Killing floor, p.5
I WAS WOKEN UP BY BRIGHT LIGHTS COMING ON. THE PRISON had no windows. Day and night were created by electricity. At seven o'clock the building was suddenly flooded with light. No dawn or soft twilight. Just circuit breakers thrown shut at seven.
The bright light did not make the cell look any better. The front wall was bars. Half would open outward on a hinge to form the door. The two stacked beds occupied just about half the width and most of the length. On the back wall were a steel sink and a steel toilet pan. The walls were masonry. Part poured concrete and part old bricks. All thickly covered with paint. The walls looked massively thick. Like a dungeon. Above my head was a low concrete ceiling. The cell didn't feel like a room bounded by walls, floor, ceiling. It felt like a solid block of masonry with a tiny living space grudgingly burrowed in.
Outside, the restless night mutter was replaced by the clatter of daytime. Everything was metal, brick, concrete. Noises were amplified and echoed around. It sounded like hell. Through the bars I could see nothing. Opposite our cell was a blank wall. Lying in bed I didn't have the angle to see down the row. I threw off the cover and found my shoes. Put them on and laced them up. Lay down again. Hubble was sitting on the bottom bunk. His tan boat shoes were planted on the concrete floor. I wondered if he'd sat like that all night or if he'd slept.
Next person I saw was a cleaner. He moved into view outside our bars. This was a very old guy with a broom. An old black man with a fringe of snow-white hair. Bent up with age. Fragile like a wizened old bird. His orange prison uniform was washed almost white. He must have been eighty. Must have been inside for sixty years. Maybe stole a chicken in the Depression. Still paying his debt to society.
He stabbed the broom randomly over the corridor. His spine forced his face parallel to the floor. He rolled his head like a swimmer to see from side to side. He caught sight of Hubble and me and stopped. Rested on his broom and shook his head. Gave a kind of reflective chuckle. Shook his head again. He was chuckling away. An appreciative, delighted chuckle. Like at long last, after all these years, he'd been granted the sight of a fabled thing. Like a unicorn or a mermaid. He kept trying to speak, raising his hand as if his point was going to require emphasis. But every time, he'd start up with the chuckling again and need to clutch the broom. I didn't hurry him. I could wait. I had all weekend. He had the rest of his life.
"Well, yes indeed. " He grinned. He had no teeth. "Well, yes indeed. "
I looked over at him.
"Well, yes what, Granddad?" I grinned back.
He was cackling away. This was going to take a while.
"Yes indeed," he said. Now he had the chuckling under control. "I've been in this joint since God's dog was a puppy, yes sir. Since Adam was a young boy. But here's something I ain't never seen. No sir, not in all those years. "
"What ain't you never seen, old man?" I asked him.
"Well," he said, "I been here all these years, and I ain't never seen anybody in that cell wearing clothes like yours, man. "
"You don't like my clothes?" I said. Surprised.
"I didn't say that, no sir, I didn't say I don't like your clothes," he said. "I like your clothes just fine. A very fine set of clothes, yes sir, yes indeed, very fine. "
"So what's the story?" I asked.
The old guy was cackling away to himself.
"The quality of the clothes ain't the issue," he said. "No sir, that ain't the issue at all. It's the fact you're wearing them, man, like not wearing the orange uniform. I never saw that before, and like I say, man, I been here since the earth cooled, since the dinosaurs said enough is enough. Now I seen everything, I really have, yes sir. "
"But guys on the holding floor don't wear the uniform," I said.
"Yes indeed, that sure is true," the old man said. "That's a fact, for sure. "
"The guards said so," I confirmed.
"They would say so," he agreed. "Because that's the rules, and the guards, they know the rules, yes sir, they know them because they make them. "
"So what's the issue, old man?" I said.
"Well, like I say, you're not wearing the orange suit," he said.
We were going around in circles here.
"But I don't have to wear it," I said.
He was amazed. The sharp bird eyes locked in on me.
"You don't?" he said. "Why's that, man? Tell me. "
"Because we don't wear it on the holding floor," I said. "You just agreed with that, right?"
