M.M. (it’s short for “Mo’ Money,” which his friends called him – far better than his birth name of Marvin, anyway) sits back on his thin prison bed in the dark and looks up at the top bunk. He’s new fish here in Cordell Maximum Security Penitentiary, and though he thinks he could probably take Rich Clay – the big-ass biker doing a dime for trafficking heroin, currently farting in his sleep in the top bunk – if he had to, he figures it’s best not to bother. Rich looks tough enough, but in their first day he hasn’t been mean. No sense in looking for trouble. Clay (“call me Clay when you gotta call me anythin'”) laid it out, straight and respectful, when M.M. entered the cell with his week’s worth of blues and fresh sheets.
“You got your bunk, I got my bunk, I’m not one for conversatin’ with niggers much, but I ain’t got anythin’ against you people pers’nally, don’t get me wrong, not Klan or shit like that. I just wanna be left alone. If you can do that, we’ll get along fine. Dig?” M.M. dug. So he sits on the bottom bunk, telling himself eventually he’ll get used to Clay’s farts, and thinking ahead.
M.M. is doing fifteen to twenty for manslaughter. It’s fair enough, he figures. He shot Li’l Bobby in the head, after all. Li’l Bobby had called down the thunder on Peso’s boys some three months beforehand, and although M.M. didn’t have any personal stake in whether Peso lived or died (really, Peso was kind of an asshole), he was on payroll – and so were Coyote (who pronounced it “Cuh-yoat”) and Stevie G., who were like his brothers. He’d known them since he was maybe five, and they’d grown up together, gone to school together, dropped out together, and Li’l Bobby’s boys had shot them dead and didn’t even get five-oh on them for the trouble, much less Li’l Bobby. So M.M. took care of business, and his lawyer pled him down to manslaughter because the D.A. at the end of the day just figured one more banger off the street was all they wanted and they’d gotten two (counting Li’l Bobby), so make it easy. And that’s why M.M is looking at prison until he’s forty-one.
At least he doesn’t have kids, right?
He’s come in prepared, of course. Near a thousand dollars stuffed up his ass in a Baggie, plus a C to the search guards before he went in to make sure he wasn’t searched too close. So he has money. It’s not a twenty-year supply of money (fifteen, he reminds himself again silently, don’t make waves and you’ll be out in fifteen, you’ll only be thirty-six, maybe you can get out even a few years earlier, maybe), but it’s there for emergencies. He doesn’t do drugs or gamble, so he doesn’t have much to spend it on. When he was outside he mostly played XBox for fun, but it’s not like you can buy an XBox in prison. The thousand is his stay-alive fund.
Mostly M.M. is thinking about the next fifteen years. He’s never been much of a reader, but he’s never had any trouble reading, really. XBox was just more fun. But you got to make the time pass somehow, and people mostly don’t get stabbed in the library (so he hears – he’s not entirely correct on this point, but in the broad strokes he’s right to think that the library is generally safer than the exercise yard). Mostly he’s thinking about what could happen if he gets his GED while he’s in here. Maybe even take some correspondence courses – sure, maybe nobody hires him when he gets out, but maybe they do, and what else does he have but time? Thirty-six (forty-one) is too old to be banging anyway.
Mostly he’s thinking about what happens if somebody tries to rape him. He’s not so much scared of the actual rape (he’s lying to himself, he’s terrified about it) but dealing with it, that’s the thing. He could shiv somebody if they tried it, but then say goodbye to fifteen and hello to twenty (or much more, even, if they tack assault or homicide onto his sentence, if he gets caught, and he assumes it’s more than likely he would). Is it better to just lie back and take it and look in the mirror the next morning? He’s not sure. He just doesn’t want to be in the position coming from one cell over, where somebody is whimpering “no, please” over and over again, under their breath. Clay doesn’t seem like a candidate to go that route, but you never know.
Much later than he would like, he closes his eyes.
The next morning, after breakfast, he sees his first prison murder. Exercise yard, of course. A pair of bangers (nobody he knows) walk up to this skinny-looking Italian and just do him quick – two stabs and walk on. Very clean, very quick. He’s impressed and horrified by them walking away like it was nothing. When he was done with Li’l Bobby he had to throw up after, he was so angry and scared. Maybe the bangers are vets at this sort of thing. He starts doing mental math in his head about social dynamics – are these bangers potential allies, and if so, does he benefit more by joining up or keeping his distance? He knows how gangs work in prison and he knows lone wolves get picked off, but gangs are also targets.
