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X01.14 Soup: a short story (5,356)

Soup by J.P. San

Nestled in the rolling hills of Mondansk, the tranquil village of Rosokova greeted the dawn with merchants opening their shops and coffeehouses serving fresh coffee and baked goods. Renowned for its charming cottages, vibrant gardens, and cobblestone streets, Rosokova had miraculously escaped the conflicts ravaging Eastern Europe, preserving its serene charm.

Despite the fragile peace, fear and despair lingered. To combat this, the newly elected President of Mondansk ordered a purge of immigrants and suspected dissidents. During a raid, secret police arrested six suspected immigrants for treason and election interference. Days later, after a sham trial, five of the prisoners, handcuffed and shackled, were marched down a cobblestone path toward St. Seraphim’s Church, its golden domes gleaming in the cool early morning sun.

The picturesque walkway, flanked by ancient birch trees and vibrant gardens, served as the main passage for pedestrians. Shivering and afraid, the prisoners were led through a basement entrance to a dim and foul-smelling room. They surrendered any effects that did not require unshackling, including shoes, socks, wallets, glasses, purses, and hats, and waited for processing by the guards. Though stripped of personal effects, a woman kept her cross and a man his yarmulke. Each wore a small locked box around their neck, containing a gold coin that ominously marked their grim fate.

Ahmad, a weary-eyed former math teacher, trembled visibly. His back, slightly hunched from years spent writing at the bottom of a chalkboard, bore the marks of his long career. His once sharp and attentive eyes now carried the heavy burden of countless sleepless nights spent caring for his beloved wife of forty years, now deceased. Glancing nervously at his naked son, he felt a deep sense of confusion and helplessness, unable to comprehend how such an injustice could have befallen them.

Hassan’s youthful exuberance and carefree attitude had often frustrated Ahmad. With his tousled hair and a hint of a smile on his lips, he seemed out of place in this grim setting. In the father’s mind, the boy’s only sin was his lack of seriousness about life, a trait that now seemed painfully ironic. Nothing of his hair remained except as a pile upon the cold, hard floor.

Next to Ahmad stood Aisha. As Hassan’s head was shaved, the warden gently pushed her in front of Ahmad, separating father and son. Aisha’s presence starkly contrasted with the bleak surroundings: her thick, raven-black hair adorned with bright ribbons, her deep amber eyes sparkling with curiosity and mischief, and her slender frame moving with poetic grace. Her narrow shoulders led to a subtly defined collarbone and a gently cinched waist. Her small hands were expressive and agile, and her posture exuded poise and quiet strength, belying her resilient spirit.

The warden lingered around her, his gaze cold and predatory, completely disregarding Ahmad’s silent, imploring stare. The warden’s hands delicately removed her outer garment and handed it to a guard. He then pulled down her underwear and handed it over as well. Ahmad’s heart pounded in his chest, a mixture of rage and helplessness boiling within him.

Aisha stood without shame, completely bare. Her calm exterior belied the horror of the moment. She did not resist the warden’s wandering hands over her soft pink breasts. Her dark, soulful eyes met the warden’s stare for a fleeting moment, conveying silent strength and defiance. Drawing on an inner fortitude, her posture remained straight and her expression serene, even as the warden’s touch lingered on her shoulder—a vile assertion of power.

Ahmad’s mind raced, grappling with the injustice and cruelty unfolding before him. He clenched his fists, the urge to protect Aisha almost overwhelming, but the chains of his own fear and the brutal reality of their situation held him back.

Behind Ahmad stood Grace, a middle-aged woman with soft, compassionate eyes and a serene demeanor. Her graying auburn hair framed a face marked by quiet determination. She silently offered her prayers, hoping to protect the other prisoners. Grace, a secret Christian missionary, had come to Russia three years earlier to spread the word of Jesus, always clutching her worn, tiny Bible close to her heart.

Her nakedness didn’t bother her as much as the overwhelming awkwardness. In her dreams, she had envisioned this moment differently, believing that God would rescue her, that the shackles would fall away, and the guards would be powerless to stop her from walking free. But now, as reality set in, Grace grappled with the unsettling thought that perhaps her faith wasn’t strong enough.