There was a silence. He and I got the message simultaneously.
"You think this is the holding floor?" he asked me.
"Isn't this the holding floor?" I asked him at the same time.
The old guy paused a beat. Lifted his broom and crabbed back out of sight. Quickly as he could. Shouting incredulously as he went.
"This ain't the holding floor, man," he whooped. "Holding floor is the top floor. Floor six. This here is floor three. You're on floor three, man. This is lifers, man. This is categorized dangerous people, man. This ain't even general population. This is the worst, man. Yes, indeed, you boys are in the wrong place. You boys are in trouble, yes indeed. You gonna get visitors. They gonna check you boys out. Oh man, I'm out of here. "
EVALUATE. LONG EXPERIENCE HAD TAUGHT ME TO EVALUATE and assess. When the unexpected gets dumped on you, don't waste time. Don't figure out how or why it happened. Don't recriminate. Don't figure out whose fault it is. Don't work out how to avoid the same mistake next time. All of that you do later. If you survive. First of all you evaluate. Analyze the situation. Identify the downside. Assess the upside. Plan accordingly. Do all that and you give yourself a better chance of getting through to the other stuff later.
We were not in the holding pens on the sixth floor. Not where unconvicted prisoners should be. We were among dangerous lifers on the third. There was no upside. The downside was extensive. We were new boys on a convict floor. We would not survive without status. We had no status. We would be challenged. We would be made to embrace our position at the absolute bottom of the pecking order. We faced an unpleasant weekend. Potentially a lethal one.
I remembered an army guy, a deserter. Young guy, not a bad recruit, went AWOL because he got some nut religion. Got into trouble in Washington, demonstrating. Ended up thrown in jail, among bad guys like on this floor. Died on his first night. Anally raped. An estimated fifty times. And at the autopsy they found a pint of semen in his stomach. A new boy with no status. Right at the bottom of the pecking order. Available to all those above him.
Assess. I could call on some heavy training. And experience. Not intended for prison life, but it would help. I had gone through a lot of unpleasant education. Not just in the army. Stretching right back into childhood. Between grade school and high school military kids like me get to go to twenty, maybe thirty new schools. Some on bases, most in local neighborhoods. In some tough places. Philippines, Korea, Iceland, Germany, Scotland, Japan, Vietnam. All over the world. The first day at each new school, I was a new boy. With no status. Lots of first days. I quickly learned how to get status. In sandy hot schoolyards, in cold wet school-yards, my brother and I had slugged it out together, back to back. We had got status.
Then in the service itself, that brutality was refined. I was trained by experts. Guys who traced their own training back to World War Two, Korea, Vietnam. People who had survived things I had only read about in books. They taught me methods, details, skills. Most of all they taught me attitude. They taught me that inhibitions would kill me. Hit early, hit hard. Kill with the first blow. Get your retaliation in first. Cheat. The gentlemen who behaved decently weren't there to train anybody. They were already dead.
AT SEVEN THIRTY THERE WAS A RAGGED CLUNK ALONG THE row of cells. The time switch had unlocked the cages. Our bars sagged open an inch. Hubble sat motionless. Still silent. I had no plan. Best option would be to find a guard. Explain and get transferred. But
I could hear the grinding as the other inmates swung back their gates and latched them open. I could hear movement and shouted conversation as they strolled out to start another pointless day. I waited.
Not long to wait. From my tight angle on the bed, head away from the door, I saw our next-door neighbors stroll out. They merged with a small knot of men. They were all dressed the same. Orange prison uniform. Red bandannas tight over shaved heads. Huge black guys. Obviously bodybuilders. Several had torn the sleeves off their shirts. Suggesting that no available garment could contain their massive bulk. They may have been right. An impressive sight.
The nearest guy was wearing pale sunglasses. The sort which darken in the sun. Silver halide. The guy had probably last seen the sun in the seventies. May never see it again. So the shades were redundant, but they looked good. Like the muscles. Like the bandannas and the torn shirts. All image. I waited.
