The White Room
I looked around. There wasn’t much to see. It was a small, cramped, white room. There were no windows, no two-way mirrors, just the rough painted surface of the blank white cinderblock walls. There was a white table bolted to the floor, and two plastic white chairs, one on either side.
For a minute or two, I just stood there, staring stupidly at all that whiteness. I was still a little messed up in my head. The memories from my attack still clung to me. The scene had been so real, it was so much as if I were there, right there. It hurt to be back here again, back in this prison. Anyplace would have been better.
I heard the lock on the white door snap again. The door opened.
I turned and saw Detective Rose step into the room.
Man, I can’t tell you what that was like. At the sight of him, I felt my sore, battered body go weak with relief. I couldn’t remember the last time I was so happy to see anyone.
“Rose!” I blurted out. “Dude! Oh, man, it’s about time you showed up!”
Rose didn’t answer. His face was blank, expressionless. But then he never was much in the expressing-himself department. He was a black guy with a round face and flat features, a thin moustache and smart, steady eyes. He rarely smiled. He rarely even grimaced. Even his suits seemed to have no particular color. He was always all business.
I saw his eyes go over me, pausing on the cuts and bruises. But all he said was, “Sit down, Charlie.”
I lowered myself painfully into one of the white chairs. Rose didn’t sit down in the other one. He put his foot up on its seat. He rested his arm on his raised knee. He looked down at me–studied me–for a long time.
“What happened to you?”
“I fell down,” I said.
He snorted. “You fell down, huh.”
“I fell down on a sadistic guard.”
“That was clumsy of you.”
“Tell me about it.” I looked up at him, searching his eyes for something, some kind of hope. I couldn’t stand the suspense. “So,” I said to him. “Are you gonna get me out of here or what?”
“What’s the matter, Charlie? Don’t you like prison?”
I wanted to come up with a snappy answer, but I wasn’t feeling very snappy. “It’s bad,” I admitted. “I’m trying to stay strong in here, you know? But I’ll tell you the truth, Rose: it’s really, really bad.”
I thought I saw a trace of sympathy rise in Rose’s eyes, but it was tough to tell. He just nodded. “That’s the way it works, Charlie. You put a lot of bad guys together in the same place, you end up with a pretty bad place.”
“Are you talking about the inmates or the guards? Because in here, it’s tough to tell the difference.”
The faintest trace of a smile appeared at one corner of Rose’s mouth. “The guards wear the blue shirts.”
I tried to laugh. I tried to sound hard and cool the way Rose did. But even I could hear the desperation in my own voice and I’m sure Rose could hear it too. The truth was I didn’t know how much more Abingdon I could take.
“So?” I said again, my voice shaking a little. “What’s the deal: Are you gonna get me out of here?”
Rose let out a breath. Something about the way he did it made my stomach churn. I could feel the bad news coming.
He took his foot off the chair. He sat down across from me. He leaned forward, his elbows on the table, his eyes steady on mine.
“Here’s what’s been happening since they put you away in here,” he said. “The Homelanders organization has been broken. The men we arrested at your friend Margaret’s house? They talked. They led us to their headquarters…”
“That crazy-looking mansion?”
“The crazy mansion, yeah. We’ve still got it under guard. They had computers there, papers, names, locations. Those led us to the training camp, the place you escaped from. A series of safe houses. We’ve rounded up almost all of them. The Homelanders are over. They’re done.”
He let that sit for a minute between us, gave me time to take it in.
“So… that’s good news, right?” I said finally. “The operation was a success. I did what you wanted me to do. Hooray, right? America is safe. You get a promotion. Waterman can rest in peace. And, listen, as far as I’m concerned, you can forget my parade and the medals and all that. Just get me out of here and let me go home, okay?”
There was another moment of silence. Then Rose said the words that made my breath catch with fear.
