LJ was awakened by a hand brushing across his face. At first he thought it was his mother, then he realized it couldn't be and hoped it was his father, it was an unfamiliar male hand, but no, it definitely wasn't. Not only that, it was too rough. Pinching his cheeks together, shaking his head back and forth, just trying to rouse him, not worried about hurting him. This wasn't his father. This was-
"Come on. Get up."
He looked around as he struggled to sit up. His shoulder was numb now, the pain had dulled. They were parked behind what looked like a warehouse of some kind. He sat up and glanced around. Nothing but forest and parking lot and a single dirt road.
"Where are we?" he mumbled.
"What does it look like?" Kellerman asked impatiently.
His wrists were trapped behind his back. He tugged at them. Handcuffs. Of course.
"Move," Kellerman ordered again, and LJ didn't see much of a choice. He glanced down at his shoulder. There was something tied around it, like something approximating a bandage, and he did sort of remember something happening, pressure around his chest, somebody grumbling under their breath. None of this made any sense, but he had to at least cooperate for the time being. He set his leg on the ground and tested his weight. It was okay. He could walk on it. He started for the entrance, struggling only a little.
"Tough guy, huh?" Kellerman asked as he walked along, falling into step with LJ.
"You know," was all that LJ could think of to say. "Where are we?"
Kellerman rolled his eyes. "What does it look like?"
"It… looks like an office."
"Good call." Kellerman prodded his arm and LJ stumbled a bit.
"An office where nobody blinks at a sixteen year old in handcuffs bleeding the crap out of his shoulder?"
"Very. Good call."
LJ stopped short in front of the door. "This is the headquarters, isn't it. The one you told Sara about."
In response, Kellerman placed his hand to the door. "Look at that," he said in a conversational tone, "my access still works."
"Big surprise," LJ sniffed.
Inside the door, a security guard looked up casually. "Is everything ready?" Kellerman asked.
"Basement, room 34," the man replied in a bored tone.
"What about Room 158?"
"Walters said for you to see her about that."
"Come along then," Kellerman said to LJ. "And play nice."
He led him around the corner to a stairwell. The place didn't look like any secret government conspiracy headquarters LJ had ever imagined. Low pipes threatened them from overhead, the floor sloped. A musky smell surrounded them, and the paint was peeling from every surface. Only one reason to bring him to a place like this.
"You're gonna kill me, aren't you. You are. Don't patronize me."
Kellerman sighed. "You may find this hard to believe, but I am very far beyond patronizing you, kid. Okay. Let's not beat around the bush here. Yes. Yes, once I get them here, where I need them, where I have the advantage, I'm probably going to kill you. And them. At this point we don't have anything to gain by keeping any of you alive, and you're far more trouble than you're worth." He opened a door and flipped a light switch, revealing a small, bare room with a window at the top. "You especially."
He shoved LJ into the room and LJ turned around to face him. "Why did you bring me here? Why not just kill them there?"
"Questions, questions. You have questions. Witnesses have questions. I really hate questions."
"Why'd you let us tie you up, then? Back in New Glarus?"
Kellerman sighed and shook his head, clicking his tongue. "You want some big speech from me? Is that it? Because that would make me the villain, wouldn't it? I'm not the villain here, LJ. I'm just trying to do the right thing. You're traveling with escaped convicts, after all. Your father is supposed to be dead. By law."
"Sure, you're not the villain. Like you didn't frame me for murder, or you didn't help kill my mom, my stepdad, and both my lawyers. You're just a guy doing the right thing. That's all."
"I didn't," Kellerman said, looking up in surprise. "I didn't touch your lawyers. I mean I tried, sure. But I failed, no small thanks to you."
"Yeah? Then who did?" LJ asked skeptically.
Kellerman shrugged. "Whoever did, I'd probably thank them if I had the slightest idea who they were. You want me to make a list of the people who want you and the people connected with you dead? Have you met your dad and his brother lately?"
"I don't believe you," LJ hissed. "I don't believe a word you say." It occurred to him that he wouldn't mind seeing that list, though the point probably was moot by now.
Kellerman shrugged. "Think what you want." He bent down towards LJ and produced a strand of cloth. "Maybe you'll have more time to think if you stop running your mouth. You're going to be here for awhile, so-"
LJ closed his mouth, gathered another mouthful of spittle, and then launched it towards the man. He knew it was a bad idea to taunt the psychotic renegade government agent holding him captive, and it was probably less than effective, but at least it made him feel better, and he was dead anyway. Might as well get his kicks in beforehand.
Kellerman shook his head as he wiped his cheek. "Do you know just how much of a pain in the ass you are, kid?"
