Thursday, December 7, 2017



The closet was narrow and dusty, with barely enough room for me to stand. Dead insects crunched under my sneakers, and spider webs glued themselves to my ponytail. Though empty of appliances and devoid of air conditioning, the foreclosed duplex was crammed with beat-up sofas and ratty mattresses, and it smelled like sawdust and old shoes. Faux suburban meth-dealer chic.

Trey handed me a weapon. "Do you remember the plan?"

I wrapped my hands around the gun, a semi-auto designed to shoot projectiles, not bullets. My palms were slick with sweat, and I had to concentrate to keep the thing from thudding to the floor.

"Surrender," I said.


"This scenario is designed to practice surrender protocol."

"And you are not to?"

"Fight. Not even a little bit." I wiped my hands on my jeans one at a time. "What are their chances of getting past you?"

"Not very good. These particular trainees haven't yet grasped the concept of three-sixty periphery."

"But they will after they tangle with you."

A ghost of a smile flickered at the edge of Trey's mouth. "Yes."

He knelt and adjusted my protective vest. He was dressed for special ops—his black BDU pants paired with a long-sleeved tee, also black, plus his old service boots, the ones he'd shoved into storage almost four years ago. His orange-tipped training weapon was a ridiculous contrast, but it was the only thing keeping me in the moment. Otherwise it would have been easy to get pulled back in time into his SWAT days, and to believe that the Trey on his knees in front of me was the Trey I'd never met, the man who'd existed before the car accident, before the frontal lobe damage, the Trey who really was a cop and not just volunteering at a training session.

I brushed a stray cobweb from his dark hair. "If any of them do make it past you, I'm going to get pocked with paintballs."

Trey stood and double-checked my body camera, wiped a smudge from my eye protection with his sleeve. "If you surrender and drop your weapon, you're supposed to come out unharmed. That's the protocol."

I sneezed. He produced a bottle of allergy medicine from some hidden pocket, and I swallowed two tablets dry.

"Does this really help?" I said.

"For the dust, yes. The pigeons, however—"

"Not the pills, these scenarios. Deliberately wading into a simulation where people come after you. Does it really make the nightmares better?"

Trey stopped messing with my gear, his blue eyes serious in the slanted light. "Yes. It does."

When my brother the psychologist had suggested moving Trey back into simulations training, I hadn't been convinced. I still wasn't. But I knew he needed something, some way to work out the part of him that sometimes sizzled like an overloaded circuit. There was only so much aggression he could exorcise through running, after all, and smothering it with routine and structure hadn't worked either. He needed an outlet, and this one—one without actual bullets and bad guys—seemed a safe alternative.

I adjusted my goggles and felt for the spare ammo on my belt. Training rounds, the SWAT version of paintballs. Each pellet contained a harmless green dye, though for actual combat, they came as capsaicin-filled pepperballs. Trey had assured me that the hot shots were banned for this scenario. Only green boxes on the training ground, only orange-marked weapons. It was an elaborately structured game of cops and robbers, and I was a robber. So was Trey.

He gave me a searching evaluation. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm sure."

He watched my mouth to make sure I was telling the truth. I was. Mostly.

"Okay," he said. "But remember, you can leave at any time. Tell the sentry you're vacating the scenario." He lowered his head to look me in the eye. "You're not trapped here, Tai. Not at all."

It was the right thing to say. "Ten-four. I'm good. Let's go."

Trey gave me one final looking-over. Then he closed the closet door, and I was alone in the darkness.

I listened to his retreating footsteps, the sudden silence of his absence. Despite my best efforts, the first prickle of panic rose, and with it, the memories. The suffocating heat of the trunk. The gators bellowing on the banks. The green dot of the laser sight centered on my heart.

I tilted my head back and closed my eyes. It's just a simulation, I told myself. Nothing but fake guns and fake bad guys. The chemicals surging in my veins were real, though, and my body responded as if the threat were real too. That was the point, I knew, to stir up the adrenaline spike and then deconstruct it. Rewire the experience, my brother had explained, rewire the response.

I wasn't sure I was buying his theory.

I heard it then, the light susurration of combat gear sliding against ripstop fabric, the unmistakable thump of police boots on the wooden floor. Not from the back, though, where the team was supposed to enter, but from the front. The sentry abandoning his post.

I frowned. This wasn't how things were supposed to play out.

