The lawmen had me clean on the theft. On the bright side, there wasn’t quite enough evidence to tie me, personally, to the explosion at the power station. Obviously, there were more than few detectives who just knew that the heist was too perfectly timed to just be coincidence, but they couldn’t find any physical evidence to make the charges stick. They offered me the usual deal (immunity, in exchange for Asher’s name) and I gave them the usual answer (a variety of swear words, culled from some particularly mean languages). I went to court, they found me guilty of theft in the first degree after maybe twenty minutes of deliberation, and I was sentenced to three years behind bars.
I make a habit of avoiding jail-time as much as I can, but no one’s perfect, and this wasn’t my first time in lockup. It was, however, my first time in French lockup. Problem number one: I don’t speak French very well. And, by very well, I mean “not at all.” My grasp of the language is limited to a few curses, the words for “hello” and “goodbye,” and ordering brunch…so long as brunch consists of crepes and nothing else. Problem number two: while Sarah and I worked together, I didn’t have much need to work with any of the locals when we pulled jobs. As a result, my network in the area was severely lacking. I didn’t even know who to talk to in order to find the right connections. I was, for the duration of my prison sentence, on my own. Problem number three: even though I’ve been in prison before, I’ve never particularly liked it and I am notoriously bad at reigning in my sarcasm. That’s not the sort of thing that works well when you’re surrounded by convicts who are also not skilled in that mystical art of self-control.
There are certain inevitable realities in virtually any enclosed setting. If you take away someone’s freedom, take away the skies and the stars, and take away their name, then you leave them without much else to do except find a way to survive. Unfortunately, very few people develop survival traits that bring out the best in them. If you’ve already got a mean streak, then you might get a little meaner. If you’re sarcastic, maybe your jokes start to cut a little bit too close to home. If you’re the nervous sort, expect to have that magnified a thousand times at the slightest hint of any danger.
On my first day, after I’d endured the general dehumanizing paperwork of the system, I found my way to the cafeteria just in time to find a spot at the end of the lunch line. The other men shuffled forward at a depressing pace. I waited to receive my tray and used the alone time to draw up a quick plan of attack. After so many years in the business, it was second nature to identify marks, whenever and wherever I saw them. There were several, right in front of me: first time offenders, caught on petty charges, who were horrifyingly out of their depths. They were the ones who’d turn over a new leaf, as soon as they finished their three month stint in prison. It would be easy to manipulate them, if I spoke their language, but it wouldn’t be particularly useful. I noted them, committed their faces to memory, and then moved on.
Farther ahead, I saw more problematic individuals. In the real world, they’d been enforcers and hired muscle. Without anything to trade, I couldn’t exactly purchase their services to keep me safe in here; at the same time, enforcers had never been known for their smarts, and I was reasonably certain that I could talk a circle around any of them, even on my worst day.
As the line continued forward, I sorted the huge men into a few simple, more specific categories. The ones with gang tattoos or swastikas were the worst, obviously. Associating with those kinds of criminals left a stink that followed you wherever you went. More than that, I didn’t think I’d even be able to fake the type of conviction they’d want before they gave me protection. There were a few other men without any particular markings who, even in the crowded cafeteria, had a circle of space around them a mile wide. Even the guards made an effort to avoid making eye contact. I couldn’t know what crimes they’d committed, but they were obviously insane. No amount of charm would help me, if I ran afoul of them. At that point, the odds were 50/50 on my continued good health.
The final group consisted of low-level pushers and dealers, people who broke into abandoned liquor stores in the dead of night for a few extra dollars. They could be dangerous in large numbers, or if they were working for someone with half a brain, but in here they were just cannon fodder without a war to fight. I memorized each of their faces, as well.