"Yeah, I've got some idea," LJ said, satisfied, before Kellerman jerked the cloth around his mouth and sealed it shut.
He watched as the man checked everything, pulling a little too tightly, before standing and moving across the room. "Some of our best people started as pains in the ass," Kellerman added. "I think we're past the point of a job offer, though. You're right. You wouldn't really fit in with the company culture."
LJ felt the slow burn as he watched the man disappear through the doorway. This couldn't be it. This couldn't be the end. He couldn't have gotten this far just to be used as bait for the deaths of Lincoln and Michael. That couldn't be the endgame. What would Michael do? What would Michael do?
Where was Michael?
But most importantly, because he couldn't say it enough – what would Michael do?
He didn't have much to work with. The room was empty. Kellerman wasn't dumb. He wasn't going to leave sharp objects around for LJ to work with. Not deliberately, anyway.
LJ glanced up. There was in fact a window, although it was a little high up. Could he get to it from where he was if he stood up? Could he even stand up, with his arms and legs tied like this, and with the injury to his leg? He twisted his weight around. It was possible. He rocked himself onto his knees and used his shoulders to launch his momentum, carrying him forward and with a hop or two, he was standing. He ignored the pain. It didn't matter anymore.
If he could launch something at the window… anything… there was nothing. And unless he could get his arms over his head, he had no chance of reaching it. Could he step through his arms, pull them to the front somehow? He felt the strain in his shoulder as he bent over and tried to contort. Not likely. He wasn't exactly double-jointed.
It couldn't end like this. Couldn't end. Not like this.
He tried again, trying to ignore the pain that now shot through his shoulder and down his arm, and it was then that Kellerman opened the door.
"Oh for christ's sakes," Kellerman sighed. "Sit down, you stupid punk."
LJ tried one last desperate attempt, launching his full body weight into the man, slamming him low, trying to tip him over again like he had before, but his opponent was far more trained in hand-to-hand combat, not to mention had full use of his limbs, and he quickly set the boy off balance and plopped him down on the ground.
LJ grunted in anger and indignation, but Kellerman wasn't having it.
"I thought we'd play nice," he said. "Nice, LJ? You couldn't play nice? Not for one afternoon? You couldn't make this easy on me just once?" He pulled out another set of handcuffs. "Let's see here…" LJ tried to twist away, tried to roll, but he didn't have much of a physical advantage, and before he knew it, his arms behind him were awkwardly chained straight to his feet.
"That oughta do it," Kellerman said with satisfaction, standing up. "Now just be a good boy and wait here for your daddy, okay?" To add final insult to injury, Kellerman leaned over and patted him on the head. LJ narrowed his eyes in anger and let loose with a loud, muffled insulting grunt. "Right. Gotcha." The man rolled his eyes before starting out of the room, closing the door once more. LJ continued to try to grunt something around the gag, but it was no use. Kellerman couldn't make out his insults and expletives, and wasn't about to try.
LJ leaned back – it was about the only thing he could do – and closed his eyes. There had to be a way out of this. There was always a way out. Even when things seemed hopeless, there was a way out.
He pictured his father's face. Not his father the way he looked now, free and renegade and tough and untouchable. The way he looked in jail, defeated, tired, weak. He'd gotten out. He'd figured out a way when it seemed like there was no hope left. He was so close to winning, winning this whole thing. And LJ wasn't about to be the reason he lost now. They still had a house to build, after all.
He didn't like having nothing to do but think. He'd done plenty of that in Arizona, and it hadn't done him much good. He slumped back against the wall. He wasn't tired enough to sleep and he didn't want to let his guard down, either. A starfish, like the girl in that book, melting into his surroundings. He could remember touching a starfish at the aquarium on a field trip once. He didn't like it, it felt cold and dead, not alive. He straightened up. He didn't want to be a starfish. Not yet.
Memories. Happy memories. When his life flashed before his eyes, it hadn't been too bad. He only wanted to remember the good. Toasting marshmallows on a camping trip with his mother and father, which was in fact the only memory he still had from when they were together. Cubs season tickets with Brian and his dad. And city league baseball semi-finals, eighth grade, looking up from the outfield to see four signs reading "L", "J", "4" "3", carried by his mother, Adrian, his father, and Michael, who were all waving them with one hand and eating hot dogs with the other. Going to Disney World in fifth grade with just him and his mom, teaching her how to play Pokemon on his Game Boy while they waited in lines to go on all the rides, and puking up chocolate chip pancakes after Space Mountain. Learning to cannonball in the pool at their old apartment complex with all the neighbor kids. Getting his driver's permit on the first try. Waiting in line overnight to see the third Lord of the Rings movie. Seeing his father kick the crap out of Kellerman.
Some of it had been pretty good.