Harjit looked at the other prisoners before him, a scowl of defiance on his face. A proud Sikh, he was determined to find a scrap of cloth and fashion a makeshift turban at the first opportunity. It did not matter if the cloth was stained and frayed; he would make it to symbolize his identity and pride.

Harjit felt nauseous and balled his hands into fists, his knuckles white with tension, as he awaited the moment he dreaded. The thought of having his hair shaved off, a sacred part of his faith and heritage, filled him with burning anger. Each second felt like an eternity. The sound of the clippers buzzing in the background constantly reminded him of the humiliation he was about to endure. His eyes were fixed on the ground, his jaw clenched tight, but his spirit remained unbroken.

Close behind, David, wearing his yarmulke slightly askew, stood murmuring a prayer under his breath. The familiar and soothing words flowed from his lips as he sought strength from a higher power. His fingers nervously adjusted the unconventional kippah, a simple cloth piece decorated like a baseball cap, connecting him to his faith and ancestors. He felt shame as he had purchased the cap to anger his mother at his grandfather’s funeral. David would be executed, no longer concerned with the covering he hated. He stopped wearing his kippah after his bar mitzvah over ten years ago. He longed for the cap his zayde and bubbie gave him.

The shame amplified as he watched the others being shaved, his heart aching with a tumultuous blend of fear and disdain. The buzzing of the clippers brought forth haunting images of Auschwitz, where hair was stripped from corpses in a final act of dehumanization. The sight of the shorn hair tumbling to the cold, hard ground was a stark symbol of their collective degradation, each fallen lock a testament to their lost dignity. Deep sorrow gripped him for each person who faced the shears, their resigned expressions etched into his soul.

Ahead, the open door loomed ominously, leading to a staircase that spiraled downward into darkness and an awaiting cell below. The descent mirrored their plunge into despair, each step a further surrender of hope. The air was thick with the oppressive weight of desolation, pressing heavily on their spirits and suffocating any remaining flickers of optimism. Yet amidst this suffocating gloom, David’s prayer emerged as a beacon of defiance. His whispered words were a quiet rebellion, a steadfast refusal to let the pervasive darkness consume his soul.

Clinging to his faith, David found solace and strength in the familiar cadence of his prayers. The ancient words passed down through generations enveloped him like a protective shield. At that moment, he was not merely a captive awaiting his turn at the shears but a vessel of enduring hope and resilience. The darkness might surround him, but it could not extinguish the light within—a light fueled by belief, memory, and an unyielding will to survive.

The captives waited to be processed, their breaths shallow with anticipation. The guards, ominously nicknamed, approached with methodical efficiency. Bear, a hulking figure with cold, emotionless eyes, roughly cut off their clothes, leaving them shivering and exposed. Fox, with a sinister smirk, conducted invasive cavity searches, reducing each prisoner to a trembling, humiliated shell. Wolf, the least threatening of the trio, handed out thin, threadbare beige kurtas and scratchy blankets, providing no comfort against the chill of the underground cells.

The cell, meant for one, now held six prisoners and a few mice. It was empty except for a bucket, sponges, a long bench, and an unused furnace. Once the prisoners were processed, all but the new girl were led down the staircase to the cell below. Before Aisha descended the staircase, Bear handed her a paper bag containing a colored kurta and a pair of plain white briefs. Minutes after arriving, they sat on the floor. Then, the cell doors creaked open, and the warden strode in with Aisha dressed.

The other prisoners exchanged curious, wary glances. She had been captured at the same place and charged with the same charges, so why was she being treated differently? Bear handled her with unexpected gentleness, carefully removing and folding her clothing. His care for the new girl did not go unnoticed. Was she, in fact, a prisoner like they were? These were fleeting thoughts that returned to their fate. Hope and despair woke up on the cold floor as Bear handed the warden the five lock boxes.