He wishes he knew more when he notices something – the Italian’s pinky ring. Mafioso, then? Or a wannabe? And then he sees something else – a silver cross on a chain. It was ripped off the guy’s neck when they killed him. He can see from here it’s real silver – he’s always had a good eye for jewelry and the like – and does a little more mental math. All of this goes through his head in maybe five seconds.
Then he’s walking, very quickly, over to the already-dead Italian, acting concerned and calling for a guard – and he sweeps the cross and chain up into his hand and then his pocket.
“Why would you do this? We don’t take in niggers.”
The man saying that is Donnie “Noose” Nucci. Old-school gangster, in for first-degree murder, probably did at least two dozen they could never pin on him. He’s in his fifties, hair and pencil-thin moustache going grey, not an ounce of fat on him. He’s in charge of the Mob inside Cordell, and he’s reading – or at least pretending to read – Of Mice and Men. M.M. saw the movie of it with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich and wonders if the book is any good. He liked the movie. In the Noose’s spare hand is the silver cross and chain. It’s taken M.M. a week to find out the lay of the land, find out how to approach him (and more importantly, find out all of this without anybody finding out he was finding out).
M.M. is quite sure the Noose could kill him twice over before M.M. could make a move, despite the three decades’ difference in age.
“Not looking to be taken in. I saw that it was real silver. That’s worth something. Coulda sold it, maybe, but figured it was worth more giving it back to you. Maybe he got family who want it.” Playing it humble. Best chance for a positive outcome.
The Noose snorts. “You want money or something for this?”
“No.” He has already decided that, although he wants the Noose to think M.M. respects him – which he does – he is not calling this man sir. Any chance of that ended the first time Noose called him a nigger. “I’m not looking to be owed anything for this, if you follow. I just wanna be sure in advance that you know where I stand.”
The Noose was looking at him keenly through that sentence, and continues the look silently for some time after. M.M. knows the gangster is trying to make him feel uncomfortable. It’s not working, and he looks back at Nucci – not insolently, just even and calm like an ocean (he has never seen an ocean). He knows he’s being sized up, and that’s fine by him. He already pled guilty. He has very little to hide.
Finally the Noose tosses him the cross back. “Tell you what. You can keep it. Probably shouldn’t wear it during the day, though. They’re kind of a calling card.” M.M. at that moment identifies the brief flash of light he saw when he first approached Nucci as a silver chain, mostly hidden beneath the mobster’s prison blues. “Call it a thank-you, if you like. A reward, even. It’s valuable.”
M.M. figures it at maybe a hundred, hundred-fifty tops, but he’s not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. “If you’re sure you wanna do that, then I’ll thank you in return.” A pause. “Can I ask why your friend got done?”
Noose shrugs. “We have a lot of enemies here. Everybody does, you included. Keep frosty.” He turns back to his book. The conversation is over. Nucci has not even once asked for his name. M.M. strongly suspects that Nucci thinks knowing his name is a waste of time, and that bothers him – not so much for the blow to his ego, but rather because it implies that Nucci thinks he’s not around for the long haul.
He sighs to himself. He’s going to need a weapon, looks like. And soon.
When he heads back to his cell when free time’s over, he sees that the cell next door is half-empty. When he went in yesterday he saw a big, burly black man and a small Latino who looked like a weasel. Now, there’s only the Latino, a nervous-looking motherfucker named Javier. Javier’s eyes bulge a bit as they chat (which means Javier talks a streak and M.M. occasionally asks a question). He’s pale for a Latino, M.M. thinks. Maybe he doesn’t get enough sun.
“Yeah, man, heart attack, it was a fuckin’ heart attack, that’s what it was, poor Cal. We weren’t fags for each other or nothin’, don’t get me wrong, I ain’t going fag for nobody (well, maybe Channing Tatum, but that motherfucker’s pretty like a girl, know what I mean, and you better believe if I had to go fag I’d be pitching, right?) but Cal was a good enough dude to bunk with. He just up and died, you know? Heart attack. He was only thirty-eight! Blessed be but there I go, know what I mean? Fuck, at least he went in his sleep. Maybe we can hope he was dreamin’ of pussy, right? Pussy out in the great wide open, yeah.”
