My optimism lasted for less than an hour, before I was escorted to my prison cell. I shared the tiny space with a native Frenchman who appeared to understand me, but steadfastly refused to speak in English. I tried to engage him in conversation for a few minutes, hoping with a mounting desperation for anything that might distract me from my predicament; eventually, however, I gave up on conversation. Sweat beaded on my forehead as I examined the walls, seemingly drawing closer every time I looked away. This wasn’t a new feeling. When the magistrates handed down the prison sentence in the first place, I had known that this moment would come. I hadn’t expected the severity of the attack, though.
I sat on the edge of the unoccupied bed and placed my head in my hands. Panic was the enemy; I knew that perfectly well. A loss of control would only trigger a downward spiral and that would magnify the problem, not diminish it. The last time I’d allowed myself to lose control – a collapsed tunnel underneath a Venetian palazzo – it had taken me almost thirty minutes to come back to myself. Those thirty minutes ranked high on the worst moments of my life. Just brushing against the memory catalyzed the tension in my chest. I swallowed bile and tried to force it back down.
“Monsieur O’Brien?” Patrick’s voice, from the cell next door. “Are you doing well?”
As if I could possibly be ‘doing well’ locked in a tiny room with another inmate who either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer my questions. “No,” I said honestly. “Not really doing well at all.”
“You sound out of breath. What is wrong?”
I attempted to answer, but no sound came from my lips. My breaths accelerated until I felt light-headed.
He must have heard something in my voice or simply guessed at the appropriate answer. Either way, his voice softened to the point of delicacy. When he spoke, it felt like he was in the cell with me, instead of the surly inmate who examined me with mild, dispassionate curiosity. “Monsieur, you must breathe normally. In and out, evenly. Can you do that?”
I nodded, realized that the action was a hold-over from my time with Sarah, and managed to squeak out an “Okay.” A few minutes passed before my breath came smoothly.
“Now, relax your shoulders,” Patrick commanded in that silky voice. “Just let your arms hang and think about something else…anything else.”
I did as he said. My mind traveled back to the last time I’d seen her, from a distance. She looked beautiful, then, as she always did. The memory bit like a knife, but it did manage to wrench my thoughts away from my surroundings. I held onto the image. “I…I’m better, now. Thanks,” I said. “How did you know what would help?”
“I have known people with similar problems,” Patrick said, from the other cell. “It is not uncommon, I think.”
“In my line of work?”
“In our line of work, you mean. I did not mean to say that it is common, just that there are people who suffer from things such as this. At any rate.” He yawned and, judging from the scratching sound, sat heavily onto his own bed. “Are you sure you are feeling better now?”
I was still trapped. Thick walls of stone and mortar separated me from the outside world for the next three years, which was a good bit longer than any of my previous stretches. Asher, that bastard, was still out there, plotting and scheming his way into larger heists with sweeter paydays. Nothing had changed, except for my ability to think and reason.
Something about Patrick’s oddly polite speech, though, did make me feel a little better. “Yeah, I think so. I mean, I couldn’t get any worse, could I?”
He groaned. “Please do not say such things. It is….how do you say? Tempting destiny?”
A laugh bubbled out of me. “It’s tempting fate. But, yeah, you’re right. Shouldn’t call down any more trouble than I’ve already got.”
“And, if you do not mind me asking, what trouble is that?”
For years, ever since I’d left the tiny apartment my mother managed to afford in St. Louis, secrets had been my weapon and my armor. It was habit to play all cards as close to my vest as possible. In the darkness of La Santé, seated opposite a man who watched my every move like a bird of prey, I felt distinctly disarmed. I told Patrick the truth.
He and I talked throughout the day, and the night. When the guards came to give us our scant few hours of relative freedom, Patrick introduced me to his friends, a close knit group of other men his age who, for one reason or another, kept finding themselves in the big house. They’d taken their prison sentences in stride and, over the years, had come to expect it as just another step in the grand game. Steal something or con someone. Get away with it, until you don’t. Go to prison. Meet up with les hommes (Patrick taught me that) and talk about the good old days. Wait until your parole comes up. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. Watching as they laughed and joked with each other, heedless of the prison walls around them, lifted my spirits. Even when the darkness of the cells threatened to wear down my newfound contentment, Patrick was there, speaking softly to me until I was calm once more.
