Eric didn't wake up all at once -- rather, his sense of hearing returned first. He was aware that people were moving around him, speaking in tight, clipped sentences and hushed tones.
Sensation came next -- he realized that his arms were immobilized behind his back, and that he was sitting down. Finally, he managed to force his eyelids open, but all he saw was a watery blur of greys and blacks. He blinked a few times, and his vision cleared rapidly.
Eric was in a large, industrial room. It was night, as he could see through a window a good twelve feet from the floor. His torso was duct-taped to a chair -- feeling with his fingers, he found that his wrists were bound tightly with zip-ties. Several men were walking around in front of him, but there was one seated Indian-style on an old, scarred wooden table about ten feet directly ahead of him.
"Welcome back, Mr. --" the man on the table held up Eric's driver's license -- "Hawkins. Thank you for joining us."
"Doesn't seem like I had much choice," Eric replied.
"No, sure doesn't. Let's get this over with, yes? You're going to answer some questions for me. I like your answers, and you're on your way. I don't like your answers, I ask the questions again until I do. You follow?"
"Starting with your name. Not Eric Hawkins, now, is it?"
"That's what my license says."
The man sighed and stretched out his legs. He walked about halfway to Eric and held out his hand -- one of the other men placed a bottle of water in it.
"That was an example of an answer I didn't like. One more of those, and you get to see how I get the answers I do like," the man smiled, almost sweetly. "Now, one more time. Your name."
The man frowned and shook his head. Suddenly, Eric felt hands on either side of him -- the chair was being lifted and tipped over backwards. the back legs of the chair were propped up on a concrete block so that Eric was at an angle, the back of his head on the floor. One of the men placed a cloth over his eyes and forehead, and Eric felt water dripping onto the rag.
Eric knew what was coming, and knew it wasn't going to be pleasant. Before he could fully draw in his breath, the cloth was folded down over his nose and mouth, and Eric involuntarily gagged.
We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaming one's aim is a dog's death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this, Eric thought, forcing his brain to think of something other than drowning.
A hand pulled the cloth away from Eric's nose, and he gaspingly pulled in three breaths.
"Name?" Eric heard from above him. More water poured down on the cloth.
Tell them what they want to hear, his brain pleaded with him.
"Not sure I understand the question, Chief," Eric choked, spitting water as he did so.
The cloth was placed over his nose and mouth again, and more water poured down on him.
If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.
The cloth came away again, and Eric gulped in more precious air.
"You ready to give me an answer I like?" the man asked softly.
Yes! Eric's brain screamed.
"Getting a little thirsty down here. Think I can get a drink?" Eric sputtered.
"Dumb motherfucker," Eric heard one of the men mutter.
"Lock it up, mister," the man in charge spat gruffly. The cloth came down over Eric's nose and mouth again, and more water splashed down on him -- a lot this time.
Stay calm. You're not drowning. You're not drowning, Eric tried to reassure his brain. His brain, though, knew he was thinking this because he couldn't remember the words that were supposed to come next.
One of the men ripped the cloth away from his face completely, and the man in charge squatted down so he was face-to-face with Eric.
"You beginning to see how this works?" the man asked.
"Yeah. Badly. Look, I know you're not going to drown me. And if you do, so what, I'm dead. Big deal," Eric tried to shrug again, but found it wasn't very easy upside-down.
The man in charge nodded slowly. He gestured to his henchmen, and they hauled the chair back into a sitting position. The man in charge grabbed the back of the chair and started walking, dragging Eric along with him. Eric twisted his head around and saw where they were headed -- a large commercial freezer at the end of the large room.
* * *
Eric quickly lost track of his time in the freezer. He couldn't see his watch, of course, as it was zip-tied behind him. He could see his breath, so he knew the temperature was below fifty degrees, and Eric hated the cold. It probably had something to do with growing up in Nevada, Texas, and Florida. He'd done his best to outrun the cold, and now he had no idea how to deal with it.
Eric closed his eyes and tried to think of the hottest day he could remember. It had been in 1984, when he'd lived in Brownsville. He tried to put himself back on that 106-degree day, to feel the searing heat again so his current situation would seem pleasant by comparison.
Eric heard the door open, and opened his eyes just long enough to see a torrent of water spray directly on him, soaking him thoroughly.
"No sleeping," someone barked, and the door slammed shut again.