But the noises M.M. wants to say, and then stops. If it had been Cal buttfucking Javier, that would make sense. But Javier’s denials aside, he’s not giving a vibe that speaks consensual partnership to M.M, and although the idea of this five-nothing squirt of Latino Peat raping big Cal is ludicrous to M.M., even if he thought it was possible (and he doesn’t – Javier’s too fucking tense) Javier’s not giving that vibe either.
Maybe Cal was talking in his sleep while he had the heart attack. Maybe he was trying to call for help and he couldn’t. M.M. doesn’t know a lot about heart attacks, but in movies when someone has a heart attack they always get real quiet and try to call out but they can’t. Maybe that’s what happened to Cal? It’s as good a theory as any, and it makes sense. He’s satisfied with it. He goes into his cell. Before he forgets, he cuts a small hole in his mattress at the head of his bed and stuffs the silver cross in it. It should be safe there, and if it isn’t with his money (stuffed into a fresh baggie and stuck to the underside of the sink, safely out of sight, with chewing gum), it’ll be an extra cash reserve if he needs it.
Later that night, trying to relearn being used to Clay’s sleep-farts (and starting to recognize that he will never, ever entirely get used to them), M.M. nearly sits bolt upright when he hears the scream. It’s Javier. That’s obvious to him. Javier is screaming bloody murder.
“YOU KEEP AWAY FROM ME! YOU KEEP AWAY! OH YOU -” and that’s the last intelligible words Javier screams. This isn’t to say that he stops screaming. He just keeps screaming, again and again, and he’s clearly in pain. At least M.M. thinks he is.
After a few seconds other voices come from down the cell block. Nothing terribly sympathetic. “SHUT THE FUCK UP, SPIC, WE’RE TRYNNA SLEEP” is about as sympathetic as it gets. “TELL YOUR MOM NOT TO BITE DOWN WHEN SHE SUCKS YOUR COCK, I BET THAT’S THE PROBLEM” is more elaborate. “GRIN AND BEAR IT, FUCK” is a fairly common sentiment. “OOOH IDDUMS HAVIN A NIGHTMARE” is screamed by one high-pitched voice who seems gleeful to be screaming it. And then they all start calling for the guards because they all want to sleep.
Most of these cons don’t know that Javier was in there alone. M.M. does; they dragged Cal’s body out this morning and Javier has no new bunkmate yet, not the same day – even prisons aren’t that crowded. Which means the guards must’ve gotten bribed to let somebody in there. He’s sure he heard the sounds of a fight in there while Javier was screaming. Bad scene, and it just reinforces the need for a weapon.
Eventually Javier’s screams dwindle down to nothing, and he’s silent. Either beaten unconscious or dead. Either way, there’s nothing more M.M. can do. Clay’s already snoring again, having only woken up briefly to yell for a guard to come like everyone else. M.M. settles down into bed and eventually drifts off, but as he does he thinks to himself, while he’s almost falling asleep – I’m not hearing any guards coming.
The next morning, M.M. wakes up early. He wants to know what’s happened to Javier before he has breakfast and goes on work detail. Partially it’s concern for Javier, who is one of the few people so far in Cordell that he knows by name. Partially it’s because he wants to know what happened, if it affects him. And of course, partially it’s because he’s been here a week now and prison routine is boring as fuck and anything that stimulates your mind is welcome, particularly if it’s something happening to other people rather than you.
He’s already got a peeking-mirror built so he can look out of his cell, and that is how he comes to see Javier being wheeled out of there on a stretcher. The little man is paler, even, than he was. And not breathing. And – and this is most curious – not marked. There is not so much as a scratch on the man who, last night, screamed like he was being set on fire.
Nobody else is paying attention to this, M.M. realizes as he looks around the cells opposite – they’re shooting the shit, paying up owed smokes and Honey Buns from late-night gambling (competitive Twenty Questions is a popular way to kill time after lights out, although you have to write down your answer first so there’s no disagreement about lying). This is prison. You watch your own ass and Javier dying is Javier’s problem, not anybody else’s. M.M. knows he should adopt that philosophy already – and in truth he mostly has, because his concern about Javier’s death is more, if he was being honest, sort of a case study than any interest in Javier’s welfare. This little Latino dude is dead and he died badly. How do I prevent that from happening to me? Because that’s the real bottom line here. M.M. doesn’t wish anybody bad – he used all that up on Li’l Bobby – but this is prison, and you don’t get by in prison by playing nice.