The days passed like that. I told Patrick what had changed in the world outside of La Santé; in turn, he offered me stories about the criminals he’d worked with over the years. On more than one occasion, Patrick would mention a legendary heist or con I’d only heard rumors about. He would just sort of breeze through the details without stopping to give any particular renown to the tale. The third time he did that, I realized that, for him, he wasn’t retelling the mythology and lore of the underworld; Patrick was simply recalling and sharing the details of a story that wasn’t remarkable to him. With that sudden burst of understanding, I decided that I would have to work a job with Patrick, and his team of gentlemen thieves, as soon as we were all free again. I would have even risked another sentence, just to see the Frenchman at work.
Two and a half years into the three year long sentence, however, things changed. I was in the middle of a theoretical discussion with Patrick (the best way to fake your own death, if the need should arise) when a loud bang jolted my attention to the closed, steel door. “O’Brien!”
“One second,” I said to Patrick. Then, to the door, “Yes?”
No answer came, at first. Then, after a moment, I heard the telltale jingle as someone fumbled with a key ring. My cellmate grumbled above me, turned over, and then went back to sleep. The door swung open slowly. Outside of my cell, the hallway was dark and all I could see was the lone prison guard, spinning the key ring around his index finger. “You are free to go,” he said. It took me a second to understand him through his heavy accent.
I missed my watch, one of the few things I’d legitimately purchased in the recent past, but it was the first thing they’d taken from me when I’d gone into booking. “It isn’t time to go outside yet, is it? The lights are still off.”
The guard said something into his walkie-talkie. An answer came back, also in French, and he sighed. “No,” he said. “You are free to go. Home.”
“Listen, sir, I appreciate a joke as much as the next person, but I’ve got another year before I’m free to go. It’s, what? Six months before my parole hearing?”
The guard didn’t move, either. He stood outside of the cell, waiting impatiently for me to stand up.
Patrick coughed from the next room over. “If I were you, I would take this opportunity for what it is,” he said, after he cleared his throat.
The guard tapped his nightstick against the door idly. My cellmate moved around above me and finally woke. “Ce qui se passe?” He asked.
I didn’t answer, but the guard did. “Rendormir.” He pointed the nightstick at the bed. To me, he said, “Let’s go.”
I considered Patrick’s advice. “I, uh…sure, that works for me.” I stood and stretched until the joints along my spine cracked and popped.
“Il n’a pas purge sa peine!” My cellmate protested. He leaped off of his own bed and pushed me out of the way. “Et moi?”
The guard gave my cellmate a supremely bored look and then, without any warning, swung the nightstick at his head. My cellmate buckled under the sudden attack and the guard followed up with another swing, this time to the ribs. When my cellmate was on the ground, he kicked him, hard, in the stomach and the other man scuttled away to the far side of the room. I glanced down at the trail of blood and, after just a second, looked back up at the guard. He had resumed his impatient position, tapping the now-bloody nightstick against the cell. “Are you ready to leave now?”
I’d had more than enough time locked up to grow accustomed to random acts of violence. If it wasn’t an inmate beating another to prove dominance, or a guard taking a little extra time out of his day to show the new guys exactly how things worked in prison, then it was simply two men blowing off steam accumulated over years and years of isolation. In each case, though, the act had been wild and emotional. This prison guard had attacked with enough force to cause serious damage, and he’d done it without a single ounce of emotion.
Patrick must have heard the commotion from the other room. “Perhaps you should go, sooner rather than later?” He suggested. He concealed it well, but I heard the nearly inaudible note of anxiety in his voice. “I hope you will not take this the wrong way, but…”
I smiled. “I hope I never see you again,” I finished for him. “Not here, at least.”
“Perhaps somewhere in the real world?” Patrick smiled back.
“Yeah, somewhere out there.”
The guard cleared his throat and hefted the nightstick.
“Oh, no, no,” I said quickly. I joined him in the hallway, outside of the prison cell. “After you.”
He gave my cringing cellmate a disparaging look before he closed the door and locked it. I followed the guard down several corridors, until we reached a door at the end of spectacularly long and poorly lit hallway.
He opened it and gestured with his hand. “After you,” he said.
“No booking?” I asked. “No paperwork? Just a long walk and a door in some forgotten part of the prison?”
The guard said nothing.
“Let me guess,” I continued. “I go outside, and there’s a long black limousine waiting for me. I get in, only to see that the president of France has need of my services! For only I can be trusted with this, the most secret of missions!” I steepled my fingers and assumed my very best evil genius face.
The guard was not amused. He continued to hold the door open, with one hand gesturing to the outside.
