Chapter Thirty-Seven

Truth amp; Consequences

When the black hood is pulled from his head, Milton finds himself blinded by a powerful light. His hands are bound behind him, held by what feels like plastic straps. Slowly his eyes adjust. He’s inside what could be a metal shed-he can’t actually see beyond the shadow edge, outside the bright circle of light-but he can hear the faint metallic creaking of metal siding as it flexes in the wind. He’s been seated, hard enough to jar his bones, on a short three-legged stool, the kind used for milking cows. He assumes the short stool is to emphasize his insignificance. If so, it’s working-he’s never felt so small and powerless in his life. He can just make out the figure of a man looming behind the light source.

Milton has seen this kind of thing often enough in movies, as suspects are interrogated, but the actual experience is quite different. The fact that he knows these are psychological tools intended to frighten him into submission does not lessen the effect. He’s terrified. Adrenaline has so flooded his system that he’s shaking and can’t stop.

“When you got up this morning, I’ll bet you didn’t expect this to happen,” says a man from behind the light.

Taylor Gatling, Jr., he recognizes the voice.

Finding that he can’t speak, Milton shakes his head, agreeing.

“You should have. This is what happens to spies, Mr. Bean. You have been detained under authority of the Patriot Act, and if you wish to survive the experience you must cooperate. Answer truthfully and you will be released from custody. Attempt to hide, prevaricate or deceive us in any way, and you will be detained for an indefinite period. Stubborn cases languish for years. Nod if you understand.”

Milton nods.

“Good. I’m turning you over to the professionals. Make them happy.”

The figure recedes into the shadows. Another voice begins:

“Milton Franklin Bean, you are in violation of U.S. Code titles one and ten, in contravention of security act H.R. 2975, as amended to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and the Electronics Privacy Act of 1986. Habeas corpus no longer applies. As such you have no right of representation, no right of notification, no right to seek relief from detention. Although perfectly legal, as set out by the above amendments to U.S. Code, this is not a legal proceeding. There will be no judge, no jury of your peers. You stand accused and will remain in custody until you have satisfied this authority that you are not a clear and present danger to this nation.”

Milton, whose heart rate has slowed somewhat, manages to summon enough spit to ask, “What authority?”

The stool is kicked out from under him. Unable to balance the fall because his hands are bound, he lands heavily on his side with an oof! that empties his lungs.

“By that authority,” says the voice, with a drill sergeant’s barking cadence. “The authority to kick your sorry ass from here to Timbuktu, if that’s what it takes. The authority to drop you into a hole so deep you won’t hit bottom until your hundredth birthday. The authority to make you wish you’d never been born. Okay, get him back on the stool before he wets his pants. We’ll put you in Depends if that happens, Milton, that’s how we do it when suspects have leaky bladders, so I advise you to hold your water.”

“Okay,” says Milton, breathing heavily as they set him back on the stool. “Anything you say.”

“Answer me: true or false, you entered this premises under false pretenses.”

“True.”

“True or false, you’re employed by the IRS.”

“What? No. Even if I was, what’s that got to do with national security?”

Instantly the stool disappears. This time he falls backward. When they put him back on the stool his head is ringing from where it thumped the concrete.

“True or false. Those are the only acceptable answers. One or the other. I repeat, true or false, you are employed by the IRS.”

“False.”

“True or false, you are employed by the Defense Intelligence Agency.”

“False.”

“True or false, you are employed by Naomi Nantz, a private investigator.”

He hesitates. This time he lands on his face, skidding on the point of his chin. Might have chipped a tooth, hard to say.

“T-t-true,” he says, checking the tooth with the tip of his tongue. Chipped, definitely.

Somebody laughs, and he hears hands slap together, as if in congratulations.

“Very good, Mr. Bean. That’s the correct answer. Someone fitting your description was recorded entering the Nantz residence a few days ago. The description being ‘average man with indistinguishable features,’ which certainly fits. Oddly enough, we didn’t get a hit on our facial recognition software. It’s like you blur, or something generic. So by admitting you’re employed by Naomi Nantz you’ve confirmed a favorite theory, which makes us very happy. For that you’ll be rewarded with a drink of water.”

A bucket of icy cold water is thrown in his face.

