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"Every pain is a lesson." ~Frank Delaney


"C" is for Cell

His cell was in general population. They gave him a cellmate, who leered at him, getting in his face. Colby'd been abandoned, no one covering his six, but still he didn't back down. He stared his cellmate in the eyes so close he could smell the man's sour breath. Colby showed no fear. The other's suggestive smile faltered, flattening into aggression under the green gaze. Colby's very stillness dared him. The Latino finally laughed shortly, muttered something in Spanish, and turned away. Colby didn't let on he understood what the other said; in a hostile environment, every little advantage had to be hoarded. He didn't know when an eavesdropped conversation in a foreign language might save his life.

Later Colby learned his name was Rico. He had a tear drop tattooed on his face. He boasted of past misdeeds, telling stories of his badassery. Colby remained unimpressed.

His cell was the safest place for him. By the end of Colby's second full day there, the entire prison population knew he was FBI; he'd had a hand in some of their or their brother/cousin/father/friend/sons' arrests. Scuttlebutt among the guards had him as traitor, spy, terrorist, rapist, child molester. Franklin, the warden, had been busy.

Still, Rico wouldn't try anything on his own. He thought he had Colby pegged, thought he understood Colby's silence but hadn't a clue about Colby's watchfulness. Didn't know what to do when intimidation didn't work, when he had no one to impress or strut for. Colby thought him an idiot.

An idiot with friends. Colby knew they would try something soon, the first to take a crack at him, a right granted Rico simply because Franklin stuck them in the same cell, to do his thing before Colby was beaten or killed because he'd once belonged to an organization that discarded him, because someone spread malicious rumors about him. Rico and his pals had other things in mind. They eyed him in the chow hall, the weight room, the yard. Colby stared them down, face a mask. He was alone in the world, in the prison—Franklin's lies made sure he'd never find anyone to ally with—no one covered his six, so he had to pick his battles. He was never the aggressor, even when one of Rico's friends grabbed his crotch and thrust his hips at him from across the yard, letting him know what they were planning. Colby stared hard, remembered that place he found in Afghanistan and let it show in his face; he gathered himself, but they didn't come any closer. He thought his lack of reaction unnerved them.

It wouldn't last much longer. He saw them talking in the yard to MacDonaldson, the guard who'd groped him the night he'd been brought in, all of them hungrily watching him. It made his skin crawl, and the small hairs stood up along the back of his neck. He didn't show it, didn't let the smirk daring them to try it out. No point provoking them to act sooner.

MacDonaldson took him from his cell his third day there to a private interrogation room. His jaw was still bruised and faintly swollen. He took great pleasure in pinning Colby up against the wall, dressing him in full shackles. He shoved Colby into walls along the corridor, into the large, gated doors dividing the halls, into the solid door going into the room.

Two NSA agents waited for him. He thought he recognized both of them from the night he was arrested, though only one of their jackets had declared NSA. Curiouser and curiouser. They didn't remove the restraints, gestured MacDonaldson to secure him to the bar welded to the table. Colby rolled his eyes. Seriously? He didn't know what they thought he could do.

After settling him ungently into the chair across the table from the NSA agents, MacDonaldson left.

"We have some questions regarding your recent espionage activities. You allege Michael Kirkland was your handler, correct?"

Colby had already answered this question—and a thousand others—over and over and over again after his hospital discharge following the Chinese freighter incident with every alphabet soup agency known in the US.

"I was never read my rights." Colby couldn't lean back or cross his arms over his chest, so he clasped his hands in front of him on the table. "Nothing I say now would be admissible in any court of law."

The NSA agents looked at each other, looked back at Colby. "Fine," one of them said with a put-upon sigh.

Not that it mattered, Colby knew, given the illegality of the situation, but he'd joined the Army, joined the Bureau to defend American freedom and justice and he'd be damned if he sat quietly while they stripped away all of his rights. Besides, he had demands of his own … and that anger he couldn't find the other night found him here. He cocked an eyebrow, waiting.

Through gritted teeth, the one on the right said, "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you. Do you understand these rights as they've been explained to you?"

"Very well," Colby said soberly. "Do you?"

They looked at him with identical expressions of surprise, one on the right, one on the left, as if he wasn't supposed to know the law he devoted his life to uphold. Or as if it had no place in this farce. The Bureau wanted to end him? Fine. But at least they could have the decency to tell him the reason, legitimate or not.

"So, was Michael Kirkland the only one who knew you were a supposed triple agent?" Righty said impatiently.

"I want to speak to a lawyer."

Lefty shuffled some papers around. "Who else in Counterintelligence knew of your alleged involvement in this so-called operation?"

"I want to speak to an FBIAA representative."

Lefty tutted. "How long were you spying for the Chinese?"

"I want to know what I'm being charged with."

And on it went for three hours, questions unanswered, demands ignored until NSA stood abruptly and stalked out the door, summoning MacDonaldson to return Colby to his cell.

The second interrogation two days later got physical. No one broke it off. Colby figured since the FBI didn't want him, he was fair game to all the alphabet soup agencies. This time it was DHS.

Colby remembered the one agent from his arrest, the other from a previous on-the-job encounter. They weren't concerned about what Colby could do in full restraints so told MacDonaldson he could go as soon as he'd pushed Colby into the empty chair.

They asked the same questions. Colby made the same demands, then opted for silence. He'd already answered them ad nauseam in a more formal, less inflammatory setting weeks ago.

DHS didn't like it.

DHS lasted an hour before they resorted to coercion. Colby tried to keep his mouth shut. But after spitting out a glob of blood and being slammed back into his chair for the third time, he commented on the white guy's probable ancestry, the way he spent his downtime, and pushed those buttons ruthlessly once he realized they were indeed buttons. The black guy had to wrestle his partner off him and out the door.

