your boat looks very…’ He searched for an adjective that would satisfy the General. ‘It’s very impressive.’

‘And my work – you do not like that, I think?’

‘I did not say that.’ Midgley was aware of sounding defensive. ‘I do not know…’

‘You do not know? You do not know. You close your eyes, you close your ears. It seems you are both blind and deaf.’ With a snort of disgust, he picked up his glass and took another mouthful of schnapps. ‘For a man in your position, Mr Salesman, that is most unusual.’

Taking his handkerchief out of his breastpocket, Midgley dabbed his forehead. He was finding it hard to follow the General. ‘The Company, you know… We find it easier… I’m sure you’d agree…’ His sentences trailed away; he did not wish to offend.

‘I was in the Highlands Campaign of 95-96. Did Emilio tell you that, Mr Midgley?’

The General levered himself to his feet and undid the buckle of his belt. ‘I do not fight now, but it is not because I do not want to fight. Look!’ Struggling with the flies on his trousers, then pulling them down, he stared defiantly at Midgley who, before he turned away, saw the bag strapped to the side of the thigh.The General, holding his trousers with one hand, leant across the desk. Midgley sank into the visitor’s chair, glancing quickly at the open doorway. What if someone should walk past now? This is quite uncalled for.

‘That is my excuse,’ continued the General, each word he spoke accompanied by a globule of spit,‘but what is yours? Why do you not fight? Have you one of these things?’

Midgley opened his mouth to speak, but was not given the chance.

‘I tell you why you do not fight. It is because you do not believe in anything. You do not fight for anything or die for anything, you just exist. For me, that is a waste.’ The General straightened up and started to do up his trousers. ‘You are all the same, yet you are so pleased with yourselves. You have done nothing to be pleased about. That’s what makes me so angry: not your weakness, but the fact you are so pleased with yourselves.’

The General eased his large frame back into the chair, staring at Midgley like a headmaster will stare at a difficult pupil, unable to decide on the best course of action.

‘A man has to fight, it is natural. If you are stuck behind a desk, that is not natural.’

He poured himself another glass of schnapps, and again picked up the boating magazine. While he studied the vessel on which he had set his heart, Midgley studied the worn linoleum between his feet. He wanted to steer the conversation back to business, then leave as soon as possible.

The General tossed the magazine back on the desk and jumped to his feet. ‘I tell you what, Mr Salesman, you come with me. I will show you the good work we do.’

Midgley looked up, startled.

‘Come with me, come on. We are using some of your equipment right now, the old instruments. It will be research for you. You will find it interesting. Bring that case of yours.’

Midgley protested. ‘It isn’t necessary, General. I do not want that. Really, I haven't the time and, to be honest, I’m not sure that I should.’ But as he spoke, there was, inside himself, a flutter of excitement, a stirring in the pit of his stomach, a mixture of fear and expectation. It was similar to the feelings he'd had when he visited his first brothel. Just to look, he had told himself; just to look, nothing else.

They walked along many corridors, further and further into the heart of the Palace of Justice, descending all the time, three floors altogether. The corridors were darker here, and cooler, the walls unpainted and damp. No street noises reached down this far. Indistinct sounds came from behind one or two of the doors. Midgley thought he heard cries of pain. Your mind’s playing tricks on you, he told himself.

The General stopped at a door in the middle of a long corridor, and threw it open. After the dinginess in which they had been walking, the room’s bright steel surfaces and fluorescent lighting temporarily blinded Midgley. The heat and the smell, a combination of blood, sweat and cigarettes, and other secretions he did not wish to identify, hit him full in the face, making him gasp.

It was more of a cellar than a room; long and thin, about twelve metres by four. There were no windows. Seated in the corner directly facing the door, smoking cigarettes and drinking mugs of tea, were two soldiers. One was big and surly, and appeared to have no neck, while his companion was slight, with a sly smile. They turned towards the door when the General entered, but did not stand up. At the other end of the room, in the corner furthest from the door, sitting by himself, canted sideways, one elbow resting on a table, was a man in his mid-thirties, with the dropsical face of a heavy drinker. A white coat gave him the appearance of a lab technician. He pushed himself to his feet when he saw the General, saying unnecessarily,

‘Ah, you're back.’ His grumbly voice belied his skinny, almost anorexic, physique.

In the middle of the room, completely dominating it, stood a stainless steel table. It looked like a table in an operating theatre. A young man lay on it, on his back, naked. At first Midgley thought he was either a wax model or dead. His ribs pressed against mottled skin, and his goatee beard was straight and stiff. His long hair lay like a fan around his head. He looks like Jesus, Midgley thought, shocked. The man’s feet were tied by a rope that went up to a pulley system near the low ceiling. His hands were shackled at his side.

It's obscene, thought Midgley, staring at the man’s pubic hair, shockingly black against the pallor of his skin. They should cover him.