“Hoo-ha!” someone hoots, as hands slap again.

He crouches on the little stool, shivering. Milton is not one of those who never imagined himself being brave while undergoing torture. The scary thing is, they haven’t really got to the torture part yet. Not the part where they break his fingers or tenderize every muscle and ligament in his body, as they obviously did to Randall Shane. Never mind what they did to his brain.

Milton concentrates on not crapping his pants, and vows to answer every question truthfully, or to supply whatever answers they so desire, truthful or not, to do whatever it takes to avoid being physically damaged or mentally impaired.

“Concentrate, Mr. Bean. Can you do that? Can you focus?”

“Yes.”

“Good. True or false, you recently entered QuantaGate under false pretenses.”

“True.”

“True or false, you were spying for Naomi Nantz.”

“True.”

“This is good, Mr. Bean, we’re getting into the rhythm here. You’re adapting to a new reality, and understand that you are powerless to resist. True or false?”

“True.”

The stool vanishes again and he lands on his tailbone.

“Never anticipate, Mr. Bean. Never assume. Punishment can happen at any time, for any infraction, or for no infraction. Punishment can come because we feel like it, and because it is our task to grind you up and spit you out. You’re the dog shit sticking to my shoe and I’m going to wipe you off. You are a stool sample and need to be flushed. True or false?”

“True,” he says, expecting the worst.

The stool stays.

“True or false, the day you entered QuantaGate you gained access to secure files.”

“False!”

“No need to raise your voice, Mr. Bean.”

“I checked out the system. No way I could get into the secure files without setting off alarms. Even trying would have set off alarms, shut down the system.”

“This is good, very good. You have begun to elaborate. What else, Mr. Bean?”

Before he can answer, the stool vanishes again. Landing straight down on his tailbone again, registering like an electric shock from his butt to the base of his skull.

They pick him up, put him back on the stool.

“True or false, you tampered with the software at QuantaGate.”

“True.”

“You installed spy software at a top-secret research facility.”

“Yes, I did. True.”

“Therefore you are a spy, a traitor, and you have committed treason against your country.”

“No. False. We’re looking for the boy, that’s all. We don’t c-c-care about secrets.”

“You don’t ca-ca-care?”

Milton shakes his head so vehemently he makes himself dizzy.

“We care,” the man says, moving closer.

“We’re looking for the boy, that’s all,” says Milton, begging. “A little boy.”

“What little boy?” the man asks, as if genuinely surprised. “What are you talking about?”

“Professor Keener’s boy. His son, J-J-Joey.”

Behind the light, voices mumble and mutter, as if conferring. Milton waits, infinitely more miserable and afraid than he’s ever been in his life. Far worse than his worst nightmare. His willingness, his eagerness to cooperate hurts worst of all. He’s not a man and never was; he’s something to be scraped from a shoe.

The murmuring stops. A different voice, a new voice, says, “True or false, Naomi Nantz is acting on behalf of agents of the Chinese government.”

“F-f-false.”

Times passes as he shivers on the little stool. The voices return to the murmur level. He doesn’t even bother trying to listen to the words being spoken, because that might result in punishment.

Somewhere in the distance, a wheel begins to squeak, at first faintly and then louder, so loud he can’t ignore it. The mad wheel of a grocery cart, spinning as it tracks sideways down the aisle. Coming to get him. Louder, closer, screaming inside his mind like a rat trying to claw its way out of his skull.

A gurney appears in the circle of light. A narrow, thinly padded gurney equipped with sturdy Velcro straps, the better to hold a struggling body.

“No,” Milton whispers.

“Strap him down,” a voice commands. “We’re going chemical. I don’t believe anything the little turd blossom says, do you?”

Milton writhes as they lift him from the stool and dump him on the gurney. “No!” he screams. “Please, no!”

A gunshot echoes inside the warehouse, loud enough to hurt Milton’s ears. He hears the insane whine of a bullet ricocheting from the concrete floor and connecting with something metallic.

“Nobody move,” says a new voice, a familiar voice. “The weapon in my hand is a Glock Super Ten. There are fifteen rounds left in the magazine and I’m prepared to shoot all three of you dead and take the consequences. Now get him off the gurney before my finger slips.”

Jack Delancey.

Milton wets his pants in gratitude.

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