The guy with the sunglasses spotted us. His look of surprise quickly changed to excitement. He alerted the group's biggest guy by hitting his arm. The big man looked round. He looked blank. Then he grinned. I waited. The knot of men assembled outside our cell. They gazed in. The big guy pulled open our gate. The others passed it from hand to hand through its arc. They latched it open.
"Look what they sent us," the big guy said. "You know what they sent us?"
"What they sent us?" the sunglasses guy said.
"They sent us fresh meat," the big guy answered.
"They sure did, man," the sunglasses guy said. "Fresh meat. "
"Fresh meat for everybody," the big guy said.
He grinned. He looked around his gang and they all grinned back. Exchanged low fives. I waited. The big guy stepped half a pace into our cell. He was enormous. Maybe an inch or two shorter than me but probably twice as heavy. He filled the doorway. His dull eyes flicked over me, then Hubble.
"Yo, white boy, come here," he said. To Hubble.
I could sense Hubble's panic. He didn't move.
"Come here, white boy," the big guy repeated. Quietly.
Hubble stood up. Took half a pace toward the man at the door. The big guy was glaring with that rage glare that is supposed to chill you with its ferocity.
"This is Red Boy territory, man," the big guy said. Explaining the bandannas. "What's whitey doing in Red Boy territory?"
Hubble said nothing in reply.
"Residency tax, man," the big guy said. "Like they got in Florida hotels, man. You got to pay the tax. Give me your sweater, white boy. "
Hubble was rigid with fear.
"Give me your sweater, white boy," he said again. Quietly.
Hubble unwrapped his expensive white sweater and held it out. The big man took it and threw it behind him without looking.
"Give me the eyeglasses, white boy," he said.
Hubble flicked a despairing glance up at me. Took off his gold glasses. Held them out. The big man took them and dropped them to the floor. Crunched them under his shoe. Screwed his foot around. The glasses smashed and splintered. The big man scraped his foot back and flicked the wreckage backward into the corridor. The other guys all took turns stamping on them.
"Good boy," the big guy said. "You paid the tax. "
Hubble was trembling.
"Now come here, white boy," said his tormentor.
Hubble shuffled nearer.
"Closer, white boy," the big man said.
Hubble shuffled nearer. Until he was a foot away. He was shaking.
"On your knees, white boy," said the big guy.
"Unzip me, whitey," he said.
Hubble did nothing. Filled with panic.
"Unzip me, white boy," the big guy said again. "With your teeth. "
Hubble gave a gasp of fear and revulsion and jumped back. He scuttled backward to the rear of the cell. Tried to hide behind the john. He was practically hugging the pan.
Time to intervene. Not for Hubble. I felt nothing for him. But I had to intervene for myself. Hubble's abject performance would taint me. We would be seen as a pair. Hubble's surrender would disqualify us both. In the status game.
"Come back, white boy, don't you like me?" the big guy called to Hubble.
I took a long silent breath. Swung my feet over the side of the bunk and landed lightly in front of the big man. He stared at me. I stared back, calmly.
"You're in my house, fat boy," I said. "But I'm going to give you a choice. "
"Choice of what?" said the big guy. Blankly. Surprised.
"A choice of exit strategies, fat boy," I said.
"Say what?" he said.
"What I mean is this," I said. "You're going to leave. That's for sure. Your choice is about how you leave. Either you can walk out of here by yourself, or these other fat boys behind you are going to carry you out in a bucket. "
"Oh yeah?" he said.
"For sure," I said. "I'm going to count to three, OK, so you better choose real quick, right?"
He glared at me.
"One," I counted. No response.
"Two," I counted. No response.
Then I cheated. Instead of counting three I headbutted him full in the face. Came off the back foot with a thrust up the legs and whipped my head forward and smashed it into his nose. It was beautifully done. The forehead is a perfect arch in all planes and very strong. The skull at the front is very thick. I have a ridge up there like concrete. The human head is very heavy. All kinds of neck muscles and back muscles balance it. It's like getting hit in the face with a bowling ball. It's always a surprise. People expect punching or kicking. A headbutt is always unexpected. It comes out of the blue.