Bear locked the door and, one by one, removed their shackles, allowing the prisoners to dress. Dim lights cast long shadows as the warden’s voice broke the silence. “Sleep well tonight and prepare, my friends. There is no escape, no mercy. Prepare for suffering. Spies like you die all the time. You’ll see bright lights once, and then you are pustoy—dead.” he said, his laugh echoing through the cell. As he walked away, the metal boxes clinked together.

The sound of the boxes faded as the warden climbed to higher ground. Ahmad adjusted his prison kurta, a feeble attempt to break the suffocating tension. “This caretaker promises bright lights. Maybe they’ll add some flair to this place.” he quipped, his forced smile unable to mask the worry in his eyes.

Hassan, trying to match his father’s bravado, added, “Yeah, a bit of ambiance might help,” though his gaze drifted to the new girl. Despite his humor, Ahmad worried about his son, constantly gazing at the girl nearby. To distract him, Ahmad whispered, “They keep us like pickles in a jar.”

Aisha’s churidar kurta added a touch of vibrancy to the drab cell. She was the only one without prison-issued attire, a small privilege hinting at her unique status. Her eyes, though weary, held a spark of defiance. She welcomed Hassan’s lingering gaze and offered a warm smile, silently acknowledging their shared plight. “If we’re pickles,” Hassan whispered to his father, “Aisha is the spice that keeps us going.”

Aisha noticed Ahmad’s sour expression and said softly, “Your boy is very nice. He reminds me of my brother.” Ahmad nodded curtly, his face a mask of controlled emotion.

“Quiet down over there. Some of us are trying to find some peace,” Harjit said from his corner, adjusting his makeshift turban. Despite the humiliation of having his hair cut, Harjit remained proud, always willing to share his stories for the right price.

Ahmad shifted uncomfortably, then moved to another spot, pulling his blanket tighter around him. Before the trial, his concerns and anxieties surrounded his wives and little ones. He had pleaded to talk to his brother so that he would know what was happening and perhaps find someone to negotiate their release. Now, he was resigned to allow things to take their course, “Insha’Allah.” Ahmad slept quickly and soundly.

Noticing Aisha shivering, Hassan quietly offered her his blanket. “Psst, hey, take this,” he whispered, draping it gently over her shoulders.

“Hassan, what are you doing?” Aisha looked up. Hassan’s eyes cut to her soul.

“Thank you so much! But what about you?” asked Aisha. Hassan pointed over to his father. Aisha opened the blanket and nodded her head. Hassan hesitated, then quickly joined her, grateful for the added warmth.

“Can you keep a secret?” Aisha stared into Hassan’s eyes with a mischievous smile.

Hassan hesitated, unsure how to respond. “Sure. What kind of secret?

Aisha quickly pulls out a small flask. “Soup!”

David lay a short distance away, his blanket pulled tightly around his body. “Enlightenment, Harjit? Here, there is no light.” He placed his yarmulke on his head, a silent tribute to his mother, whom they had shot before his eyes when he was captured. He tried to shut out the sounds and chatter to sleep, but the fear and the cold were relentless.

Grace thought of her family, whom she hadn’t spoken with in over a month. She was supposed to receive a call from her father, but now there was no way to be on that call. For a moment, she considered that she wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t gone to the market. “By the grace of God, I am here,” she quietly whispered to herself. Her cross necklace glinting faintly, she softly prayed, “Lord, help us in our time of need. Keep watch over those who wrongfully keep us here. Thank you for giving me a chance to show them who you are. I pray you have prepared a miracle for us.”

Hours passed, and the cell door creaked open; Bear walked in. “Everybody up! The warden will be here in a few minutes. I need everyone awake.”

Everyone stirred, the oppressive gloom lifting slightly as they moved. Hassan sat up, his eyes bleary. “What time is it?”

Bear replied gruffly, “Prison time. 4:30 in the AM. Get on up.”

Aisha sat up quickly, the blanket falling from her shoulders. Bear’s eyes narrowed, a smirk forming. “Looks like we have some lovebirds here.”

Hassan’s face flushed red. “Nothing is going on.”

Bear chuckled darkly. “Every group has a pair like you, but not usually with the warden’s favorite. You’re dead anyway.”

