Matthew Andrews was seated in front of a table. This alone wasn't very unusual, and indeed, the fact that he was seated there didn't cause Matthew any undue concern. The table, located in the interrogation room of an otherwise mostly vacant sheriff's office, didn't provide much in the way of spectacle, he observed. Plastic, scratched, the typical shabby build quality you get with the government issue stuff. The entire thing would probably collapse on itself if he gave it a good shove. Sadly, this was a theory he could not properly follow through, since his hands were cuffed behind his back. Also, he imagined, the two detectives seated in front of him might object. They seemed rather agitated about something, probably whatever one of them kept droning about.
"-And this is very important, Mr. Andrews-" the bald one said, trying and failing to hide his anger by burying his nose in his brown notebook.
"Please, call me Matt."
"It is very important, Mr. Andrews, that you understand just how serious these allegations are, and that you tell us everything you know. Because right now, I feel like you're not."
"In fact, I feel like you're fucking with us," said his mustached partner.
"Me? Heavens no. I have nothing but respect for men of the law. In fact, I consider myself one."
"You work as a clerk in a lumber mill."
Matthew smiled, and said nothing.
"Where are they?" the bald one asked again, eyeing Matthew in a way he must have imagined was professional and detached but really only seemed tired.
"We know it was you, Andrews. We found your car, we found the hatchet, and the hairs. Took us a while. You did a good job cleaning after yourself, gotta admit."
"Just not good enough," said the mustached one, positively bristling with zeal. A real blood hound, that one, Matthew mused. The kind that digs around and sniffs, crawling through the underbrush after the fox, into dark tunnels. Even if that meant getting stuck where one really shouldn't. It was hard to tell with this particular brand of dog, he thought, if they chased for their master or for their own blood-lust. A point to consider.
"-Gone all glassy-eyed. Hey buddy, I'm talking to you here!"
Ah, so easy to lose oneself to idle musings. Of his many faults, this one was surely the most profound. Though others might disagree. "I'm sorry, Detective, but I was advised not to say anything without my legal advocate."
Behind him, a door opened. A grey-suited man, immaculate despite the late hour and what was probably a very long drive, entered the room. The mustached detective, reluctant to shift his attention away from Matthew, begrudgingly turned to the man. The hound finds something… unexpected in the tunnel. But it can't let go, now can it? Not when its eyes finally catch that elusive glimpse of red. Gotta dig deeper, ever deeper. Right into the ground.
"Hey buddy, there's an ongoing investigation going on here. Take a hike."
The grey-suited man ignored him, instead leaning to whisper something at the bald detective's ear. Matthew watched the color drain from the man's face. Without saying a word, the detective rose from his seat, fumbled with his belt and produced a key, which he used to release Matthew's cuffs. This didn't seem to sit well with his partner.
"Harry, what the hell is going on here?" The tunnel winds and narrows, and suddenly the hound finds itself stuck. And the tunnel…
The bald detective just shook his head, and sank back into his seat, his hands covering his face. The grey-suited man, seemingly taking great care not to look at Matthew, gestured towards the door. Rubbing his arms, Matthew turned to look at the mustached detective, who was now quietly arguing with his partner, an argument he was clearly losing. The poor man looked positively deflated. Matthew winked at him, and stepped out of the room, leaving the cuffs behind him.
Well, that was the thing about digging, he thought, as he followed the grey-suited man down the dreary corridor of the sheriff's office out to the parking lot, where a black SUV awaited, its engine still on. If you go on digging, you never quite know what you'll find.
"-Before this committee gives its final verdict, do you have anything to say for yourself?"
A rather odd question to ask, Lieutenant Matthew Andrews thought, when the men asking it clearly already made up their minds. Disingenuous, insulting even. No, he wouldn't dignify them with a response, those grey-faced hypocrites. So he didn't. Instead, he simply shrugged, and returned his attention to the table he was seated in front of, placed low before the raised dais that dominated the room. Say what you will about the Ethics Committee, they had a fine taste in furniture. Rich, dark wood, cool to the touch, spread beneath his fingers, a polished smooth plain. Gorgeous, clean of any imperfections. If they could just see it as he did, they would have understood what he did.
"Very well. Lieutenant Matthew Andrews, due to your crimes against the Foundation's charter and its behavioral code, and indeed against common decency, we hereby strip you of your rank and status. Your name will be stricken from your unit's records, your uniform burned, your pension discontinued-" Amusing bit of irony, that. "-and your person released from your control, given to the Foundation to do with as it sees fit. Do you understand?"
He did. It meant that he was their slave now, no different from the D-class they marched daily to the grinder. He supposed that he should have been surprised by that last clause of his punishment, frightened even, but instead he found himself intrigued. He had seen men stripped of their rank before for various crimes committed during their civilian lives, but this? This was new.
"Now, for the last order of business. Your former unit members have requested to see you." The committee member whispered something into a speaker embedded in the dais, and through a side entrance they came, all in full dress uniform. His old commander, a man he served under for more than ten years, addressed the committee, ignoring Matthew entirely.
"May we proceed?"
"You may, as long as you… contain yourself. As per our agreement." There was a hint of grim satisfaction about that last comment.
"Of course, sir. We're all about restraint, aren't we, lads?" A shaking of heads. A cracking of knuckles.
Oh. So that's how things are now, Matthew thought, as the first fist slammed into the side of his head, knocking him off his chair, sending him sprawling. A second landed beneath his left eye. A third, this one carrying the weight and bite of a brass knuckle, slammed into his nose, and he could feel fragile bone shattering. Kicks rained down, smashing into his ribs like jackhammers. Looked like the training regiment he put the men through worked, he thought, they were in fine shape. He tried and failed to curl into a ball, but the men pulled him straight once more. This continued for a while, until a command was barked, and the beating finally slowed to a stop. Through the haze of his pain, Matthew felt a faint breath touching the pulpy mess that was his ear.