It must have caved his whole face in. I guess I pulped his nose and smashed both his cheekbones. Jarred his little brain around real good. His legs crumpled and he hit the floor like a puppet with the strings cut. Like an ox in the slaughterhouse. His skull cracked on the concrete floor.
I stared around the knot of men. They were busy reassessing my status.
"Who's next?" I said. "But this is like Vegas now, it's double or quits. This guy is going to the hospital, maybe six weeks in a metal mask. So the next guy gets twelve weeks in the hospital, you understand that? Couple of smashed elbows, right? So who's next?"
There was no reply. I pointed at the guy in sunglasses.
"Give me the sweater, fat boy," I said.
He bent and picked up the sweater. Passed it to me. Leaned over and held it out. Didn't want to get too close. I took the sweater and tossed it onto Hubble's bunk.
"Give me the eyeglasses," I said.
He bent and swept up the twisted gold wreckage. Handed it to me. I tossed it back at him.
"They're broken, fat boy," I said. "Give me yours. "
There was a long pause. He looked at me. I looked at him. Without blinking. He took off his sunglasses and handed them to me. I put them in my pocket.
"Now get this carcass out of here," I said.
The bunch of men in their orange uniforms and their red bandannas straightened out the slack limbs and dragged the big man away. I crawled back up into my bunk. I was shaking with adrenaline rush. My stomach was churning and I was panting. My circulation had just about shut down. I felt terrible. But not as bad as I would have
I DIDN'T EAT ANY BREAKFAST. NO APPETITE. I JUST LAY ON the bunk until I felt better. Hubble sat on his bed. He was rocking back and forward. He still hadn't spoken. After a while I slid to the floor. Washed at the sink. People were strolling up to the doorway and gazing in. Strolling away. The word had gotten around fast. The new guy in the cell at the end had sent a Red Boy to the hospital. Check it out. I was a celebrity.
Hubble stopped his rocking and looked at me. Opened his mouth and closed it again. Opened it for a second time.
"I can't take this," he said.
They were the first words I had heard him say since his assured banter on Finlay's speakerphone. His voice was low, but his statement was definite. Not a whine or a complaint, but a statement of fact. He couldn't take this. I looked over at him. Considered his statement for a long moment.
"So why are you here?" I asked him. "What are you doing?"
"I'm not doing anything," he said. Blankly.
"You confessed to something you didn't do," I said. "You asked for this. "
"No," said Hubble. "I did what I said. I did it and I told the detective. "
"Bullshit, Hubble," I said. "You weren't even there. You were at a party. The guy who drove you home is a policeman, for God's sake. You didn't do it, you know that, everybody knows that. Don't give me that shit. "
Hubble looked down at the floor. Thought for a moment.
"I can't explain it," he said. "I can't say anything about it. I just need to know what happens next. "
I looked at him again.
"What happens next?" I said. "You stay here until Monday morning, and then you go back to Margrave. Then I guess they'll let you go. "
"Will they?" he said. Like he was debating with himself.
"You weren't even there," I said again. "They know that. They might want to know why you confessed, when you didn't do anything. And they'll want to know why the guy had your phone number. "
"What if I can't tell them?" he said.
"Can't or won't?" I asked him.
"I can't tell them," he said. "I can't tell anybody anything. "
He looked away and shuddered. Very frightened.
"But I can't stay in here," he said. "I can't stand it. "
Hubble was a financial guy. They give out their phone numbers like confetti. Talking to anybody they meet about hedge funds or tax havens. Anything to transfer some guy's hard-earned dollars their way. But this phone number was printed on a scrap of torn computer paper. Not engraved on a business card. And hidden in a shoe, not stuffed in a wallet. And playing in the background like a rhythm section was the fear coming out of the guy.
"Why can't you tell anybody?" I asked him.
"Because I can't," he said. Wouldn't say anything more.