At the end of the line, after I’d received my personal portion of indigestible slop, I scanned the cafeteria. On my first sweep, I didn’t see any table that wasn’t occupied by members of one group or another. I felt their eyes on me as they decided whether I could be an asset or an obstacle. I pushed their collective examination out of my thoughts and looked across the cafeteria again. This time, I spotted a small space in the far corner of the room. The table was dirty, but the seats at it were empty and I started toward it without a second thought. Just before I reached it one of the large men who I’d marked as a hired thug jostled me from behind and pushed into the seat just before I could take it. I barely managed to adjust my balance and keep my “food” from falling to the floor.
“Ce tableau es pris,” the inmate growled at me. His voice was like gravel.
I didn’t understand the words, but I could definitely guess at their general meaning. I put on my best non-threatening expression and attempted a smile. “No worries here,” I said. “Just looking for a place to eat, is all.”
“Ce tableau,” he repeated, “es pris.”
“Guess I’ll just move along, then,” I said to myself. Nothing about the man, so far, gave me any hope that he might speak English. I began to turn around and walk back to the front of the room, where I could scan for a second table.
I made it, perhaps, halfway through my turn when I felt a wall of muscle hit my shoulder. My first instinct was to move away, and my feet reoriented themselves to do exactly that. My second instinct, only a millisecond later, was to actually check to see who I’d bumped into and recall what category I’d placed them in. My torso turned in the direction of the intruder, in order to accomplish that task. My third instinct, as soon as I realized that the first two commands were wholly incompatible, was to ensure that I wouldn’t fall on anybody that might be capable of violent, disproportionate retaliation. My head aimed itself at the ground in preparation for the inevitable tumble.
The next few seconds were a blur of flailing limbs. When I could think again, I found myself on the floor of the cafeteria. My shoulder throbbed with the beginnings of a bruise. I rubbed at it with one hand and ran the other through my hair. “Just my luck,” I muttered under my breath. Then, as I realized that both of my hands were now free, “Fuck.”
I looked up, into a pair of furious brown eyes. My food, if the term still applied, decorated the front of his shirt. Some had splashed onto his face and he made no move to wipe it away. Instead, he inhaled and exhaled angrily through his nostrils and glared down at me. His hands closed into fists and I thought I could hear his skin stretch taut over his tattooed knuckles. I couldn’t make out what was printed on them, but the symbols looked uncomfortably similar to swastikas.
The entire cafeteria fell silent. From my sprawled position, I noted the guards by the entrance. They looked at me, and conspicuously turned their backs. I didn’t have to look in the other direction to know that the guards posted there would have done the same. If they didn’t see it, then they weren’t obligated to stop it, after all. I thought about calling out to them, making too big of a scene for them to conceivably ignore, but quickly decided against it. The only decision that could possibly be worse than spilling food all over a possibly psychopathic neo-Nazi would be angering the guards on the first day.
I don’t consider myself a coward, but I do like to think of fear as more of a survival trait than something to be ashamed of. In the real world, faced with this situation, I would have been more than happy to duck out of sight, to bargain, or simply to apologize profusely for what had been nothing more than a simple accident. Better to lose my pride and keep my life, after all. The rules were different in prison, though. Anything other than an explicit show of strength would cause far more problems down the line.
I got to my feet. “You got a problem?” I asked and puffed out my chest. The utter lack of reaction in his face let me know, for certain, that the inmate didn’t understand a word I’d said. I kept talking anyway, hoping to either psych him out or amp myself up. Whichever worked first. “You want to start something, then?”
I can imagine how it looked. I’m a little under six feet tall and not what anyone would describe as “muscular.” Even before I got into the business, I made a habit of avoiding as much conflict as possible, getting by on charm and luck. In here, I was just another piece of a fresh meat in a prison referred to, by people who know a lot about that sort of thing, as the worst prison in the world. Yet there I was, barking in a foreign language at a seven foot tall man who could probably kill me before breakfast and might have a better appetite afterwards.
The insanity of my actions wasn’t lost on me. I doubled down anyway. “You think this is my first time dealing with one of you?” I advanced on the inmate. Surprised, he took a step back. I swallowed the urge to pump my fist at the tiny victory and pressed my temporary advantage. “You really want to start something with me? With me?” I hooked a thumb at my chest for emphasis.