He’s weighing options in his mind now. (Although M.M. would not recognize this without being told, he was always far and away the most intelligent of his boys, and in a few years probably would have been able to replace Peso and do the job better than Peso ever did.) No marks on Javier that he could easily see, but he can think of a few ways they could kill him. Strangling, maybe. He didn’t get a good look at Javier’s neck. Or maybe they broke his neck, and then twisted it back into place? Is that possible? He thinks he saw it on TV once, but that’s TV, that doesn’t count nohow.
And he’s also wondering if cons did it, or guards. Guards would have to let cons in anyway, so guards were involved somehow. But why would guards want to kill Javier? Cons make more sense, but it’s also more complicated – he figures guards gotta let the cons out, escort them there, and then wait around in the cell for the cons to kill Javier? The more he thinks about it, the more he thinks it had to be a guards-only job. Cons might have arranged it, sure – he can’t think of a single reason offhand, but he didn’t know Javier that well except that the man would run his mouth like fucking crazy, and that can get a man in trouble real easy.
But there’s still too many questions, and worse, questions he can’t easily answer without raising questions.
A couple weeks later, on work detail, he’s hefting laundry into the industrial washing machine when the Noose, flanked by two big Italians, walks up to him. Nucci is important enough and connected enough that he doesn’t ever really have to do work detail, so the fact that he’s here is not good. M.M. immediately stuffs his last handful of sheets into the washer and turns to face them.
“Hey. How can I help you?”
“What makes you think I want your help?” The Noose’s voice is cool. It’s obviously a test.
“You ain’t down here for no ambience, I don’t think.”
“Good one.” Nucci doesn’t smile. “I actually wanted to pick your brain for a bit. About that thing with Espina.”
“The little Spic who fucking keeled over in the cell next to you. I know you knew him, Ace. Don’t bullshit me.”
“Ain’t bullshitting.” M.M. lifts another load of sheets into the washer so guards don’t give him shit for slacking. “Didn’t know his last name offhand. His first name was Javier. If in full he’s Javier Espina, sure thing.”
The response earns a noncommittal shrug. “Fair enough. What did you know about our boy Javier and what happened to him?”
“Not much. He didn’t give no sign that he was in the shit, if that’s what you’re asking. Last conversation we had was about his bunkmate havin’ a heart attack. In terms of him going down? I think guards did it. Dunno why or who paid ’em.” That earns a glittering stare from the Noose and a request for a brief explanation, which M.M. provides. At the end of it, the mobster nods, satisfied, and without a further word he turns away and leaves.
M.M. knows when he’s been pumped for information, but Nucci didn’t ask follow-up questions – that means he got everything he needed in the brief talk. Which means, probably, that Nucci knew it already. This wasn’t a trying-to-find-shit-out talk. This was a tell-me-my-suspicions-are-correct talk. Which is probably more dangerous, because if Nucci knows something and M.M. is on the radar in some way, that means he can be set up.
He needs to know what’s going on, and quickly. It takes a great deal of self-control not to reach down to the shiv in his pocket (a spoon with a sharpened handle, which cost him fifty dollars) and touch it just for the sake of comfort.
Two nights later M.M. wakes up. He was having a nightmare where Stevie B and Coyote were driving with him, Timbaland blaring out the speakers. He turned to look at some pretty girls, but when he turned back to tell his boys about them, they were looking at him, bullet holes riddling their faces. Coyote had three, one in the forehead and one in each cheek, and his left eye was exploded. Stevie B’s jaw was hanging loose, torn away from his face, one end dangling off. Coyote had said, air whistling through his cheek-holes as he spoke, that M.M. hadn’t done enough, what about their mamas, who was going to look after their mamas, and they reached for him, and that was when M.M.’s eyes popped open.
He always had a fast reaction time – that was in part how he dropped in time to avoid the initial driveby that popped Coyote, how he rolled away from that Honda he and Stevie had ducked behind in time to avoid the followup of Li’l Bobby’s thugs running around the car to spray Stevie and three other of Peso’s boys with lead – and it is this reaction time that saves his life now, because before he can exhale in panic from his nightmare (part of him still thinking that it made no sense, both Coyote and Stevie’s mamas were dead – much later on he would realize he was conflating survivor’s guilt with his guilt that he would not be around to support his mother and his two little sisters, but this was no comfort to him now) he sees two guards standing right next to his bunk.
