A large black man shut off the TV. Through the orange jumpsuit a network of tattoos peeked out. Visible on the fingers of his large left hand were four letters from some semi-literate tattoo artist spelling out D-E-T-H. The man let out a frustrated sigh of relief and turned to the group to discuss politics. “He just keep going to all these schools tryna keep up appearances. When y’all think the big man gonna come down here?”
“Remember few years back his daddy tried keeping us off drugs.” It was a statement, not a question. The bald, scrawny Cuban stretched his arms over his head and scratched at his neck, and the black man didn’t even flinch. It said a lot around here that this discussion could take place between a black man and a Hispanic man without anybody feeling threatened. Race always matters in prison, even one as small as the Ste. Nero Minimum Security Correctional Facility. “They had, like, Garfield telling us don’t smoke weed.”
“Yeah, yeah, I remember that like ninja turtle on there, fucking hypocrite. I bet he never went a day without lighting up.” Rabadash, the black guy, laughed far too loud for far too long at his own joke.
“Tell you what, cat and a turtle talking to me like that I’d have sworn I was already high. Like this one time-“
“Alright, Rodrigo.” An East Asian man holding a clipboard interrupted the line of non-sequitur thought. Unlike the prisoners, this man was clean shaven, with longish hair brushed back behind his ears and a crisp, professional tone in his voice. “Rab brought up a good point. You don’t think Bush cares about education?”
“I don’t know about that.” Rabadash shrugged his huge shoulders, causing the orange plastic chair he was sitting on to creak threateningly. “But he sure do care a helluva lot more about getting his picture taken with all these little white kids.”
The man with the clipboard mentally smirked at the implication that the President of the United States just straight up didn’t care about black people. “So I’m guessing you’d rather have Gore as president?”
Rodrigo scoffed. “Don’t matter who we want, Mr. O. All us locked up in here can’t never vote again. Our numbers don’t mean nothing out there.”
“Numbers don’t mean nothing out there, either. I mean, look at Florida.”
Melchizedek Okabe scratched more notes onto his clipboard. Most teachers would’ve- or more realistically, already had- written off Rab as a lost call. He was big, loud and opinionated, but Mel couldn’t help thinking if he’d been a white kid he might’ve been given a chance. I won’t be one of those teachers, thought Mel. Then, with a mental sigh, he added if I ever taught a real school to begin with.
Rodrigo, who, Mel noted, was also making a lot of progress in becoming politically fluent, replied with his own insight. “Gore’s not much better on these pet causes, though. Dude’s so into the environment I thought he was half-elf or something.”
“Better elf than Bush. He’s so behind on humanoid politics, dude wouldn’t know a, uh-” Rab struggled for the politically correct term- “a plantkin if he had a flower growing out his nose.”
Before he could continue what was honestly one of the better political discussions he’d had in months, Mel’s beeper buzzed. He stood up to adjourn the session. “Sorry, boys. New transfer is coming in, and almost all the guards have to be there, so y’all are going back to your cells. Come on.”
As they walked back, Mel tried his best to dodge questions. Ste. Nero was a small facility, so the prison didn’t actually get that many prisoners, especially famous ones. It was no secret that the new transfer had been caught in the midst of an attempted murder, but that was all the information the public had received. He didn’t know if the guy had any accomplices or even what the motive was. All Mel had heard was that they were holding the suspect until trial.
But prisoners are superstitious, or at least paranoid, and all about this silly rumor that Smith Cavendish Geier (or, as he would soon be known, inmate number 01189998819991197253) was a member of some secret cabal of assassins. The Redshirts were go-to bogeymen for conspiracy theorists and the criminal underclass, but Mel didn’t really have the time or inclination to go chasing secrets.
By the time he had walked each prisoner to his cell and got back to the entrance, the armored truck had arrived with the new kid. There were three guards there, two imposing young men and one even taller guard with salt-and-pepper hair, more security than Mel was used to seeing for one prisoner. Maybe the rumors were true after all, and Smith was some super powerful killer?