The neo-Nazi’s hands still opened and closed at his side, but he didn’t close the distance between us and he didn’t throw a punch. I didn’t need to speak French to understand the slight downturn at the corner of his lips: he felt the situation slipping out of his control. He was on the defensive now and I could see from the stunned, glazed look in his eyes that it wasn’t a position he was familiar with.
For the benefit of everyone else, I continued to speak. “I’ve been in worse prisons than this,” I lied, “and you are far from the worst I’ve ever encountered.” The tipping point loomed ahead of me, and I barreled into it before my nerve could fail. I stepped closer to the inmate, who took another smaller one away on sheer instinct, and poked him in the chest with an index finger.
“I’m not stuck in here with you,” I said, channeling my inner Rorschach with everything I had. “You’re stuck in here with me.” I turned my back on him, dismissing his presence in the showiest way I could think of.
If I’d guessed right, the psychotic inmate would be so confused that he’d walk away, without a clue as to how he’d lost control of the room so quickly and so totally. I’d come out with, hopefully, enough of a reputation that I wouldn’t have to worry about getting shanked in line in a few days. If I’d guessed wrong, though, then he had a clear shot at the back of my head.
There were a few more seconds of silence. Then, a guttural roar from behind me. I braced myself, as best as I could, for the coming punch.
“Vouz ne voulez pas le faire,” a very small, soft voice said. The roar stopped, as abruptly as it started. I turned my head slightly to see who had spoken. It was an older man, maybe in his late sixties. He was shorter than me and his gray hair was thin to the point of invisibility on top of his head. He stood between me and the neo-Nazi, whose hand was frozen in the air less than a foot from me.
“Quitter,” the old man said. He didn’t raise his voice, but there was something in the single word that demanded compliance. The neo-Nazi glared at me for an instant and the older man cleared his throat delicately.
“Rien que pour toi,” the larger inmate said to the older man. He shot me a hate-filled look and then, miracle of miracles, walked away.
I waited until he was back at his seat, surrounded by empty space, to turn entirely around. I leaned against the wall and tried to look as though everything had just happened according to plan. The older man stood nearby, as well.
“That was a good plan,” he said under in his breath, in thickly accented English.
“You speak English?” I asked. I answered my own question a second later. “Obviously. What’d you say to him?”
“I appealed to his kinder nature,” the older man said, without a trace of sarcasm. “Although it would not have worked, I fear, if you hadn’t given such an impressive performance.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The older man examined me slowly, starting from my feet and working his way up to the top of my head, and then back down again. “I do not think you have spent very much time in prison, at all,” he said, when he finished. “Just enough, perhaps, to know when it is best to run and when it is best to use what tools are available to you. In your case, a very large amount of…” He paused for a moment. “Bravado is the right word, yes?” He smiled at me.
Instantly, I liked him. There wasn’t any reason that I could name, and I could easily find a great many reasons why I shouldn’t, but there just something about him. “Name’s Devlin,” I volunteered. “Devlin O’Brien.”
“Patrick,” he said back.
“No last name?”
“Last names,” he said sagely, “are for those who are not distinctive enough without one.”
I laughed, before I could help myself. “So why’d you help me, Patrick No-Last-Name?”
He shrugged. “I see a little bit of myself in you. You do not seem like the type for assault, so…it would be theft, then? If I remember correctly, that would earn you two years here, yes? Or is it three?”
“Three,” I said. I was caught off-guard by the accuracy of his first guess, but I kept that surprise from my face.
“You are worried about your time here,” Patrick said. “You should not be. It will be over, before you know it. Like this.” He snapped his fingers. “It will be okay.”
I thought over the train of events that had put me here. The argument with Sarah, the reckless heists, and Asher’s betrayal. Nothing in the past year of my life had taught me that things might work out. Still, Patrick continued to wear his easy smile and I let myself hope, for just an instant. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Come,” he said. “Let’s get you settled.”