Aisha stood up defiantly, stomping her foot. “I am not the warden’s girlfriend. He likes me, but we are not lovers. Nothing happened here! I swear.”

Bear’s smirk widened. “Doesn’t matter. You’re all the same to us.” His eyes lingered on Aisha for a moment before he turned away. “Now, get ready. The warden doesn’t like waiting.”

“Nothing happened here!” Aisha reiterated.

Bear laughed, waving his hands dismissively. “OK, OK. Nothing happened here, and nothing is happening between you and the warden.”

“Papa, try a sip of this,” Hassan said, subtly waving the flask before his father.

Ahmad shook his head in disapproval. “Son, that is haram. The Quran forbids the consumption of alcohol.”

“Papa, it’s not alcohol. It’s soup.”

Ahmad grabbed the flask and looked at his son.

“It’s cold, but it’s still very good. Finish it.”

Ahmad took a sip. “Yes, it is. Even a small comfort like this can mean a lot.”

After Ahmad drank the rest of the soup, he asked, “Where did you find this? It’s a blessing.”

“Aisha made it,” Hassan replied.

The ominous echo of heavy boots reverberated down the cold, damp corridor. The prisoners froze, their hearts pounding. The warden’s voice, dripping with malice, shattered the silence. “Ahmad, your turn.” Ahmad’s face paled, but he stood tall, squeezing Hassan’s shoulder reassuringly before being shackled and taken out by Bear. The cell door shut behind him with a thud. Soon, the sounds of torture followed, a grim reminder of their fate.

The cell fell into a tense silence, each second dragging as they awaited the inevitable. When Ahmad was finally thrown back into the cell, bruised and battered, the sight of his broken form sent a wave of despair crashing over them.

“What did they do to you, Papa?” Hassan asked, his voice trembling.

Ahmad winced but managed a weak smile. “They’ve scheduled our execution in three days, but I made a deal with the warden. If we can make the best soup he’s ever tasted from the scraps we’re given, he might let us live.”

David stared at him incredulously. “You bet our lives on soup? Why would he agree to that?”

“Trust me,” Ahmad replied, winking at Aisha. “This might be our only shot at survival.”

David walked over with a stunned look on his face. “What’s going on? I saw the look you two gave each other.”

Hassan spoke up, “It’s not what you think. We have a plan.”

Aisha nodded, her eyes filled with determination. “We have a plan.”

Aisha shared some soup with Hassan last night, and he shared some with me.” Ahmad looked up, and his eyes opened as he shrugged.

David looked at Hassan, “The soup is actually good?”

Hassan laughed, “It is incredible!”

“Well, then,” Aisha said, rolling up her sleeves. “Let’s get cooking. We need to make a better soup!”

The group gathered, a newfound determination etched on their faces.

“We need to pool our resources,” Ahmad said, his voice stronger now. “Aisha, what do you need?”

Aisha stepped forward, her eyes meeting those of the others. “I need chicken bones, bad onions, and cheese. The warden gave them to me before,” she admitted, her voice tinged with shame.

“We don’t have any of that,” Ahmad said.

“God will provide,” Grace said.

“All I have is my will and my faith. Let’s find something useful,” Harjit said dejectedly.

Grace looked at him, “May God watch over us. Pray for us.”

Harjit responded with renewed energy, “Bole so nihal! Sat sri akal! I saw Fox with something that may help.”

Grace turned to David. “Why haven’t you said anything, David? What do you have?”

David sighed heavily. “I don’t have anything that can help. Your plan sounds good in theory, but it’s not really going to work. We’re just screwed. Admit it.”

“Let us decide that!” Aisha was getting upset.

“I have a few herbs,” David said, pulling out a small pouch. “I traded with Fox for this. They might help with the flavor, but I don’t think this will help with soup.”

“Oh my God!” squealed Grace.

“Oh my God is right,” Aisha echoed. “How did you get this?”

David looked at Aisha. “I just told you!”

“What is it?” Hassan asked.

“Cannabis flowers,” Aisha said.

“Pakalolo,” Grace added with a laugh.