"Was it worth it, you bastard?"
Heh. Heheh. Heheheh.
Matthew looked up through swollen eyelids, but not at the captain, who stood just above him, rubbing his bruised knuckles, nor at the other men, who were now shuffling out of the room, muttering to themselves, frustrated by the lack of response from him no doubt. No, he had no need to look at them. No, all he had eyes for was the table, which must have tumbled to the floor during the beating. Its surface was still gleaming, still deep beyond understanding, still… perfect.
"Of course it was."
Face distorted with sudden rage, the captain picked Matthew by the collar of his shirt, and slammed him, face first, at the side of the table. He felt his lips slice open, watched crimson spill on the warm wooden surface. No.
Distorting it, defiling it.
Its perfection tarnished. Order, erased. All that was once clean…naught but filth. Filth, all the way down.
He bit into the captain's hand. Hard. Warm blood filled his mouth as the captain shrieked. Matthew felt the man hit the side of his head with his other hand, but he wouldn't let go. Not after what he done. Not ever. Not ever. Only problem was, his vision began to fade, black spots everywhere. Numbness.
A voice, distant, barely penetrating the gloomy haze the world seemed to swim through all of a sudden. "That's enough, Captain. I think you made your point. We need him functional." Not the committee member, Matthew thought, finding himself once again on the floor, the taste of iron on his tongue. How…odd.
A sudden brightness, a sudden flash of pain. The brightness slowly faded away as his eyes recognized the pale fluorescent quietly buzzing above his head. The pain did not.
"Hey, he's up." An unfamiliar voice, soft baritone.
"About damn time." Another, this one female.
"He's a spy, a spy! One of them. Can't trust him, I tell you, just can't. He has shifty eyes." A third, squeaky and seemingly on the verge of panic.
"Nah, that's just the swelling, I'd wager. See those red and black lumps all over? Fucker looks like he dived face first into a biker convention."
"What the hell kind of metaphor is that?"
"S'not a metaphor, Upcard, s'experience."
"You're doing that thing with your S's again. I hate that."
"S'not a thing, it's how I talk."
"Hah! You forgot to do it this time! I knew it!"
The sound of a door opening. Matthew struggled to turn his head towards it, but something held his neck in place. Feeling around it with a bandaged hand, he felt plastic. Looked like the captain didn't stop when he was told.
"I wouldn't try and move too much, boy. You're more likely than not to pass out again, and that'll kinda defeat the point of us coming here." A fourth voice, probably belonging to whoever just came in. Southern, sounded like an old man.
"Immff mmmpf. Mmmf?"
The light above him was obscured, replaced by a face. Bald head, lined, rough features, white stubble. An expression Matthew could only describe as something between amusement and boredom.
"Yeah, wouldn't do none of that either. They had to close your jaw shut with wire, see."
"Should thank your lucky stars you're alive at all, honestly. Guess someone in the Ethics Committee had something in for you."
"I hardly blame them, Prosper." A second face joined the first. A woman, dark-skinned, elegant brows arched in distaste. "This guy is a damn freak, even by our standards."
"Wait, lemme see." A third face loomed over Matthew. Chubby, orange beard, beady, sparking little eyes. "Hrm. Dunno if I see it. Just looks like a normal guy to me. Bit more metal though."
"It's a trap, I tell you! They sent him! They want to frame me, again!" Improbably, a fourth face squeezed itself into the now extremely crowded space above Matthew, completely blocking what little light the florescent bulb provided. From what Matthew could see, this last face belonged to a thin, haggard-looking young man.
"Who's trying to frame you now, Hale?" asked the older man, with an aura of one who asked this same question many a time before and didn't really care what the answer would be.
"It's Marshall, Carter and Dark, Prosper! They have it in for me, I tell you. It's them who got me in this mess in the first place, I know it!" the young man replied.
"So you're saying it's Marshall, Carter and Dark who broke into your neighbor's house, beat the ever loving hell out of him, tied him up, robbed him, pissed all over his furniture and kidnapped his dog?"
"No, don't be silly. Marshall, Carter and Dark would never do that."
"So it wasn't them?"
"Of course not. Marshall and Carter did the breaking in, the robbing, the beating and all. Dark just came in for the tying and pissing. He's into that, I tell you."
"And the dog?"
"Dog was all me. Bastard never treated it right. Damn disgraceful it was."
"Mmmfp! Gdmnng mff."
"I think he wants something, Prosper," said the woman, turning to the old man.
"You people are upsetting him, Upcard. Calling him a freak, saying he works for a bunch of dog pissers, poor man must be exhausted. Why don't you give him some time for himself before we wheel him out, eh? You can have our formal introductions later."
With that, three of the four faces withdrew, the orange-bearded man pausing briefly to pilfer Matthew's lunch from the plastic tray hanging nearby. After a moment, Matthew could hear the door closing again. Prosper, however, didn't show any sign that he was about to leave.
"Mmmf. Hmmarmh angmmh?"
"Oh, don't you mind me. I'm just assessing the situation. I have to know what I'm working with here, you see."
"Suffice to say, we're about to spend a lot of time together, you and I. Whether you like it or not. See, for all of the high-and-mighty nonsense you might hear from the Ethics Committee, there's only one thing the Foundation really hates, and that's losing on its investments. And, to our collective regret, you are one."
"So someone up top thought, instead of wasting years of specialized training to the D-class program or, God forbid, the civilian penitentiary system, why don't we make use of you? And so, here we are."
The face withdrew, then the sound of footsteps and the rustling of a newspaper. A sipping. A sigh.
"Congratulations, kid. You finally made it big. Welcome to Permanent Expungement Crews."