“It’s not that simple.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, my voice rising. “What do you mean it’s not simple? Sure it’s simple. It’s really simple. You hold a… whattaya call it…? a press conference or something. You hold a press conference and you say, ‘Hey, remember the whole Charlie-West-is-a-murderer thing? Surprise, we were only kidding. He helped us bust up this terrorist ring and now we’re gonna set him free so he can have his own reality TV show…’ I don’t care what you say, man. Just get me out of Abingdon before I…”
Rose interrupted me, speaking in the same flat voice with the same expressionless expression on his face. “I can’t.”
I was in the middle of a sentence when I felt the words turn to ashes in my mouth. “What do you mean you can’t?”
“I’m sorry,” Rose said.
I swallowed, hard. “You mean you can’t get me out of here?”
His eyes flicked away from mine. “Not yet. Not now.”
I felt the strength go out of me. I sagged against the chair.
Rose went on speaking, without emotion. “You knew the risk when you signed on, Charlie. Waterman’s operation–our operation–it was never strictly… official. We never really had approval from our superiors. The government is happy to take the Homelanders into custody in a quiet way, but right now, they don’t want it to go any further than that.”
“Any further than what? These people are terrorists. They’re at war with us. Why should we tiptoe around about putting them in jail?”
Rose cupped his hands over his nose and mouth and closed his eyes, almost as if he were praying. But I think he was just trying to gather his thoughts, trying to figure out how he was going to explain this to me. I was pretty interested to hear what he’d come up with.
“Here’s the deal,” he said finally, dropping his hands. “An organization like the Homelanders doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere. People fund it, plan it, support it. Powerful people in countries in the middle east.”
“We need help from some of those countries. Help with security. Help with arms negotiations. Help with oil.”
“Right now, it’s convenient for a lot of people in the government to pretend that the Homelanders were just a random bunch of crackpots. And that you were just a troublemaker who got involved with them. That way, there’s no pressure from the people, from the media, to go too high up the ladder, to embarrass the people we need to deal with…”
Suddenly I found myself on my feet. The plastic chair toppled over in back of me, rattling against the floor.
“Embarrass them?” I shouted. “Embarrass them? They’re just going to leave me to rot in here so they won’t embarrass people in the countries where these killers came from?”
“It’s a sensitive moment, Charlie. A very powerful faction in our government is to determined to believe the Homelanders didn’t really exist at all…”
But I silenced him with a raised hand. I turned away from him. Paced to the wall. Braced my hands against it, my head hung down. I could barely believe what I was hearing–and at the same time, I believed it too well.
Behind me, Rose said, “There’s something else you oughta know…”
I just stood there, head hanging, waiting for it.
“We didn’t get them all.”
Now I swung around, looked at him, eyes glaring.
“Prince escaped,” he said.
“And some of his top operatives–some portion of his operation–we don’t know how much…”
“But Prince was the head guy. He was the brains behind the whole deal…”
“I know that.”
“Well, do you have any idea where he is?”
Rose looked down at his hands clasped together on the surface of the desk. He was silent for a long moment. Then he raised his expressionless face and stared at me with eyes that said more than he could say aloud. “The government is convinced he’s left the country.”
“Because they want to be convinced. Because it’s convenient.”
“But what if he hasn’t?” I said. “What if he hasn’t left?”
“Well,” said Rose. “If he hasn’t left… you may not be safe.”
I let out a laugh–if you can call it a laugh. “Oh really? I’m not safe? What a surprise. I thought I was snug as a bug in a rug in here! I mean, it’s not as if someone just tried to slice me to pieces. It’s not like some guard just used me as a punching bag for half an hour.”
“Look, I’m working on this,” said Rose. “I am, it’s just… They’ve closed Waterman’s operation down. I have no official power base anymore. I’m doing my best to go through channels, through friends…”
Angrily, I reached down, snapped up my chair. “Channels!” I said. “Friends!” I plunked the chair down across the table from him. I plunked myself down into it. I was so mad I hardly felt the aches in my body anymore. “Let me see if I’ve got this right. Most of the Homelanders are in custody but the government doesn’t want to admit they were a highly funded organization taken down by an unofficial undercover organization. Because of their negotiations in the middle east, it’s more convenient to pretend the whole thing is over–and to keep me in here, with everybody thinking I’m a murderer. Meanwhile, Prince has escaped and wants me dead but you have no way to find him because the government prefers to believe he’s gone and you have no power base. So not only am I stuck in this hellhole, I’m a sitting duck for anyone who wants to earn Prince’s favor by bumping me off. Have I got all that right?”
