The government presently trying to break Brad's spirit in solitary is the same one that sent him to SERE training. Shame he can no longer appreciate irony, because it doesn't get any fucking better than this.
It's on the fifth day of his deprivation -- he knows because there are five small cuts on the inside of his arm, scored by his thumbnail, one for every meal -- that the door of his cell opens. He's blinded by a harsh light, hooded, cuffed, and hauled by a pair of guards into the corridor. He considers resisting, but they've kept him on thin rations, and it's enough to maintain his feet beneath him so he isn't dragged.
After two lefts and a quick right, the sound of the guards' footfalls changes, echoing in an enclosed, hollow space. Brad is sill barefoot. He's driven into a seat by matched hands on his shoulders, and his wrist cuffs are transferred an eye bolt on the table in front of him. The guards leave him with the thud of a closing door.
He examines the bolt by touch: chill metal, half inch, securely fastened. Table and chair are both solid construction, anchored to the floor. These fuckers think of everything.
Of course they think of everything. They taught Brad all his tricks.
There's a new tactic to screw with his head. He's just settling in for a long, agonizing wait when the door opens again. Fresh footsteps approach: hard soles, but lighter than the tromp of boots.
"I'm going to remove your hood."
The closure is at the back of the neck, where Brad couldn't reach it without severe difficulty. When fingertips brush his nape, it's impossible not to flinch. He catches a hint of aftershave or cologne, and then the light is drilling needles into his eyes again. He squeezes them shut and tries to duck away, but the pain reaches straight through his eyelids.
"It will pass."
The voice, like the scent, is masculine. Brad hears the plop of something hitting the table, the scrape of a second chair being pulled out. He blinks through tears, tries to make sense of his blurry surroundings.
Brad was right: not boots. The man is in a suit, though everyone else Brad has seen in the compound wears the same dark utility uniform. His regulation haircut wouldn't look out of place on one of the guards, while his pleasant face wouldn't look out of place on a college student. The entire package is irregular, and if there's one thing Brad has learned since coming here, it's that anything that breaks routine is bad news.
The plop was a stack of folders. The man opens the top one, flipping up first sheet with its glaring red stamp of CONFIDENTIAL. He reads, "Brad Colbert, age 28, former sergeant USMC."
Resistance is silence -- he knows that. But the novelty of being addressed as an actual person is too great to ignore. "Want my serial number too?" His throat is creaky with disuse.
"It says here you fragged your commanding officer."
"Allegedly fragged." Brad swallows a couple times. "I never stood court-martial."
"Only because you were transferred to our department instead."
That's the story Brad's been told. Uncle Sam can't recoup his million-dollar-training price tag if he's rotting in Leavenworth. He suspects justice was never a consideration.
"Did you do it?" the man asks.
"Are you a lawyer?"
Brad doesn't trust that he's telling the truth, and can't seem to care. "Someone did." Thankfully before the dangerous bastard could succeed in getting more of his men killed.
The man closes the folder, turning his study to Brad instead.
The assessment makes Brad feel vulnerable in a way that catches him unprepared, and he suffers a flicker of embarrassment. He's a disgrace to the grooming standard in the shapeless prison uniform and five days of sweat and stubble. He's lost weight too; and he's been startled by the gaunt stranger in the mirror after hard deployments enough times to guess what his face must look like.
"You can call me Nate," the man decides after a while. He surprises Brad by pulling back his chair and using it to climb up on the table, the shined toes of his dress shoes avoiding Brad's fingers by inches. (The shoes are staid, the suit and tie a boring fed black.) Then the man- Nate reaches up to the ceiling and fiddles with the fire suppressant nozzle centered there. When he drops back to the ground, he's already pulling out a cheap lighter and a pack of Reds, still sealed.
Brad would make a snide comment about convenience store purchases and proof of age as Nate fumbles with the cellophane, except he hasn't had a smoke in months. Nate lights two; Brad leans forward to accept his, catching it between his lips, where it bobs as he talks. "So I finally meet the good cop. What happened to Schwetje?"
Nate actually smiles around a drag before flicking a bit of ash to the floor. "He opted to terminate your working relationship after you broke his nose."
"He shouldn't have stuck it where it didn't belong," Brad shrugs.
There's a soft tsk sound. "That's the thing, Brad. Your past, your future, your body aren't yours anymore. They belong to me now. I've taken over your case."
No point in asking whether or not he gets a say. "Lucky me."
Nate's expression turn serious. "Actually, you are. The department has plenty of prospects. We don't need to pour resources into a recalcitrant who is 'potentially unable to adapt'. You almost didn't get another chance."
Honestly, Brad might find better treatment and greater autonomy at Leavenworth. "Lucky you, then. Who'd you piss off to get stuck with a losing prospect?" The words knock loose a cylinder of ash.
"I requested you."
Ah, so the asshole's hoping to make a reputation for himself, turn Brad around where others have failed. Apply a little psychology, a light hand and some positive reinforcement, and Brad's supposed to fall gratefully in line? Fuck that.
"You don't think I'm up to the job."
Brad doesn't need to say anything to convey his opinion of this ambitious young prick. That doesn't stop him. "You're not even comfortable in your monkey suit yet. Buy it last week?"
"Last month," Nate fires right back, "and I even remembered to cut off the tags before wearing it."
"No, I don't think you can handle me."
"There is a lot of you to handle."
Brad coughs a little, pretends it's because he's smoked down to the filter. He drop-spits it on the floor.
Nate isn't fooled, and his unexpectedly frank expression accepts complicity for the innuendo. "We're going to start by getting you bathed and fed. Then we'll see about putting you down for a nap."
It's the best offer Brad's had in weeks. Whatever else, Nate is an ingratiating bastard. "Do I get a bedtime story?"
Nate seems to have lost something. When a pat-down of his pockets comes up empty, he casts around and snags a paperclip from the stack of folders. Bending it straight, he turns Brad's left wrist over to get at the lock on the cuff. "Mission briefs are more my speed, and you're nowhere near ready for that." His jacket gapes open as he leans, and his tie dangles unpinned.
The fucker actually gets the cuff open. The second one pops soon after, disproving Brad's theory that it was sheer dumb luck. "Cute." He's debating what, if anything, to do with the glimpse he caught of Nate's service weapon: matte-black grip in a passive retention holster under his left arm.
He knows exactly how much force would be required to draw it from that holster.
"Whatever you're thinking," Nate warns, "you can forget it."
Brad will admit to himself that it's a fantasy, impossible but still pleasant to envision. "There are guards at the door, I know. I wouldn't make it two steps outside this room." On his own. That's why he would take Nate as a hostage.
"Never mind the guards." Nate retrieves his folders, rapping their edges against the tabletop until the stack is square and neat. "Worry more about what it would do to your training schedule if I had to break your motherfucking arm."
He doesn't look at Brad as he says it; and there's something about his casual, understated confidence that makes Brad think, Fuck, he just might.