A thought occurred to me, and I said it out loud at that exact instant. “You don’t even work here, do you?” I examined the guard. His outfit was a perfect match for the uniforms worn by everyone else in the prison, but there was something off. It took me less than a second of focus to note the details that were out of place. His hair was a little too long, and his face sported a few days’ growth of facial hair. Even though he was trying his best to maintain a poker face, his eyes were a tiny bit too nervous. Most telling of all, his shoes were the right color, but the wrong type: heavy boots, instead of the less military footwear the guards normally wore.
“You should stop asking questions,” he said, “and accept a gift when it’s given.” His accent was gone, now. Each word came out in a short, clipped burst of perfect English.
A tiny voice in my head reminded me that all gifts in my line of work came with strings attached. I had yet to receive a tip about a particular heist without receiving a phone call demanding a favor in return. Anyone I hadn’t paid to help me was bound to want something from me in return. That was a lesson I’d learned over several long years, until it became habit to check and double-check any kindness or generosity.
There were only a few months left on my sentence. Fewer than that, if I managed to charm the parole board. It wouldn’t be difficult at all to slip whatever means they employed to keep track of me. I could serve out the rest of my time, offer what platitudes were required to the people in charge, and then disappear into the wind again. There were still enough people spread across safe-houses and hideouts that still owed me for services rendered in the past. It would be easy and, more importantly, it would be safer than finding myself beholden to a mysterious party. Especially a mysterious party with enough juice to arrange for an impromptu extraction like this.
At the same time, the larger part of my mind saw blue skies and white clouds through the open door. A breeze came through the opening and caressed my cheek, making my decision for me. “Don’t mind if I do,” I said. I stepped outside. The guard did not follow me.
“Good luck,” he said and then he closed the door before I could reply.
I stared at the door for a minute, weighing my next move. Whatever instructions the not-guard had been given, ensuring my safe transportation had obviously not been included. It was still early morning. I had no phone, no contacts, and no particular direction in mind. I turned around and smiled at the half-full parking lot. If nothing else, I had an abundance of transportation options.
There were trucks, sedans, and a few SUV’s to choose from. I selected a late model Peugot, a Clio if I wasn’t mistaken, and tried the driver’s side door. It was unlocked. My eyebrow steadily rose as I climbed into the car. There were keys dangling from the ignition switch, but there was a garment bag draped across the passenger seat with a note attached to the front. I moved the bag just enough that the writing on the note was visible. It read, “For your use,” and nothing else.
My curiosity grew. As I considered the implications of the cryptic note, I unzipped the bag. Inside, I saw a uniform, identical in every way to the ones worn by the prison employees, with an ID pinned to the front lapel. A picture of me, from a few years before, smiled up at me from the ID.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” I quoted to myself. It didn’t even occur to me to check the size on the outfit. It would fit, I knew. It took me a minute to slip out of my prison garb and another minute to change into the uniform. Then, I turned the keys and eased the Peugeot out of its parking space. My mind tried, and failed, to sort through the criminals I knew capable of arranging for something like this. Several came to mind who could have pulled off a prison escape, some with considerable ease, but none of those were predisposed to any degree of subtlety. If Sam had wanted me out of prison, for instance, I would have expected a series of explosions to rip through the building in the late hours of the night.. If it had been Lucas, however, there would have been a frighteningly large number of bodies before all was said and done. There were others who might have wanted me free, but an exhaustive review of the usual suspects didn’t match this particular operation. It was too smooth, too well-orchestrated. I shrugged and continued to ease my new vehicle through the parking lot.
The guard post rose in front of me as I approached. Nervously, I fingered the ID on my chest and began to think of alternative means of escape. I didn’t have to. The guard inside the booth was distracted by something on a small television screen in front of him. I held out my card to him and he passed it front of a scanner without glancing at it or me. The scanner beeped and a small light in front of me turned green. He handed back the ID and pressed a button that I couldn’t quite see, raising the partition separating me from the street.
“Thanks,” I said without thinking, in my best impression of a French accent. Internally, I cursed at my own stupid need to speak.
The guard didn’t say anything. He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and returned his attention to the show playing in front of him. I didn’t stick around to test my luck any farther. I continued out of the prison, reminding myself to drive on the opposite side of the road, and drove away. I looked up at the rear view mirror after a few minutes, just to see the prison as it dipped below the horizon and out of sight. When it was gone entirely, I breathed a sigh of relief and rolled my shoulders.
“Now what?” I asked myself out loud.