But the man who walked out of the back of the truck wasn’t the least bit threatening. If Mel had to guess, he’d say Smith was about six foot something, only a little taller than he was. And although Mel wasn’t overly-muscled so much as fit, he’d say he had about thirty pounds on the prisoner. The most telling thing about him, though, was that he was clearly scared out of his wits. Smith’s wrists were shaking in his handcuffs, and from the bags under his eyes it was clear that he had spent more time crying than sleeping since his arrest. Mel was used to seeing broken men, but this guy wasn’t some hardened killer worn down by life in prison. He was just another one of those people with no confidence who’d turned to crime to keep themselves alive.
A tiny but intimidating woman in her fifties or sixties shook the oldest guard’s hand before coughing into her shoulder for a few seconds. When she finally addressed the guard, her voice came out as rough and scratchy as it had when Mel had first met her, years ago. “It’s very nice to meet you. That is, if I haven’t already met you before. I’m Warden Genkai. And you are Mister-?”
“Rogers.” The guard didn’t actually look at the warden, which was obvious because he was easily twice her height. He hadn’t flinched when she was coughing either.
“You’re kidding me. Mister Rogers, what’s your first name? I’ll just call you that.”
“Hammerstein, ma’am.” He still stared straight forward.
The warden coughed again as she pulled out of the handshake. “No offense, sir, but I’m pretty sure I’m done talking to you. Now, we’ve got the prisoner’s cell ready, so if you’ll just follow me-“
The head guard finally moved his head, glaring around at the prison’s measly staff, before leaning way down to look Genkai in the eye. “Are you sure you’re up for this? This isn’t some druggie or thief. Word is they think he did the airport killings over in Boston. You’ve seen that on the news, I’m sure. Twenty people. No other leads.”
Warden Genkai shoved the guard’s face up and out of the way so she could cough once more, hacking spit on the ground. “It’s fine. I trust my staff. Mel?”
He walked forward to join them. Up close, Hammerstein looked even taller.
“Take Mr. Geier here to his cell. Actually, make that solitary until I give the word.” She turned once more to the guard. “And you, Mister Rogers, are leaving now. Take your thugs with you.”
And as Mel led the new prisoner away, Smith finally looked up, looked over his shoulder at the escort team, and sneered, “Get lost, Mr. Rogers. I remember everything.”
Smith didn’t talk much on the way to solitary, although Mel didn’t make a whole lot of effort to reach the man on the way. Even if he could make some small difference in this man’s life during the next couple of days before trial, it wasn’t like it would do him any good. If what Hammerstein had said was true, Smith would be lucky to get a life sentence out of this. Mel had, of course, asked what it was Smith had hinted at toward the tallest guard, but all he’d gotten in response was “You’re just as much my enemy as they are.”
But when Mel unlocked the handcuffs, Smith looked up at him in disgust. He kept looking even as Mel closed the door. And when Mel turned to leave, mildly annoyed at the suspected murderer’s confirmed rudeness, Smith called out a “Hey, you!”
Mel bent down to the little flappy-dealy where they slipped in food. Through it Smith glared, his nose protruding out as well. “You and the warden, are you close?”
Mel blinked, unsure what Smith’s end-game was. “I guess. Why do you ask?”
Smith snorted. “I just figured. Two chinks in a smallish workplace, you people stick together. Anyway, can you do me a favor? I need some cigare-”
Mel’s mouth fell open. If Smith’s reputation wasn’t enough, that blatant racism sure cemented him as an unsavory lowlife. Mel shut the flap in the prisoner’s face and stormed away.
“I mean, I’m not even Chinese! It’s not the right slur. Not that there’s any right way to use a racial slur, but it’s the principle of the thing. He might as well have called me a beaner or something. Plus, well, there’s the obvious idea that you and I are besties, what, because we both have Asian ancestry? I guess I’m close enough with about three billion other people that I can pull some favors for a stupid racist ass like him.”
The warden coughed one tiny cough, just enough to remind Mel she was there. “Are you done, Mister Okabe?”