I could feel the slosh of my pulse, and as I wrapped my hands around the butt of the weapon, the nervousness peaked and swelled into…something else. Something darker. I recognized that sharp clean jolt, red at the edges. Red like my nightmares, like kill or be killed. And in my dreams, I killed. I slashed and screamed and bit and...

I pushed out of the closet, unable to take the confinement a second longer.

The trainee stood in the door, fully turned out in riot gear, his eyes wide and bright behind the plastic visor. He switched his gun my way. "Hands up! Weapon down!"

My vision narrowed to the barrel of the weapon, pointed straight at me, and I remembered in a flash all of the other times I'd stared down the wrong end of a firearm. My hands shook, and my finger itched to squeeze the trigger, but I forced myself to place the gun on the counter, orange muzzle pointing at the wall.

I raised my hands to shoulder height. "I surrender."

The trainee came around the counter, rifle aimed at my heart, and the fight instinct sang in hot spiked surges. He tried to grab my arm, but I snatched it away. He cursed and popped two paintballs into my chest.

The thud against the vest hurt like hell at that close proximity, and I gasped, partly from pain and partly from astonishment. "I just surrendered, you moron!"

"You're down. So get down."

"Screw you."

"I said—"

"Touch me again, and I will rip your arm off!"

I heard the opening of the back door at the other end of the house, the boots, the hushed voices. The covert entry team. And I could feel the panic rising. I was trapped, again, with a man with a gun, again. And I remembered what I was supposed to do—breathe and ground—but suddenly all I wanted to do was get out of there before I lost it, and in my mind, losing it looked like kicking the trainee's kneecaps into jelly.

Behind him, I saw movement at the door. Not Trey. This man wore the same clothes but was shorter, with red hair. Garrity. I was surprised to see him—as the supervisor of this particular training, he was supposed to be evaluating, not participating. He stayed in the threshold, orange-tipped carbine rifle in hand.

The trainee was sharper than I expected, though, and he caught the motion too. He whirled around and aimed his weapon at Garrity, a satisfied smirk on his face. "Got you, sir. Nice try, sir."

Garrity pointed to the green splotches on my vest, the gun on the counter. "You shot an unarmed suspect."

The recruit had the decency to color red. "She was non-compliant, sir."

"Like hell. I watched the whole thing through her camera."


"There are no buts here. You had your orders. What were they?"

The recruit swallowed hard. "Post up outside, guard the secondary entry point. Sir."

"Right. Which you did not do. You waited for sixty seconds and then started clearing rooms, alone. I could ambush your team right now, and they wouldn't know what hit them because they think you've got the door."

The recruit clenched his teeth. He was wrong, and he knew it, and he blamed me. I could feel him wanting to shoot me again.

"And then you fire on an unarmed subject!" Garrity said. "How will your wife feel when she sees that on the news?"

The recruit straightened his spine. "Husband. Sir."

Garrity stared at him for two seconds. "Let me rephrase. How will it feel when your husband is visiting you in prison because you shot and killed an unarmed surrendering suspect with her goddamn hands in the air, and so help me, that's where I would send you if you pulled such a fuck-up on my watch."

Then all hell broke loose in the back room. A cacophony of voices, a scuffle, a volley of gunfire.

Garrity leaned backward slightly and stuck his head into the hallway "Seaver!"

"Yes, sir!"

"The count, please."

"Three down and one…make that four down, sir."

Garrity sighed. "They never look up." He returned his attention to the trainee. "And there goes the rest of your team. Y'all some sad ass police today. Now get outta here before I really lose my temper."

The trainee filed past Garrity, not even brushing shoulders, and Garrity focused his attention on me. Suddenly he wasn't Special Agent in Charge anymore. He was my friend, his eyes tight with concern.

He stepped closer. "Hey? You okay?"

I nodded, but my hands were trembling. Not from fear. From pure thwarted anger. I wanted to hurt somebody, preferably the somebody who'd shot me in the chest, and I wanted it so bad I couldn't stop shaking. Garrity knew the difference. He saw it clearly.

"Ride it out, Tai. Breathe it down." He folded his arms. "Whose idea was it to bring you here today, Trey's?"

I put my elbows to my knees and breathed, trying to get the blood back to my head. "Mine. I read it in one of those books my brother gave him. He said it worked for him. I thought it might work for me."

"Did it?"

I unclenched my fists. There were half-moon indentions where my nails had cut into my skin, and my vision was still red at the edges. "I don't think so."