At least it ended the questioning in this mockery of justice.

MacDonaldson took pains to introduce Colby to five walls and two doors on the way back to his cell.

He had it to himself, and Colby gingerly stretched out on his bunk. Between his head, ribs, and shoulder he needed the quiet, though his aches and pains were associated with today's interrogation, and not from pursuing that suspect down two stories the fastest possible way—God, was that only last Thursday? Back when he was still part of a team … even if that team hadn't wanted him.

Colby covered his eyes with the back of his wrist. He couldn't think about that now, his focus needed to be survival; any distraction from that could cost him his life, make him an easy target for everything Rico wanted to do to him.

He flexed his arm. Franklin hadn't allowed him to go to the infirmary or even have the nurse check his bullet wound. It still hurt sometimes, though seemed to be healing fairly well, all things considered. Blood crusted it now—after DHS targeted it during today's festivities—so Colby'd have to check it later to see if any stitches had split. He hoped Franklin allowed the nurse to remove the stitches next week. He supposed getting the forceps and hooked scissors to take them out himself was prohibited. For good reason.

It'd been six days since his arrest, six days of constant vigilance, and he was exhausted. Mentally and physically worn down and the relative peace of his empty cell was making him drowsy. Eventually it occurred to him that he was vulnerable. The block was eating but wouldn't be for much longer. MacDonaldson would've gone to the chow hall, would've apprised Rico of what he'd witnessed. Because he wanted Colby more than his cellmate did, because he wanted Colby to suffer first for knocking him out in front of the warden and DHS agent, because he wanted to finish what he started the day Colby'd been brought to Seymour. This would be the perfect time for Rico and his buddies to jump him.

Groaning, Colby pushed himself up, focusing, wishing he'd kept his mouth shut.

He heard them coming.

They were murderers, gangbangers, would-be mafiosos, predators who preyed on whomever they wanted. They were rank amateurs.

Colby'd wrestled throughout high school and college. He learned hand-to-hand combat in the Army, took advantage of what the FBI taught. Megan wasn't the only one he took martial arts lessons from. He worked out, kept in shape. He could fight in a ring or in the street.

And he was pissed.

He grabbed all the hurt, all the anger, all the shame, fear, uncertainty, unfairness, loneliness—grabbed everything from being declared not worth anything—and channeled it into rage.

He struck at them, punching, kicking, hammering at anyone who came near him, shrugging off blows as if they didn't hurt like a son of a bitch.

Colby was vaguely aware of the alarm blaring into his skull—because apparently his head didn't hurt enough—was more aware of men in riot gear descending on his cell. Of billy clubs coming down. And then he was aware of nothing.

/1234567890/

He woke up in a new cell. He assumed it was isolation at Seymour and not some new prison, though the cell wasn't like anything he'd seen before—at Seymour or in the USA. White-painted cinderblocks enclosed three sides of it while steel bars barely breaking for a door made up the wall in front of Colby. A porta-potty without a door was tucked into the back corner to his right; a camp cot with a pillow and couple of blankets stacked on the end of it was against the wall to the left of him. The floor was concrete, and there was a drain between Colby's feet. He was hanging by his wrists via a pair of handcuffs suspended from the ceiling. Other pairs dangled from the ceiling and high on the walls, different widths apart, different angles. He counted five more sets.

What the hell?

More awake, he quickly became aware of pain in his wrists and shoulders; of how difficult expelling breath had become, and flashes of struggling to suck in air, chair-bound on a freighter, played in his head. He wondered how long he'd been hanging here. His whole body throbbed, and Colby remembered the beating before blackness took it away. They apparently hadn't stopped after he passed out.

His body gently revolved, and that's when Colby realized all his weight was hanging from his wrists. He tried to get his feet underneath him, grimacing at the agony in his arms, but couldn't reach the ground. He stretched and his toes barely touched the concrete. He stood on them, though, as if he was a ballerina, trying to get even a bit of his weight off the handcuffs trying to rip his hands from his wrists, the shoulders from their sockets. He gulped back a sob.

No direct light shone in his cell. It all came from the other side of the bars, a room that had once included this cell or was just a wider portion of a dead-end hallway, he couldn't tell. He made out a yellow, industrialized mop bucket pushed in a corner over there and a gleaming green hose coiled under a spigot. Colby's gut tightened.

A foot cramped, then the other, followed immediately by a charley horse that he couldn't do anything about. He groaned through his teeth, and everything turned blurry. He couldn't help it; his legs curled instinctively, putting all his weight back on his wrists. He closed his eyes, riding out the pain, and pushed out air in an action that had decidedly become a chore.

Shuffling, rhythmic footsteps turned his attention from his discomfort—were those stairs?—and by the time he forced his eyes open, Franklin was swinging the cell door open.

"I have prisoners in the infirmary because of you," he said in greeting, "and a guard out on leave. But don't worry. This isn't punishment for not playing well with others."

Franklin grabbed a stool from somewhere in the light and unfolded it beside Colby. The warden stepped up, pulled a key from his pocket, and unlocked the handcuffs holding Colby.

He fell in a heap, unable to break his fall or slow his descent. He hung his head between his shoulders, trying to regulate his breathing. He tried not to move his arms.

"You were always going to end up here, no matter what you did," Franklin confided. "I made this cell just for you. And you're going to tell me everything I want to know."

"Good luck with that," Colby muttered, because apparently he couldn't keep his mouth shut, didn't learn anything from DHS. Speaking made him acutely aware of how thirsty he was, how dry his throat felt.

Franklin laughed. "I like your spunk, boy. But we've got all the time in the world. Welcome to your own private piece of hell."