They’re not here for him. That’s obvious. They’re here for Clay. Clay is making tiny distressed sounds, but other than that, nothing, not even the sound of breath. As he notices that, he realizes he is holding his breath, and so begins exhaling slowly, trying to mimic the sounds of sleep. He doesn’t know yet why he is so terrified, but he is.
Finally, the guards step back a bit. M.M. does not dare move. Whatever their reason for being here, it’s definitely not legit, and he cannot afford to be a witness. He still has fourteen years and a little more than eleven months. Getting short, he suddenly thinks, his sense of humour asserting itself at the oddest time. And so he lies, silent and still, and he waits and he waits, and he knows he’s not breathing enough air to stay properly awake, he remembers from somewhere that you breathe less when you sleep and that you make yourself can go to sleep if you breathe slow enough. But he has to stay awake. He has to stay awake, and it is fear keeping him alert even as he gets less and less oxygen.
One guard breaks the silence. “Had enough?”
“Yeah. We got to get another riot going sometime, though. That was the best. Infirmary was full up for weeks.”
“We can’t do those too often. We had one only nine months ago, remember? More than one every couple years is pushing it.”
“I just hate coming down here. You do too.”
“Better than a kick in the ass, my friend. Besides, this happy asshole should do for at least another night. Maybe two. He’s been going a week now. Always like it when we get a big boy.”
“True enough. Come on, let’s get the fuck out of here.” And they leave. The cell door slides shut behind them. M.M. wants to exhale sharply, he wants to breathe hard so badly he’s almost seeing stars – but he makes himself wait another two minutes, counting one Mississippi two Mississippi until he gets to one hundred and twenty Mississippis, and only then does he gasp for the air his body needs, he breathes so hard he almost chokes on air and he didn’t even think that was possible.
He breathes hard and makes himself wait another ten minutes before very, very cautiously getting out of his bunk.
Clay looks fine. He looks like he’s sleeping like the dead, sure – no, not like the dead, just sleeping – but his chest is rising and falling like you’d expect and there’s not a mark on him, not anywhere. M.M. wants to poke him and wake him up, and damn the consequences, but settles for whispering at him.
“Clay? You hear that, man?”
No response. Clay doesn’t even shift in his sleep or mutter a mumbled “fuck off.” That man is out cold. So M.M. lies back down and tries breathing slowly to force himself back to sleep. It doesn’t work this time. He can’t make himself do it. And indeed, he doesn’t sleep for another few hours, until he’s too tired and part of his brain mercifully says “look, we need at least another few hours if we’re gonna be any good tomorrow, okay?” and he shuts down.
The next morning – with Clay complaining, as he wakes, that he wishes they had the option for an extra-large breakfast every once in a while – M.M. goes in search of the Noose, and once again finds him in the library, as he suspected he would. This time Nucci is reading something by Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby. The Noose nods at him when he approaches. He doesn’t look surprised.
“You know what? Growin’ up, I thought all these dead writers were just shit, but turns out they’re really good. Not easy to read, but in here you got the time to put to it. You should read these books. Improve your mind, learn that all the shit you thought was new is in fact just the same old shit these guys invented. Not that I’m sayin’ you’re dumb. Just sayin’ there’s always another step up you can take, if you get my gist.” Nucci closes the book. “So whaddya want, Lincoln?”
“Nobody who ain’t official calls me by my last name, Mr. Nucci. You can call me M.M., if you like.” He sits down at Nucci’s table. “Do you know what the fuck is going on here?”
That gets a smile. Dark, but not mean. Not too mean, anyway. This is prison, after all. “Finally, he asks. I figured you’d come sooner. But you’re a patient one, aincha? You want to crack the code for yourself. I get that. Your bunkie’s looking kinda sick lately, ain’t he?” If the Noose realizes that would be a non-sequitur under other circumstances – but obviously not here – he doesn’t show it. “And here you are feelin’ around in the dark, lookin’ for the proverbial light switch, I suppose.”
“You could say that.” He keeps his voice even, but he’s pissed. Nucci’s playing with him now? What the fuck?