Mel sighed. “Yes, Warden. Now, would you like to tell me what was going on with you and the giant out there?”
“He’s no giant, Mister Okabe. You’ve obviously never met a real giant, but I’ll grant you’re young. But I know I have met him, or at least heard of him, and I can tell you right here right now he’s a no-good punk.” She coughed again, this time for a long enough period of time that Mel felt awkward just sitting there and watching. He wanted to do something to help her, but by the time he bit the bullet and started to stand, she’d stopped her fit. “I wasn’t sure of it until he mentioned his full name, because you don’t encounter someone named that stupidly and forget about it. Last I remember, he was involved with those Redshirt characters.”
“But…” Mel had to stop and blink rapidly to make sure he had heard the absurd conspiracy theory mentioned by someone he respected. “I thought they were just some old wives’ tale for conspiracy nuts.”
The warden leaned forward, her small physique not detracting from the intensity in her eyes. “Mel, you know I don’t joke around. These Redshirts, they’re no good. They’ll even kill their own to make a quick buck. It’s social Darwinism run amok and frankly, I’m not sure our little facility can keep the new kid safe if they want him out of the picture before his trial.”
Despite how ridiculous it all sounded, Mel felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. “But there’s no evidence for this kind of thing. Surely you can’t be serious!”
“I am serious! And-“ here came another coughing fit to interrupt the conversation- “And I’m all the evidence you need. You’ve heard my cough, Mel. You know my voice isn’t exactly soft and silky. Would it surprise you to hear that I’ve never smoked a single cigarette in all my life?”
“What does that have to do with-“
“Let me finish, please!”
“It’s just, you know, you asked a quest-“
“Like I was saying, the reason my throat is the way it is is I was in this protest group in the sixties. Anti-war, anti-government, anti-anything my parents were pro. I used to think mainstream society was a crock of shit and living free with your hands was the way of humanity. But you know what happened then?”
“Something with the Redshirts?”
“Don’t interrupt. No, I got over that rebel without a cause guff by the time I finished tenth grade. It’s pointless to get mad when you can’t do anything about it. But you see, I was still on the list. In the group. A protestor and all that. So one day, maybe five or six years later, I’m sitting at home enjoying a nice bowl of oatmeal and wouldn’t you know it, mustard gas.”
“Like that World War I stuff?”
“You need to learn to not talk when somebody else is telling a story, Honey. But yes, that World War I stuff. Last thing I remembered before losing consciousness was seeing that Hammerstein fellow standing across the street with an empty canister of the stuff. Long story short, most of my old friends were never seen again, my cat died and I had to change my name and live in a hospital for six months. I get out and look up the guy, which is hard because I don’t even know his name at the time, but when I did find him, well, he had such a ridiculous name I had to assume it was fake. Only time I ever had the opportunity to go after him, I was still sick and he’s a big guy besides, and there was no way I had enough evidence to put this guy away, but through a little sleuthing I find out who put him up to the task.”
“So what you’re trying to say is-“
“Mel, we need to be extra careful with the new prisoner. Best case scenario, the Reds are done with him and just escorted him here to make sure he stays locked up. Worst case, they were here to make sure he never leaves this prison alive. Especially with how he was mouthing off, I’m guessing the latter might be the case. Either way, let me handle it, at least for tonight. I’ll keep an eye on his cell. If we’re lucky, none of us are going to get ourselves in trouble, but I’d rather it be my life on the line than one of my employees. And that goes double if you’ve got any family, a girlfriend, whatever.”
Mel left the office feeling queasy and confused. His parents had died over a decade ago and he lived alone, so at least there was no risk of getting his loved ones murdered, right?
But when he reached the end of the hall, the color left Mel’s face. Sitting in the lobby was a very distinctive hat. Besides the cartoonish eyes and arms, the hat looked like a giant plush hamburger. And underneath the hat sat Mel’s niece.
“Hey, Uncle Mel!” said Carla. She cheerfully waved, and Mel forced a smile as he considered who he now had to lose.
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