He recognised the instruments resting on a trolley against the far wall. They lay one on top of the other, and some seemed to be rusting – although it may have been dried blood. It pained Midgley to see them so uncared for.

‘And how is the patient now?’ bellowed the General.

He sounds quite avuncular, thought Midgley, but his voice is too loud for such a small room.

‘He's fine, sir, he’s fine,’ said the white-coated man eagerly.

‘Well that's no good, now is it.’

The man who looked like a lab technician gave a skeletal laugh.

‘You know what I mean, General, you know what I mean.’

The General went to the table and looked down at the young man.

‘You have a visitor, Professor. He makes his living selling us all these wonderful toys we have been playing with over the past few days.’

The man did not stir. Midgley stood by the door, wondering if he could find his way back upstairs by himself.

‘Come in, Mr Salesman. Don't just stand there, close the door. We don’t want the Professor to catch cold now, do we?’

‘I really think...’ Midgley shuffled his feet.

The General looked up. ‘Come in!’ His stentorian voice would have been more suited to the parade ground.

Midgley moved across to the table, leaving the door open. He might be able to escape soon, he told himself.

‘What has he done?’

‘He's a terrorist, Midgley, an enemy of the State.’

‘And he’s a professor?’

‘You think that makes him respectable? Those with brains make the worst terrorists.’

‘What is it you want him to tell you?’

‘Now he tells us nothing. We wanted names off him, but he gave us none. He is a brave man, the Professor, I will say that for him. He believes in what he does – unlike you, Mr Salesman.’

The General reached down and squeezed the sides of the Professor's mouth. It fell open to reveal a bloodied stump where the tongue should have been.

‘See, he tells us nothing now. It is a shame.’ He nodded in the direction of the two soldiers. ‘Those idiots, they did that to him when my back is turned. They say he was rude, can you believe it?’

Midgley clutched the side of the table. ‘If he can tell you nothing, then why this?’

The General laughed and thumped him on the back.

‘You do not understand, do you?’

He turned away and went across to the table where the white-coated man was sitting. He picked up a packet of cigarettes and held it up to Midgley, who shook his head. They stood in silence, Midgley with his back half turned to the Professor.

‘You must understand, Mr Salesman, that once, everything in my Country was very ordered. It was perfect. People had jobs, no one was hungry, the streets were clean, even the trains ran on time. I took my grandson to football every weekend, and it was safe.’

They could have been two men at a party, reminiscing in the corner of the room.

‘Here, I show you.’ The General reached into his jacket hanging on a hook on the wall. He took out a wallet. In it there was a photograph of a young boy sitting in a rowing boat. He was holding a fishing rod and grinning at the camera.

‘Your grandson?’

‘He is wonderful, don’t you think?’ For a minute, the General tenderly cradled the photograph in his massive hands.

‘But now it has all changed, Midgley, everything is chaos. No one cleans the streets anymore. There is not enough food to go round. Our currency is worthless. Countries like yours, they do not want to know us. Bombs explode in the streets. These pigs, these friends of the Professor, they kill innocent people. They do not fight like real soldiers; they hide, like cowards. In a cafe last week, in the centre of our town, six people were blown apart by a bomb. This man here is responsible for the deaths of those six people.’

He returned the photograph to his wallet, and shook his head, turning down the sides of his mouth in disgust.

‘I want to be able to take my grandson to the football again. That is all I want.’

Midgley sympathised. He was tempted to put an arm round the General. He understood what he was saying. He also liked order, liked it when life had been uncomplicated, when everything had seemed straightforward and simple. The past beckoned softly to both of them.The General pointed at the Professor with his cigarette.

‘You must understand, what we do here is not for fun. We are fighting for the common good, for civilisation. It is necessary work that we do.’

‘But if you let him go, he would stop his activities, General. Surely?’

‘You do not know this man. Believe me, he will never stop, not until he is in his coffin.’

Apart from the whisperings of the soldiers and the thick laboured breathing of the Professor, the room was silent. The General kicked the door shut and grabbed Midgley’s arm.

‘Come over here, Mr Salesman. I show you how these toys you sell us for so much money do not work.’

He steered Midgley to the foot of the table on which the Professor was lying. He pulled a rope and the Professor's legs were lifted into the air, parting into the position of a woman giving birth. A reddish-brown trail was seeping from the Professor's backside. The black puckered skin around the hole was scarred, singed and torn. Midgley pushed past the General and was sick in the corner of the room.The General nodded as if the reaction was not unexpected. He stood over Midgley, resting a hand on his back.

‘The price of paradise for all of us will always be hell for one person. Is that not what Ivan Karamazov said?’