His shoulders started to shiver involuntarily. Eric tried to put himself back in Brownsville back in -- what was it? July? August?
You're losing it, Eric. Focus. It was. . . March. Remember? Way too early to be that hot. School got canceled. March 27. You tried to go outside and play and got sun poisoning.
Eric remembered now -- but he didn't feel any warmer. His entire body was shivering now -- it was all he could do to keep his teeth from chattering together.
Come on. You've been through worse than this. Hell, the water thing was worse than this. It's just a little cold.
The internal pep-talk wasn't doing much good, either. Reciting the Hagakure in his head wasn't working. Eric reasoned that if he told them his name -- his real name -- they might take him out of the freezer for at least a few minutes. It seemed like a perfectly logical plan, so he yelled.
"Hey! Ready to answer now!"
The door opened wide, and the man in charge walked in slowly. Eric could see the windows at the top of the room -- dawn was just starting to break outside.
"Good man. Knew you'd see it my way. Answer my questions, and we'll take you out of here."
"Now, what's your name?"
"What's yours?" Eric shot back without thinking.
The man in charge motioned behind him, and one of his henchmen came into the room with a bucket of water. Just before the water dumped over his head, Eric heard another one of the guys outside say, "You deal with him. I'm sick of that freak texting me."
"Name," the man in charge demanded.
"Name. Zavut. Kak tebya zavut? That's how you'd ask your question in Russian. Wie heissen Sie? That's German," Eric smiled.
The man in charge shrugged and turned to walk out.
"Tell Russel I said hello. Tell him it's your fault I missed our appointment," Eric called after him.
The man in charge stopped dead. It was only a half-second before he was moving again, and he closed the door behind him, but Eric grinned. He'd gambled correctly, and was starting to figure out what was happening. If he made it out of the freezer alive, he'd have to tell Nathaniel what he'd learned.
Eric spent several more hours in the cold cell (or, at least, it felt that way) before he realized his mistake. The revelation came when he closed his eyes for a few minutes and wasn't immediately punished with a bucket of ice water to the face -- they didn't need to ask him questions anymore. He'd given them all of the answers they wanted.
His cold-addled brain had been all too eager to put the puzzle together, but it hadn't stopped his mouth from spitting out Russel's name. In doing so, he'd given the man in charge access to information even the police and the Marshal's Service didn't have on him. Russel may not be able to talk, but that wouldn't stop him from telling these guys everything they wanted to know about him.
And these guys were obviously in contact with Russel -- how and for what reason, Eric hadn't figured out yet. Regardless, Eric was pretty sure they had no further use for him -- they'd just leave him in the freezer to die, or come in and put a round in the back of his head whenever they got around to it. He guessed the latter, so he quickly accepted that his lifespan was now a matter of hours rather than years.
The thought didn't bother him as much as he thought it would. He couldn't be sure if it was the cold screwing with his head -- if the interrogation techniques had actually broken him -- or if he honestly just did not care anymore. Instead of worrying about how they were going to eventually kill him, Eric idly wondered if they'd let him have a cigarette first.
At some point, Eric couldn't say when, the door opened again, and the man in charge walked in. He was dressed in black cargo pants, a Kevlar vest, and a black T-shirt. He had a Beretta M9 in a leg holster, but he didn't move to draw it as he walked across the room to Eric's chair.
"Hey, how's it goin'," Eric mumbled.
"Still have a few more questions for you, Mr. Austen."
"But they'll have to wait a while. The adults have to go out for a bit, but your pal Russel is coming over to babysit. You just hang out here -- we'll talk in a couple of hours."
"Yeah. Pretty sure I'm not going anywhere," Eric shrugged.
The man in charge shot him an wink, and the door closed and locked as he walked out. Eric sighed -- so he was to be tied to a chair, then, with Russel as his only company.
Tied to a chair, waiting for Russel to cut him up. At least he was in a familiar situation again -- the tile on the floor of the freezer even reminded him vaguely of the tile in Julian's kitchen.
Eric closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable -- Russel's creepy grin, the knife digging into his arms and chest, the blood running down the freezer's floor drain.
He must have fallen asleep, but he didn't know for how long. When he woke, however, he wasn't dead or bleeding. His torso was still duct-taped to the chair, but he realized that his hands were free.
And, best of all, the freezer door was wide open.