I was suddenly weary. Twenty-four hours ago I had jumped off a Greyhound at a cloverleaf and walked down a new road. Striding out happily through the warm morning rain. Avoiding people, avoiding involvement. No baggage, no hassle. Freedom. I didn't want it interrupted by Hubble, or by Finlay, or by some tall guy who got himself shot in his shaved head. I didn't want any part of it. I just wanted some peace and quiet and to go looking for Blind Blake. I wanted to find some eighty-year-old who might remember him from some bar. I should be talking to that old guy who swept up around the prison, not Hubble. Yuppie asshole.
He was thinking hard. I could see what Finlay had meant. I had never seen anybody think so visibly. His mouth was working soundlessly and he was fiddling with his fingers. Like he was checking off positives and negatives. Weighing things up. I watched him. I saw him make his decision. He turned and looked over at me.
"I need some advice," he said. "I've got a problem. "
I laughed at him.
"Well, what a surprise," I said. "I'd never have guessed. I thought you were here because you were bored with playing golf on the weekend. "
"I need help," he said.
"You've had all the help you're going to get," I said. "Without me, you'd be bent forward over your bed right now, with a line of big horny guys forming at the door. And so far you haven't exactly overwhelmed me with gratitude for that. "
He looked down for a moment. Nodded.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm very grateful. Believe me, I am. You saved my life. You took care of it. That's why you've got to tell me what to do. I'm being threatened. "
I let the revelation hang in the air for a moment.
"I know that," I said. "That's pretty obvious. "
"Well, not just me," he said. "My family as well. "
He was getting me involved. I looked at him. He started thinking again. His mouth was working. He was pulling on his fingers. Eyes flicking left and right. Like over here was a big pile of reasons, and over there was another big pile of reasons. Which pile was bigger?
"Have you got family?" he asked me.
"No," I said. What else could I say? My parents were both dead. I had a brother whom I never saw. So I had no family. No idea whether I wanted one, either. Maybe, maybe not.
"I've been married ten years," Hubble said. "Ten years last month. Had a big party. I've got two children. Boy, age nine, girl, age seven. Great wife, great kids. I love them like crazy. "
He meant it. I could see that. He lapsed into silence. Misting over as he thought about his family. Wondering how the hell he came to be in here without them. He wasn't the first guy to sit in this cell wondering that. And he wouldn't be the last.
"We've got a nice place," he said. "Out on Beckman Drive. Bought there five years ago. A lot of money, but it was worth it. You know Beckman?"
"No," I said again. He was afraid to get to the point. Pretty soon he'd be telling me about the wallpaper in the downstairs half bath. And how he planned to pay for his daughter's orthodonture. I let him talk. Prison conversation.
"Anyway," he said eventually. "It's all falling apart now. "
He sat there in his chinos and his polo shirt. He had picked up his white sweater and wrapped it around his shoulders again. Without his glasses he looked older, more vacant. People who wear glasses, without them they always look defocused, vulnerable. Out in the open. A layer removed. He looked like a tired old man. One leg was thrust forward. I could see the patterned sole of his shoe.
What did he call a threat? Some kind of exposure or embarrassment? Something that might blow away the perfect life he'd described on Beckman Drive? Maybe it was his wife who was involved in something. Maybe he was covering for her. Maybe she'd been having an affair with the tall dead guy. Maybe lots of things. Maybe anything. Maybe his family was threatened by disgrace, bankruptcy, stigma, cancellation of country club membership. I went around in circles. I didn't live in Hubble's world. I didn't share his frame of reference. I had seen him trembling and shaking with fear. But I had no idea how much it took to make a guy like that afraid. Or how little. When I first saw him at the station house yesterday he had looked upset and agitated. Since then he had been from time to time trembling, paralyzed, staring with fear. Sometimes resigned and apathetic. Clearly very afraid of something. I leaned on the cell wall and waited for him to tell me what.
"They're threatening us," he said again. "If I ever tell anybody what's going on, they said they'll break into our house. Round us all up. In my bedroom. They said they'll nail me to the wall and cut my balls off. Then they'll make my wife eat them. Then they'll cut our throats. They said they'll make our children watch and then they'll do things to them after we're dead that we'll never know about. "
by Lee Child / Literature & Fiction / Mystery & Thrillers have rating 4.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes