“Shaping up to be a hot one, right?” This question came from a large black man curling a dumbbell in each hand. His shaved head was glistening with sweat.
“Seems that way, Teddy,” responded a smaller guy. “What’d you think, Duke?”
Kevin Markinson placed the barbell he was lifting onto the supports and sat up on the bench, slipping his wedding ring onto his finger. “It’s July, what’d you expect?”
“This far north though,” the kid persisted. “How hot can it get?”
He snorted. “You don’t want to know.”
All three of them turned when a scuffle started on the far side of the yard.
“What’s going down?” Kevin asked the two in general, not directing it to either of the men with him.
“None of our business, old man,” responded Teddy. “Six years, you haven’t learned that yet?”
“You know what it’s about?”
Kevin glanced up at the corrections officers in the three towers, none of whom showed any interest in what was going on down in the yard. He got to his feet to watch, looking for any involvement by the screws, but there wasn’t any sign of that. The disturbance didn’t last long anyway, whatever it was. He went back to the bench, removed his ring again and lay flat on his back. “Joey, you wanna spot me?”
“Sure thing, Duke.” The little guy ran to the bench and stood, one hand on the end of the barbell, while Kevin lifted the weight, counting aloud as he went.
“75 pounds, old man? You trying to hurt yourself?” Teddy asked.
Kevin offered an obscenity.
Teddy laughed, and continued curling 75 pounds on each dumbbell.
When Kevin found his way back to his cell at the end of the day there was a young man sitting on a cot in the middle of the little room. Kevin blinked and looked up at the man lying on the top bunk.
“You have any idea what this is about, Robbie?”
Robbie rolled on his side and leaned over the edge of the narrow bunk. “They say the place is crowded, Duke, that’s all I heard. They stuck the new guy in here.” He rubbed his shaved head and grinned, showing off his missing front teeth.
The new guy was fairly light-skinned with dark hair cut close in the typical new guy style. Maybe 20 years old, with a brand new black eye. Kevin didn’t like the way they kept throwing him youngsters. Robbie had been sharing Kevin’s cell for six months now, and was just the latest in a whole line of baby-faced kids. He was pretty sure the staff thought he’d keep them in line, but this kid didn’t look like he needed anyone to keep him in line. He looked scared.
“What’s your name?” Kevin stayed on his feet while he asked.
“You don’t look like a Miguel,” snorted Robbie.
“Shut up Robbie,” Kevin said. He directed another question to the kid. “What’re you in for?”
Miguel looked up now, his dark eyes showing defiance, the fear gone for a moment. “I killed a man in a robbery.”
“Did you really?”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty years old and you’ve already screwed up your whole life.”
“Shut up Robbie.” Kevin glared at him, then spoke to Miguel again. “And they sent you up here, to little Siberia. A million miles from anywhere.”
Miguel looked around, as though scanning for the nearest exit.
“You know who this is, little boy?” asked Robbie, leaning down even further, almost to eye level now.
Miguel looked from Robbie to Kevin and shook his head.
“Big man here. Duke used to kill people for the CIA, didn’t you Duke?”
“Shut up Robbie.”
“So why’re you in here?” asked Miguel, his eyes wide.
“Some punk set him up, ain’t that right Duke?” Robbie rolled back onto his back and cackled at the ceiling.
“Shut up Robbie.”
“How many did you kill, old man?” Robbie was giggling.
Kevin stepped over the cot and leaned into Robbie’s face. “I’m willing to add to the count right now if I have to. Get it?”
Robbie laughed louder. “Silly old man. You don’t have the nerve.”
Kevin laid a hand on Robbie’s neck, right on the pulse. “All I have to do is squeeze.”
“Yeah, but you won’t. You’ve gotten soft, listening to the boss, following orders. You don’t have it in you anymore. I heard that you used to break out all the time, that there wasn’t a prison that could hold you. They sent you up here and look at you now, babysitting the new meat. The boss actually trusts you.”
Kevin raised an eyebrow. “Have I lost your respect, Robbie? What do I need to do to get it back, go after a cop? Cause problems for the boss? Get myself hurt?” He turned away. “It’s not worth it.” He knew what the rumors were. He’d been in the warden’s office way more times than anyone had any right to be there, but he also knew that the rumors were way off.
“Did you really kill people for the CIA?” Miguel asked.
Kevin sat on the stool in front of his desk. “If I did, do you think I could talk about it?” He studied the books lined up on the metal shelf. He’d spent the last six years collecting these, always first in line for donated books from local libraries, snatching the discards from the prison library as soon as they were available. He knew he was testing the rules by accumulating them, but so far nobody had moved to take them away from him.
Miguel finally noticed what Kevin was staring at. “What’s with all the books?”
“Some people actually know how to read,” Kevin muttered.
The whistle announcing lights out in five minutes sounded, and the lights themselves blinked once, but stayed on.
“What, they frying somebody?” Robbie asked.
“They still do that?” Miguel responded.
“He’s messing with you, Miguel. They haven’t fried anybody here since 1914.” Kevin got to his feet, pushed his canvas shoes off with his toes, dropped the green pants to the floor, and pulled the green tee-shirt off over his head, all in one motion.
“You were here then, weren’t you Duke?” asked Robbie.
Kevin ignored him as he picked up his clothes and draped them over the foot rail of the lower bunk. Then he closed his eyes and started stretching, reaching, moving slowly through his Tai Chi workout.
“Don’t mind him,” Robbie said, twirling his finger next to his ear. “He’s nuts.”
Kevin resisted the impulse to tell Robbie to shut up. Instead, he worked on his breathing, slowing his pulse, relaxing. He shook each arm out, right down to the long fingers, then climbed into the bottom bunk and lay flat on his back, staring at the springs sagging under Robbie’s weight, waiting for something to happen.
Miguel was admiring Kevin’s vegetable plants, bent over, studying the green pods while Kevin pulled weeds.
“These are peas?”
“Yeah.” Peas were the only thing ripe up here, even this far into the summer.
“But they look like beans.”
“The peas are inside.”
“Oh. So how come you own this spot?” He waved his arms to indicate the small plot of land that Kevin was tending.
“It’s my court. I pay a lease on it. Only prison in the state that does this. Might be the only one in the country.” Kevin straightened up. “See that guy over there? He’s got a way to cook in his court.”
It was at this moment that Kevin spotted Jesus Montenga.
“Hey kid. Watchyou doing here?”
Kevin stepped forward. “Leave him alone, Mr. Montenga.”
“Get lost, old man. This is none of your business.”
“You’re making it my business.”
“What, cause the kid was standing next to you? Walk away.”
“Can’t. You’re on my property. You know how it works. This is my court.” Kevin figured this had something to do with gangs, Miguel was from the wrong one or some such nonsense. Kevin had no tolerance for gangs. He usually believed in letting people alone, but he was not willing to stand by and watch his new roommate get knifed in the yard, especially not here, in his garden.
Jesus Montenga turned his dark eyes on Kevin. “Get lost, old man. Less you end up like he’s gonna end up.”
Kevin evaluated Montenga. He was short, but muscled. Looked to be about 25, 26 years old. He’d been here almost as long as Kevin had, and fancied himself the boss. Montenga outweighed him, but Kevin thought he was probably not as smart. Kevin let his eyes drift away from the younger man to check the towers. The COs were looking bored, but watching. That was good. It wouldn’t go too far. He knew those guys wouldn’t cut him a break, but they probably wouldn’t let him get killed, either. That would mean too much extra paperwork.
Montenga’s gang was closing in now, four other guys, all dark-skinned like he was, all younger than he was, all probably armed, like he almost certainly was. Kevin was not armed, he knew better. He really was trying to get along in here, trying after so many years to just serve his sentence and get out in one piece.
“Look, I don’t want no trouble, man.” Miguel backed into Kevin as he retreated from the group. “I just came up here to say hello, that’s all. I didn’t know about no rules.”
“You’re stepping on my pea plants, Mr. Montenga. You need to remove yourself from my property.” Kevin lifted his eyes to the closest tower once more and saw the corrections officer up there talking into his radio.
“I don’t care about your stupid plants.”
“We’re both going to walk out of this, understand?” Kevin directed this to both Jesus and Miguel, although he wasn’t looking at either of them.
“I’m sick of you thinking you run this place, old man.” Jesus stepped forward, ground another plant deliberately under his foot and raised a shiv that had started life as a toothbrush, pressing the sharpened edge against Kevin’s throat.
Kevin wanted to lash out, wanted to sidestep and bring a fist down into the back of the kid’s neck, but he kept his eyes on the tower. How far were they going to let it go?
“Do it,” he whispered. “Go ahead and stick me.”
Jesus stepped back, his eyes clouding with confusion. Kevin took that moment to step sideways, raising his right arm to block and grabbing Miguel with his left at the same time. When Jesus swept with the homemade knife, he caught Kevin across the back of his right arm, just above the elbow. Miguel was not as fortunate. One of Jesus’s pals stuck him in the chest, and he doubled over. As Jesus and his crew slithered off, Kevin dropped beside Miguel, eyes still on the tower. The siren finally went off as he pressed his bare hands against the bloody wound at the bottom of Miguel’s chest. Every other prisoner in the yard dropped to the ground on their faces, hands looped behind their heads, while Kevin remained bent over the young man, who was starting to lose consciousness.
“Get down on the ground.”
Kevin heard the order barked through the loudspeaker, but he ignored it.
“Prisoners on the ground, face down.”
“Yeah, sure,” muttered Kevin as he maintained direct pressure on the wound, watching the blood ooze around his fingers. At least it wasn’t spurting. His arm was throbbing, and he could feel blood running down it, but he wasn’t going to let up on the job he was doing. He heard the booted footsteps before he saw them, the special operations team coming into the yard in their face masks and body armor.
“Get down on the ground.”
“This man is bleeding, you idiot. If I remove my hand, he will bleed to death.” Kevin lifted his eyes now to see the end of a short barreled shotgun. A shotgun. In the yard. His vision was getting fuzzy. That wasn’t right. Maybe he was bleeding harder than he thought. Or maybe they had used gas, but he couldn’t smell any gas. He was so focused on the corrections officer with the gun that he didn’t notice the one with the club.
“On your face, asshole.” This CO brought his club down across the back of Kevin’s neck and he fell forward onto Miguel’s chest.
He came up spitting blood as yet another booted officer kicked him off the kid, and he could actually feel the blood flow increase as his hands came away from the wound. He could hear somebody talking about medical attention, but the voices were fading. He didn’t understand that. He wasn’t hurt that bad, was he? The CO that had kicked him onto the ground was standing over him now. Kevin looked up into the man’s face. He was a seasoned cop, looked nearly as old as Kevin himself. He almost looked scared, but he was barking more orders.
“On your face, roll over onto your face and lock your hands behind your fucking head.”
Kevin looked at Miguel, ignoring the CO for the moment. The blood was spurting now, bright red. Arterial. Kevin reached for the wound, wanting to stop that bleeding. Then somebody whacked him on the side of the head with a club and he passed out.
When Kevin came to, he figured was in the hospital ward. He opened his eyes and shuddered. His arm hurt, his head hurt, he felt like he was going to throw up and there was not another human being in sight.
In a minute though, as he licked his cracked lips and considered trying to reach the call button, the big black man, Teddy, walked over.
“Hey old man, you’re awake.”
“I’m going to be sick.” It came out in a hoarse whisper.
“Not on me you’re not.” Teddy reached for a silver pan and Kevin leaned to the left and vomited until there was nothing left in his stomach.
He lay back on the pillow, drenched in sweat, and studied his surroundings. His right arm was bandaged. There was an IV dripping into the back of his right hand. The bed was completely surrounded by closed curtains, which explained why he hadn’t been able to see anyone.
“What you want to be a hero for, Duke?”
“I don’t. I didn’t want to be a hero. I was just in the wrong place.”
“You saved that kid’s life. He nearly bled out, but they patched him up. He’ll live.”
“What are you doing in here, Teddy?”
“I work here.”
“Yeah. I’m a nursing assistant. It’s a good job.” Teddy grinned. “Listen, I’m supposed to let the nurse know you’re awake.”
The nurse turned out to be a big white man, well into his fifties. He was carrying a clipboard and making clicking noises with his tongue. “Mr. Markinson. Feeling better?”
“Better than what?”
“Ah, smart guy. I get it. Okay. How long do you want to be here?”
“I can keep you here as long as I want. You understand? This is easy time, in here. All the drugs you want, no work, get it? It all depends on what you’re willing to pay."
“I don’t want any drugs. I don’t want to be here.”
“Suit yourself.” He shrugged. “You’re here for tonight anyway, because you’ve got a concussion. We put some stitches in your arm, it should be fine.”
He didn’t understand why a CO came to get him when the nurse said he could go. It was a youngster, with pimples on his face, no less. That was unusual here. There wasn’t a lot of turnover at this prison.
Nobody ever called him Mister. Well, okay, the nurse had, but nobody else who worked here had ever shown him that much respect. “Yep.”
“I’m going to need to put these on you.” The kid held out a full set of shackles, complete with leg irons and everything.
“Because we have to go see the warden.”
What was with this kid, with his apologies and his respectful attitude? Kevin glanced over at Teddy, who had just come in for his shift, staring open-mouthed.
Kevin decided to try to appeal. “Do we really have to do the shackles?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Fine.” Kevin brought his hands together in front of his body and stood while the kid slapped the handcuffs on, fastened the leg irons, and ran the chain around his waist.
“This way, please.”
Please. That was a hoot. He shuffled down concrete hallways, all of them smelling of mold and bleach at the same time.
The warden’s office was wood paneled and lined with bookshelves. It didn’t smell of bleach, more like cigars. Kevin stood by the door and waited as the young CO backed out as though he was afraid to turn his back on him. The warden didn’t look up, just continued writing. Kevin stood. Finally, the man behind the huge oak desk looked up over the top of his glasses without really looking directly at him.
“Mr. Markinson. Please, have a seat.” The man motioned to a large leather chair in front of the desk. “I’m sorry about the shackles. You know the policy.”
Kevin shuffled across the room and lowered himself into the chair.
“Would you like a cigarette? Camels, right?” The warden produced a pack and held one out.
Kevin got back to his feet and bent over as the man placed the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. Then he sat back down.
“How’s your head?”
The warden focused his gaze at Kevin’s chest now, as though someone had told him never to look a dangerous criminal directly in the eye. “That was quite a little adventure you had yesterday. You gave us enough to take Jesus Montenga out of here and get him sent to a different prison. He’ll be doing hard time in the special housing unit at Attica for a while. I appreciate that.”
“Sure you do.”
“The video we took will also result in suspensions for at least two of the SOG officers who showed excessive force in resolving the situation. There was no need for what happened to you. You were clearly not resisting, but trying to provide first aid to a wounded prisoner.”
Kevin didn’t respond, just kept staring at the man.
“The issue of prison brutality has been discussed for years, and nobody has ever tried to do anything about it. This is one of my personal pet peeves. I appreciate your efforts.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. “I’ll remember your sincere appreciation when I get my head kicked in by one of their buddies tomorrow.”
The warden hesitated. “I assumed you’d think I wouldn’t come through.” He held up the pile of papers he’d been signing. “This is your transfer. You’ll be going downstate, closer to home, into medium security with a population more like you, older, more sedate. It’ll be a nice change for you. Easy time. You’ve got less than half your sentence to finish and you’ll be done. Piece of cake.”
Kevin pulled against the shackles to lift his left hand and take the cigarette out. He leaned forward and tapped the ash into a glass ashtray shaped like a duck. "Sure. Piece of cake.”
“The kid will live.”
“That’s good to know.”
“I’m writing up a report to go in your permanent record, explaining how you saved the man’s life.”
“That and five bucks will get me coffee, by the time I get out.”
The warden laughed, but still wouldn’t meet Kevin’s eyes.
“When do I leave?”
“They’re sending a van for you today.”
“Can I get my stuff?”
Kevin hauled himself to his feet again.
The warden got up as well. “I really do appreciate what you did. I know you got hurt doing it.”
“Yeah, whatever.” He dropped his eyes. “Can I go now?”
BIO: J.E. Seymour lives in a small town in seacoast NH and has had short stories published in two anthologies of crime fiction by New England writers - “Windchill,” and “Deadfall,” and in Thriller UK Magazine, Shots Crime and Mystery Magazine, A Cruel World, Shred of Evidence, Mouth Full of Bullets, A Twist of Noir and Mysterical-E.