As Midgley stared at the polished black combat boots planted at the edge of his vision, noting their separateness and indifference to the pool of regurgitated hotel food next to them, he wondered briefly who Ivan Karamazov was.The big, surly soldier, as solicitous as a waiter in a first class restaurant, stepped forward with a hose and sluiced the vomit into a channel that ran round the edge of the room. Midgley wiped his mouth with his handkerchief, and tried to rub off a spot of vomit that had landed on his suit. The man in the white coat, smiling knowingly, offered him a glass of water.

The General had opened Midgley’s oversized briefcase and indicated the electric prong. It was lifted out by one of the soldiers, and plugged into a socket in the wall. As the prong was inserted between the Professor's legs, Midgley winced.

‘Now that you are feeling better, Mr Salesman, you will show us how it is done. Come.’

And the General put an arm round his shoulders and almost carried him to the foot of the table. He handed the controls attached to the prong’s lead to Midgley.

‘You are the expert. You will show us where we go wrong.’

‘It’s not Company policy…’ he started to say.

But the General was ignoring him.

‘How many volts do you think?’ He adjusted the current by means of a dial on the controls. ‘That will be enough to start with.’ He stepped back. ‘Now you can press the button for us – but, of course, you know that. I cannot teach you about your own instruments.’

Midgley stood motionless. The heat was suffocating. He could scarcely breathe. Something inside him screamed at him to drop the controls and leave. He did not want to know, and yet, at the same time, he did. There was a curiousity there, too.

‘You know the magic of this room, Mr Midgley? No one ever knows what is done in here. News never reaches the outside world, not even upstairs. You have no worries on that score. It is quite safe for you to press the button.’

Midgley hesitated, his feelings in turmoil. It’s research, I should know.

‘This man here, remember, he is an animal. He has killed at least six people – innocent people. I think one of them was a little child. It is up to us to stop him killing any more.’

This may be abhorrent and disgusting, but so is the Professor.

The two soldiers and the white-coated man were staring at him, waiting. The sly looking soldier standing next to him at the foot of the table had a smirk on his face. It said, you do not have it in you to do this. The smirk persuaded Midgley to press the button.

The Professor's body arched, a guttural, scarcely human scream emanating from his cracked lips. The General winked at Midgley, his eyes twinkling.

‘Mr Salesman, that was very good. You see, it is not so hard.’

He again grasped Midgley tightly round the shoulders. Was it to reassure him or to stop him leaving? Midgley did not try to free himself; he was unsure that he could stand by himself. The General turned to the heavily breathing man on the table.

‘Was that better, Professor? Tell us, is that a better toy than the old one? Mr Salesman here, he wishes to know what you think.’ He laughed, and slapped Midgley on the back.

‘Will you do it for us again, Mr Salesman? I think, next time, we will have success.’

No one will ever know, the General himself said no one will ever know.

‘This time I think we must turn up the current a little.’

The salesman of instruments of torture closed his eyes.

‘But we must not kill him.’ A rivulet of sweat ran down the side of his nose.

‘I can reassure you on that count. But it is easier if you keep in mind those six innocent people.’ Midgley tried to extricate himself from the General’s grasp, but without success.

‘You see that idiot over there?’ The General pointed to the white coated figure now slumped back in his chair at the end of the room, next to the sink. ‘He is a doctor. Probably he has killed more people than he has saved, but he is still a doctor. He ran a profitable abortionist business in the slums of the city before he came to work for me.’ Here he raised his voice. ‘You will keep our patient alive, won't you, doctor?’

The doctor looked up and squirmed forward to the edge of his chair, like an infant on its chamber pot.

‘Oh yes, General. I won't let him die on you, sir, don't you worry about that.’

The General turned back to Midgley. ‘The man's an idiot, but there you are, I cannot always choose the people I work with.’

‘Why are you telling me this?’

The General pulled Midgley closer to him, lowering his head until it almost touched the salesman’s. The smell of schnapps was overpowering.

‘Because it is important you continue with your good work. It’s important that you know.’

‘Yes?’ He did not understand.

‘I think we must turn up the current a little.’ The General twisted the dial on the control. ‘Now, Mr Salesman, over to you.’

Midgley’s finger crept back onto the button. There was a feeling in the pit of his stomach; it was not unpleasant. Again the Professor jackknifed on the table, his eyes screwing up in pain, his hands pulling on the chains that bound him. Midgley thrust the controls into the General’s hands.

‘That’s enough. I think that’s enough.’

‘But he still says nothing, Mr Salesman. Are you telling me your new toys are no better than the old ones.’

‘Let me take them back. If I can go now, I shall have more work done on them. Now that I know…’

‘No, no, Mr Salesman. Better than that, we will try something else.’ And without waiting for an answer, he went across to the salesman’s open, oversized briefcase.

Midgley, head bowed, swayed gently in the middle of the chamber, next to the Professor, and everything, as always, went on around him.