For the first time, Rose showed some sign of strain. He rubbed one eye wearily. It was a quick gesture, over in a moment, but it revealed to me how tired he was, how hard he’d been working on all this.
“You need to try to be patient…”
“Patient?” I slammed my fist down on the table. “You don’t know what it’s like in here.”
“I understand but…”
“What if I call the newspapers?” I said. “What if I tell them about Waterman? About the Homelanders. About what went down? How it all happened?”
“Who do you think people will believe?” Rose asked quietly. “A convicted murderer telling people he’s secretly a hero who busted up a terrorist organization–or a lot of serious-looking officials in suits saying he’s just one of a bunch of troublemakers?”
I didn’t answer. I knew he was right. No one would believe me if I told the truth. Even I could hardly believe it. I buried my face in my hands. I don’t think I’d ever felt so low, so helpless in all my life.
“Listen,” Rose went on, “I’m working on something, okay?”
It was another moment before I could look up. “On what?”
“An appeal. Through your lawyer. In the courts. We’ve got friends there, people who know the truth. If they can arrange for the evidence against you to be declared tainted, your conviction could be overturned.”
“Overturned,” I said roughly. The word would hardly come out.
“I know. It’s not a complete vindication but… at least it’d get you out of here.”
I looked at Rose–and again, his eyes flitted away. He couldn’t meet my gaze. He was ashamed of the position he was in, ashamed of what the government was doing to me. I didn’t blame him. On the other hand, when Waterman first recruited me for this job, he didn’t lie about it. He told me I was risking everything. Not just my life, but my reputation. He told me he was operating outside the usual channels. He told me I might not have the support of the fancy suits in government. He told me they might pretend I didn’t exist and that the people I loved might go to their graves believing I was a traitor and even a killer.
I’d signed on, knowing all that. And I’d won, too. Me and Waterman and Rose and the others. We’d done what we set out to do. We’d broken up the Homelanders, stopped them, most of them anyway, before they could carry out their plans. All except Prince and a few of his friends.
So I had nothing to complain about. I’d known what I was getting into from the start.
I just hadn’t known about Abingdon. How hard it would be. How lonely and terrifying and suffocating. That’s just not something you can know before you get there, before you experience it for yourself.
And now that I did know, I wasn’t sure I had the courage to stick it out.
“How long?” I asked Rose hoarsely. “How long would an appeal take?”
“With our friends working on it,” he said. “A couple of months maybe. If all goes well, you’ll be out of here early in the New Year.”
I let out a long breath. “Christmas in Abingdon,” I murmured. “Just what I always dreamed of.”
“I’m sorry,” Rose said. He still wouldn’t look at me.
Finally, after what seemed a long silence, his chair scraped against the floor as he pushed it back. He stood up. He hesitated, standing over me.
“I’ll tell you something, Charlie,” he said then. “When you started this, you were a boy. But you’re not a boy anymore. You’re a man. A man and an American. And I don’t say either of those things lightly. You’re getting a hard deal from some people who aren’t fit to tie your sneakers. Government can be like that. That’s one of the reasons we try not to have too much of it.”
He moved away from me. He went to the white door in the white wall. He rapped against it. Then he looked back at me over his shoulder.
“You won’t be seeing me after this, Charlie. I won’t be able to get in touch with you directly. But believe me, I won’t forget you. I’ll be working on getting you out of here any way I can. And if there’s any news, I’ll find some way to let you know.”
The door opened. I could see the guard standing in the hall outside.
“How can I reach you?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “You can’t.”
“But…” I stared after him desperately. “Who do I call if I need help?”
Another very slight trace of a smile touched the corner of his lips. “You know how to pray, don’t you?” he said.
And he walked out.