Aisha held up her hands. “You’re right, David. It doesn’t matter where it came from.”

David grinned with surrender. “This isn’t going to work, but let’s make it the best soup they’ve ever tasted.”

Ahmad, his eyes twinkling with hope, said, “Let’s get to work. We have to cook our mu’jizat.”

Grace walked over to David, looked him in the eyes for a second, and said, “Thank you, David!” She let her soft kiss linger, then rose and stated, “I need milk, butter, water, and something to strain with… maybe some fabric we can find.”

Grace turned and looked directly at Aisha with a big smile. “How much soup do you have left?”

“Don’t change the subject. Perhaps you can use my panties? I can’t imagine using this prison attire.” Aisha asked, crossing her arms with a smirk and glaring at Grace.

“We don’t have cheesecloth. Your underwear will work just fine. Let me ask again. How much soup is left?”

Aisha lowered her hand reluctantly. “I have a small pot left. It’s not much, but it’s tasty. I just don’t think…”

“Don’t worry, Aisha. I’ve got this. I just need some time with the guard.”

“I can get you to Bear. We’ll talk to him first. You walk to the door when the warden comes. I’ll be surprised if you get anything from Bear.”

“Leave that to me. I just need a shower and some soap.”

Aisha smiled. “I can help with that. Over by my things are some shampoo and soap. Let’s grab my bag and talk to Bear now.”

Aisha and Grace walked to the door hand in hand. After a moment, the top window opened. “What do you want?” Bear asked.

There was some whispering, and then the door opened. Bear waited for them to walk through.

The cell was silent while the women were gone. The others could only hope they would make something the warden liked. After a few hours, the women returned in different clothing. Aisha carried a bag with a pot, a chicken, vegetables, and assorted spices.

Grace changed back into her prison outfit, and Aisha followed suit. After changing, Aisha waved everyone over.

David asked, “Where’s the weed?”

Aisha nodded at Grace. “Show him.”

Grace pulled a small container from under her dress. “It’s all in here! It’s called cannabutter.”

Hassan confused. “We need this. Let’s get cooking. We have a warden to impress.”

His face lighting up with determination, Ahmad said, “Remember, this is more than just soup. This is our chance.”

With newfound hope, they gathered their makeshift kitchen tools and began their work, each step bringing them closer to the possibility of freedom.

Aisha clapped her hands and directed the others on how to prepare the soup. The tantalizing aroma soon filled the cell, promising the possibility of survival.

When the warden returned, he was accompanied by a guard carrying a small table.

‘Impress me,’ he said, leaning against the cell door. Ahmad presented the soup, his hands trembling. The warden took a spoonful, then another, and his eyes widened. ‘How did you manage this?’ he demanded.

Ahmad’s eyes twinkled as he replied, “It’s a family recipe, perfected over generations. We’ve put our hearts into making the best of what we have.”

The warden stared at Ahmad, suspicion etched on his face. “This is… exceptional. A promise is a promise. You’ll be moved to a better cell with beds, food, and a kitchen. No execution. But you and your comrades will cook for me.”

The prisoners’ relief was palpable as they were escorted to their new cell. The space starkly contrasted with their previous confinement, with beds lining the walls, a small kitchenette in one corner, a private bath with shower, and a window letting in a sliver of daylight. Hassan helped Aisha settle in, his hand lingering on hers for a moment too long. Ahmad noticed and pulled Hassan aside, whispering fiercely, “Be careful. We can’t afford any mistakes.” Hassan nodded, but his eyes returned to Aisha, who smiled softly at him. He couldn’t resist the warmth in her gaze.

The following day, the warden summoned Hassan to a stark room. ‘Sit,’ the warden commanded coldly. Hassan complied, the metal chair scraping against the floor.

“Do you know why you’re here?” the warden inquired, pacing slowly.

“No, sir,” Hassan replied. Leaning close, the warden whispered with pursed lips, “I see how you look at her, and how she looks at you. Tell me the truth about your relationship with Aisha.”

Hassan’s heart raced, but he remained silent.