LJ didn't think he believed in heaven. His dad used to make him go to Sunday School, but his mom never did and he stopped going when the Sunday visits stopped. Maybe now was a good time to start believing again. Maybe he could get away with it if he meant it this time. Maybe his mom was up there, even though she didn't believe in much of anything, but just because she was good and kind and innocent, and Veronica and Nick, too. Maybe he'd see them all, and they could all just be happy and safe together, and it wouldn't matter that Lisa and Veronica kind of hated each other a little bit. Not anymore. It would even be okay if Adrian was there. He didn't mind.
The door flew open, and his eyes did, too. How many hours had passed? LJ had lost track.
"Okay, we're on. Stand up. Oh. Right." LJ watched in surprise as Kellerman uncuffed the handcuffs and took him by the elbow to pull him up. He didn't resist. The man was strong, and in a moment LJ had found his balance on his feet.
"One thing before we go," Kellerman said, taking out another piece of cloth. LJ grunted a protest. "Play nice, LJ. Believe me. This time you want to."
He wasn't sure that he agreed with that, but he didn't have much room for argument, and tried to relax as the blindfold blocked his vision and darkness replaced the empty room. Maybe he'd been better off in prison after all.
"Just take steady steps and you'll be fine. Don't mess around. Come with me."
He tried to obey, walking as steady as he could. He remembered from his trip in that the floor wasn't exactly even, and he took slow, careful steps. Kellerman's hand on his elbow guided him through the door and he fought the urge to pull away. Right now, that awful man was the only thing keeping him from yet another injury, and he wasn't sure if he'd be up for escaping if anything else happened to him at this point.
Instead, he paid attention to the steps, trying to form a mental picture. Following the smells, although everything had the same vaguely moldy smell. Trying to count his steps, trying to picture the turns, so that he could maybe find his way back upstairs to the exit if he had the chance. If. That was a big if. But it was what Michael would do. That much he knew.
He heard another door open and the sounds changed, more muffled. He was in a room and the musky smell was even stronger. The door closed. He felt Kellerman's hands near his ears, and then moments later the light came flooding back.
He turned around to look.
On either side of him, stretching along a long hallway, he saw row after row of boxes on shelves. Files. Binders.
"This can go however you want it to," Kellerman said. "Okay? I have to go fill out paperwork. You can stay in here while I do that."
LJ didn't know what to do. He stared at Kellerman. Something was fishy. This couldn't be what he thought it was. The boxes would blow up, or they were covered in anthrax, or he was going to be framed for a break-in…
"Fine," Kellerman said with a heavy sigh. "I'll give you a primer. Your stuff is all on these two shelves." He pointed to a nearby set. LJ's eyes widened only slightly. "It's pretty easy. Paperwork is mostly coded to 800s and for your purposes, you're only going to have authorizations, which are 753s, those are the exceptions, and acquired documents which are 804s, and generated documents, which are 808s. Surveillance is coded higher, audio surveillance is 500s and video surveillance is 600s, and all of the files should play on the computer right over there. It's all coded by subject, which is you, so don't worry about that, and by date, which you should be able to handle. Got it?"
What was he supposed to say? He could only nod dully.
"Naturally you won't find anything here other than your files – everything else related to your case is elsewhere, so don't think you're going to be finding your dad's stuff here. I'm just telling you so you don't waste your time looking for it. Anything else?" Kellerman asked. "Oh. Right." He lifted his hands and removed LJ's gag.
"Why?" LJ asked faintly.
"Why do you think?" Kellerman asked. "Give us a guess."
LJ shook his head stiffly.
Kellerman lowered his tone. "Guess or you go back in the closet, kid. I had to fight to get you in here, make it worth my time, okay?"
LJ licked his lips. The gag had dried his mouth out. Or maybe he was just faint from loss of blood. "You want to distract me, keep me from escaping. Keep me docile. Or you're gonna kill me anyway. Or frame me for something. Or it's all bullshit." He licked his lips again. He was running out of ideas. "You want to recruit me? Test me. See my reaction."
"LJ," Kellerman said, "truth is? I just want you to see that it's not personal. I want you to see how far this goes, how much we know."
"You want to scare me," he said softly.
"Call it that. Okay."
"You bastard. You're just gonna kill me anyway after you use me as bait to get my dad."
"Exactly. And your files will be moot then. But you might as well go out in style, huh? Have at it. If you need to pee, just wave over there. See that? Carl will let you out." He pointed in the corner. "Don't think for a second that's the only one, of course."
"Why?" LJ asked again.
Kellerman smiled at him. It didn't reach his eyes. "Have fun, kid." He reached for the handcuffs and unfastened them, leaving them dangling from LJ's wrist before he stepped out of the room.