“I’ll be blunt with you, kid. I can help you, maybe, a bit. But not now. Frankly, it’s hard for me to help you at all, mostly because of you being a nigger. It’s not done, capisce?” He scratches at his pencil-thin moustache. “But if you play your cards right, maybe I can help you a little. Tomorrow or the day after. Don’t get me wrong, we ain’t galpals all of a sudden. The Antones want me to keep their boys solid in here and I do it, and it means I get to fuck my wife on conjugal once a month despite the double life I’m doin’, and that’s my priority. But… tomorrow or the day after, yeah.”
“Tomorrow or the day after? What, you busy or something? What kind of bullshit test is this, man?” His voice rises – only a little. He’s upset, but he needs to control it. Just enough to let him know how serious this is without coming off all drama.
If Nucci is offended at all, he doesn’t show it. “The kind you gotta pass.”
That night, he doesn’t sleep. When he hears the footsteps approach – he thinks it’s at about two-thirty in the morning – he slows his breath again. Closes his eyes – it’s almost impossible for him to do, but he does it. Hears the cell door slide open. Hears the two pairs of footsteps. Hears them briefly talk about who goes first this time. Then there is silence, and then the tiny, almost inaudible whimpers from Clay. It’s beginning again, he thinks, and he opens his eyes.
One of the guards is leaning against the bunk, his head level with the top bunk in fact, and looking right at him. His nameplate says GABRIEL GELLER.
“Well, what do you know.” The guard speaks very quietly, but he’s smiling a bit. It’s not a nice smile at all. He glances upward. “See, Will – I thought I heard him start breathing fast last night after we left. And you thought I was just imagining it. Point for me.” He looks back at M.M., who is inching backwards, sitting up a bit in his bunk, trying to create distance from the guard even though he doesn’t quite know why yet. “So. You’re probably wondering what a couple of guards are doing here in your bunk late at night, and what we’re doing with your bunkmate. I might tell you, but first you have to tell me what you know.” His tone is friendlier than his eyes are. M.M. knows this is a routine – this guard has had to give this speech before. They’ve been caught before. But clearly, they have left no witnesses.
His shiv is in his pants pocket and his pants are at the foot of the bed and the guard is not quite between him and his pants – but he also knows he will never make it. He is sure of that. “I know you went into Javier’s bunk before this.”
“Very good. What else?”
“I don’t think cons paid you to do it.”
“Sharp! No, really, I’m not saying that to mock you. Most cons in your position, they think the world revolves around their little jailhouse conspiracies. But it doesn’t. You’ve got an admirable sense of perspective.” Smiling again, a wide smile, and it looks to M.M. to be a hungry one. This guard is looking at M.M. like he’s a rib-eye steak with gravy.
That’s when M.M. clicks it.
He sits up a little more. “Thank you, sir.” No compunction about calling Guard Geller “sir,” no. He needs time. “I also suspect that you killed both Javier and Cal. And, if I’m being truthful, probably lots of other cons besides.”
“More than you can count. Say, Will -this guy’s reeeeeeal sharp.” Geller begins leaning further down. “You almost done there, by the way?” M.M. isn’t sure if he’s talking to the other guard or to M.M. when he asks that question, but he doesn’t care. He’s started inching his hand down into the hole in his mattress. He only needs a few seconds more. Just a few seconds.
“If that question was directed to me, then all I got to say otherwise is one thing.”
“Mmmhmmm.” Geller clearly doesn’t care to talk any more, and that is when M.M., smooth as silk, pulls the cross out of his mattress and holds it in front of him.
“How old are you, anyway?”
Geller’s reaction surprises M.M. – he laughs, quietly, under his breath. “Oh, that’s good, that’s very good. Will, I told you, this guy is good! But -” and a note of menace enters Geller’s voice now – “what makes you think that’s going to work?”
M.M. shrugs, quite aware that he has placed all his chips on slightly more than one ounce of silver. “Hope, I guess.”
“Very Shawshank of you. Oh, don’t be like that. Yes, it works. I’m not going to recoil hissing in agony or anything, but… yes, it works. Congratulations. How did you get the wops to give you one of those?” As Geller speaks, his canines extend ever so slightly. “Don’t mind the teeth, by the way. It’s just nice to stretch them every once in a while – speaking of which, Will? You done yet?”