The warden’s voice lowered to a menacing whisper. “Confess, or things will get much worse for all of you.”

Hassan looked at the warden, “I have no relationship with that woman. We are both prisoners here.”

“Perhaps I will start with your father. Does he know that you have fucked that girl?”

“No, I haven’t touched her,” Hassan said, shaking his head. Beads of sweat were visible on his forehead.

“We both know that is not true. I have seen your hands on her. I know what you are thinking. You want to caress her. Touch her. Kiss her. It’s okay to confess.”

“Yes, I do like her.”

“Just like? I have a video of you in bed together. I can’t see what is going on under the covers.”

“Nothing happened.”

“That is what you keep saying, but pictures don’t lie.”

“She shared the blanket with me. She was cold.”

“I can bring her in. A little electric drill will make her talk.”

“Please don’t do that.”

“Just confess. That is all I ask you to do. Maybe I can have you do some extra punishment. But I need you to confess.”

“That’s it? Extra punishment?”

“That’s it. Otherwise, it is your father and Aisha. Oh, did I tell you that I have another witness?”

“No, you have not told me about a witness. And I don’t care if you have a video or not. Nothing has happened between us.”

“One of the guards heard you.”

“Nothing has happened between us.”

“Fine. Bear, bring both father and girl. We will find out about this nothing.”

Unable to stand the pressure, Hassan broke. “No.” The warden and bear stopped moving. “I mean, please don’t bring them in here. I will confess.”

The warden looked around. “What are you confessing to? You said nothing happened.”

“We’ve been intimate,” he admitted quietly. “When Bear woke us up the other morning, we were lying together. It was only to keep warm.”

The warden’s eyes gleamed with satisfaction. “It’s true! But I didn’t believe it. You thought I was an idiot!” he hissed. “And now, you will pay the price for your indiscretion.”

Hassan was dragged back to the cell, his face pale. He avoided everyone’s eyes, especially Aisha’s, who looked at him with fear and confusion.

That night, the warden called for Hassan again. This time, there was no interrogation, only a grim pronouncement. “You are vile scum,” the warden declared, his eyes glinting with malice. “And know this: it is not just for your espionage, but for defiling Aisha. She is mine, and I will ensure she understands that.”

The prisoners were brought to a small courtyard where the warden stood, a smug look on his face.

“Hassan, for your crimes, you are sentenced to death,” the warden proclaimed, his voice echoing off the stone walls. “May your soul never find peace.” The warden pointed the gun at the back of Hassan’s head and pulled the trigger. A gunshot rang out, and Hassan fell, his lifeless body crumpling to the ground. Aisha’s scream pierced the air, and she collapsed to her knees, her grief overwhelming.

The warden turned to the remaining prisoners, his expression triumphant. “Let this be a lesson to all of you,” he said coldly. “Defiance will not be tolerated. Aisha is mine now, and she will understand her place.”

The cell felt emptier without Hassan, the weight of his absence a heavy burden on everyone’s hearts. Aisha was inconsolable, her spirit seemingly broken.

But that night, a sound outside the cell roused the prisoners from despair. A whispering voice called out, “Bear is here. We’re getting you out.”

The door creaked open, and Bear stepped in, a look of determination on his face. “We’ve had enough of this place and this guy,” he said. “The rebels are attacking the compound. They claim they won the election. We have a chance to escape.”

Ahmad helped Aisha to her feet, her eyes widening with a flicker of hope. “Let’s go,” he urged. “We can’t waste this chance.”

The group moved swiftly through the corridors, guided by Bear. Gunfire and explosions echoed around them, the sounds of a full-scale assault.

They saw a group of rebels fighting off the guards as they reached the courtyard. Leading them was a tall, imposing figure. “Bear, you made it!” the leader shouted, immediately recognizing the man.

Bear nodded. “This way,” he said, waving the prisoners forward.

The leader, a grizzled veteran known only as Viper, looked at the group. “You must be the ones Bear spoke of. Come with us; we’ll get you to safety.”

As they made their way out of the compound, Aisha glanced back one last time, her heart heavy with the memory of Hassan. But as the fresh air hit her face, she felt a spark of determination ignite within her.