The other guard (WILLIAM TUCHMAN) looks down, his mouth bloody. Not his blood, of course. “Yeah, there’s still some left. Go finish up.” The two guards exchange positions. Guard Tuchman, rather than lean on the bunk, instead opts to sit on the tiny metal chair opposite the bunk. He’s not smiling. He clearly doesn’t think this is funny. “I believe Gabe asked you a question, fish.”
“Found it lying around, is all.”
“I don’t believe you, but I suppose I can’t take it as contraband.” A shrug. “Nucci and his boys don’t give those out, so – must’ve been when we hired those Bloods to knife Salvatore. Right?”
“I suppose.” He had never learned the Italian’s name. There didn’t seem to be much point.
“Fucking Catholics… Okay. So let me tell you how it’s going to go.” Tuchman leans forward a bit. “You’re a dead man. We’ll get you eventually. Not tonight, of course. But you’re in here, what, ten years?” (M.M. doesn’t bother correcting him.) “Sooner or later, we will get you. Nobody will care. That’s the beauty of this setup. Nobody gives a shit about you. You’re a rabid dog so far as they’re concerned. Nobody gives a damn about what happens to cons in jail. Hell, they actively want bad things to happen to you. We’re working with society, see. And even your fellow cons don’t care, because they’re all focused on Number One.”
Tuchman starts wiping blood off his chin and licking it down as he speaks. “We’ve been doing this a very, very long time. We built this prison. Well, helped build it, anyway. We can’t all be aristocrats living in castles, after all. Some of us have to work for a living.” That prompts the ghost of a smile from him. “We’ve got safety spots and hidey-holes all over this place. We work the night shift. Most times, we just work over whoever’s in the infirmary. And if it’s empty? Well, we go after one of you. You don’t have weapons – not anything that can hurt us, anyway. It’s perfect.”
M.M. nodded. “Not entirely perfect. Looks like the Noose -”
“The Noose is a dead man. All the wops are dead men walking. They think the crucifix protects them, but Salvatore shows that we can get at them – and you – in other ways. Often we don’t even need to do that.” Tuchman’s voice grows even more serious. “You’ve got a choice here, Lincoln. You can die easy or you can die bad. If you want it quick, clean and painless, we can do that. You won’t feel a thing. Speaking from experience, it’s honestly pretty pleasant. Or… well. you saw Salvatore. And that was the nicest that gets. We can be worse.” Pause. “Much worse.”
M.M. is silent for a long time. When he starts to open his mouth, Tuchman shakes his head. “Not tonight. Sleep on it. No, really, sleep on it. Nucci or someone will tell you anyway – wearing that thing will keep us off you. I’m being civil here because I want you to have a choice, and I hope you’ll make the smart one. Because you have to die, Lincoln. That’s how it goes.” He stood up. “You done, Gabe?”
Geller stands back from the bunk, wiping his mouth. “Yeah. Oh, hey, kid, don’t worry about, you know, fatso here coming back. He won’t. We don’t need an extra mouth to feed, right?”
The guards withdraw from the cell – walking backwards, M.M. noted. As they close the cell door behind them, Tuchman’s gaze never leaves M.M. – and specifically, M.M. is sure, his throat. After a couple of seconds, the guard speaks once more.
“We’ll come by tomorrow night. You can let us know then. If you like, we’ll even do you a last meal. Whatever you like. Seems only fair. We all gotta eat, right?”
Long after Geller and Tuchman are gone, M.M. lies back in his bunk, still holding the cross even though it was now hanging around his neck, not noticing the lack of Clay’s sleep-farts or even the fact that Clay is now a dead body. In his head, he’s doing math – not metaphorically, but literally.
Fifteen years. Figuring they don’t manage to get me to do something to extend that, like have to defend myself from a shivving and kill somebody. Fifteen years is three hundred and sixty-five days every year, plus three leap years adds three days.
That’s five thousand, seven hundred and forty-eight days. So far I’ve done twenty-nine. So that leaves five thousand, seven hundred and nineteen days… but really it’s five thousand seven hundred and forty-eight nights. The days are easy time, even though the guards will probably be hiring muscle to off him on a regular basis. It’ll be the nights that’ll be hard, lying there, waiting to see how they finally decide to kill him. They’ve got guns. If they got desperate – and he thinks they will, towards the end, if they haven’t managed to kill him yet – they could just shoot him in his cell. Crosses don’t stop bullets.
M.M starts to cry.