They were free, and with the rebels’ help, they could fight back against the tyranny that had claimed so much from them. The journey ahead would be fraught with danger, but together, they would face whatever came next, united by their shared loss and newfound hope for a brighter future.

Years later, two men met on the street. Ahmad had flown in from India to meet the survivors in honor of Hassan. He met Bear a few hours early at a tavern to discuss the political state of affairs and share a drink. Bear was still wearing a guard’s uniform. Ahmad wore a custom suit under his heavy parka.

“How have you been, Bear? It’s good to see you,” Ahmad smiled.

“It is good to see you too, old man! You can take your coat off.”

Ahmad shook his head. “I’m old, and the cold gets to me. I wanted to share this moment, this drink, with you.”

“Are you okay, old man?”

Ahmad pulled out a handkerchief. “I am fine. Yes, I have a cough, but nothing so bad.” Ahmad crossed his legs, exposing his Peruvian Vicuna socks.

“You said last drink, and I thought you might be sick.”

Ahmad pulled off his glasses and cleaned them with the cloth. “No, I am meeting with a few people before this evening.”

Two large, burly men with red turbans walked over and stood next to Bear. A server was right behind with tea and a bottle of Nemiroff. “Are these guys with you?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Ahmad said. Well, not the waiter.” Ahmad laughed. Then, he spoke to the two men in Urdu. The server placed a pot of tea, three cups, and a dozen shot glasses on the table.

“Are you guys doing business here?”

“You could say that.” Ahmad smiled again, but it appeared forced. “We are going to have some expensive shots to celebrate The End … Excuse me, they are here.”

“Who? Who is here?” Bear tried looking around the room, but it was fairly crowded.

Two more men came in and sat down at the table.

“Fox! It is good to see you,” the two men embraced. “I haven’t seen you since we were released. Who is your friend?”

“You don’t remember him?” Ahmad said, looking at Bear intently.

Bear stammered. “No. Should I?”

“You may not, but you should. This is Harjit. He was one of the captives.”

Bear smiled. Harjit laughed. A young girl came by and filled their glasses with vodka.

Harjit spoke, “I heard you talking to Fox the night before we escaped.”

Bear shrugged. “What did you hear?”

“I heard you talking about how the warden executed Hassan.”

“Yes, it was tragic. And just before the prison was closed down.”

Another person walked out of the shadows toward the table.

“Warden Popov? Is that you?

A frail man sat down.”You know, I retired. The rebels let me live. Fox told me what you did. You slept with Aisha and that other woman. I know why they did it. They thought the fucking soup would save them. Why did you do it? I was good to you. Tears were streaming down the warden’s face. I killed the wrong man. And I need to make it right before I die.” The old man pulled out a gun and pointed it toward Bear.

“What? Are you fucking crazy?” Bear shouted, struggling to rise, but the two men in turbans held him firmly. Harjit strode over, a steely resolve in his eyes, and stuffed a cloth into Bear’s mouth, sealing it with duct tape. As “Oy, Moroz Moroz” began blaring loudly over the speakers, the room filled with a tense, almost surreal atmosphere, the traditional tune contrasting sharply with the brutal scene unfolding.

The warden walked over calmly while holding the revolver. He leaned down and whispered in Bear’s ear, “Aisha was the love of my life!”

Moments later, a bullet went through Bear’s chest.

Harjit’s heart pounded in his chest as he approached Bear’s body, the once-menacing ex-guard now at his mercy. Locking eyes with Bear’s furious gaze, Harjit seethed, “You fucking cut my hair.” With rapid, precise movements, he plunged an ice pick into Bear’s chest seven times, each thrust fueled by a mix of anger and resolve. As Bear’s body sagged, barely clinging to life, Harjit drew his kirpan. In one swift motion, he drove the blade into Bear’s chest cavity, a final act of vengeance. One of Harjit’s men pulled Bear’s head back and, with a cold efficiency, sliced his throat, ending the ordeal with a single, decisive stroke.

Harjit raised his shot glass to the room. “To soup!”

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