By Candice Fox
Read by Kathryn Hartman
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SOMEONE TRIES TO kill me at least once a day.
I usually see it coming. By definition, people in prison aren’t the smartest creatures in the criminal kingdom. They tend to be violent attention-seekers, so they usually tell someone what they’re planning to do.
But I’m a dirty fighter. I’ll do what it takes to protect myself.
Sometimes the women are more discreet. I’d first been held at Stillwater Remand Centre, where someone caught me off guard on my third day and stuck a sharpened piece of fencing wire into the back of my neck, going for my jugular vein. I’d been tired and unfocused, worrying about my upcoming committal hearings. After the attack I’d been moved to a new remand facility, Johnsonborough Correctional Complex, to separate me from my apparent rival, but it became clear to administration not long after the transfer that everyone was my rival.
Today, I’d had the benefit of twenty-four hours’ warning before my attacker made her move. As the wake-up alarm sounded I was sitting on the floor, stretching my shoulders and strategizing a solid plan of defense.
The door to my cell opened in time with a hundred others, a rolling and clunking that almost drowned out the shouts of the guards. I put on my shoes and stood to attention.
Detective Harriet Blue. Inmate 3329.
Charged with a host of crimes. The main one murder.
I’d tracked, hunted, and killed a man named Regan Banks. Banks had been a serial killer who counted my brother among his victims, but that fact didn’t do me any favors. The law was the law, and as a cop I shouldn’t have acted like I was above it. Now I was in prison.
Any inmate who takes down a cop in prison is a hero.
But it was not going to be this cop.
DOLLY QUADDICH, MY cellmate, stepped into the count line beside me. She stretched her messily tattooed arms toward the ceiling and shook herself like a dog, but ended up looking no more revitalized. Dolly never looked entirely awake. She consumed more marijuana in prison than some junkies did on the outside.
“What’s for breakfast?” she asked, yawning.
“The same unidentifiable slop they’ve been serving at Johnsonborough every morning for the past fifty years,” I said.
“Just making conversation, Haz.”
“Leave me alone today,” I said. “Go sit with the other dope-heads. I’ll see you in forty-eight.”
“Oh, man,” she whined. “Again? When the hell are you gonna change your name?”
Dolly knew what seeing her in two days meant. It meant I was going to have a fight, and I’d be locked up in solitary for that time. She hated being alone in the cell because she was afraid of the dark. One hundred and seventy women living within sneezing distance of one another, eight guards touring the block every fifteen minutes and all-night security lighting that stayed bright enough for inmates to read jailhouse magazines in bed did little to abate her nighttime terror. She was also convinced that if I legally changed my name, the prison population would instantly forget who I was.
I liked Dolly, but she was dumb as a brick and every time I got put in solitary she sold something of mine in exchange for drugs. I didn’t have a lot of things, so my few items were precious. Usually my deodorant went first.
I sat at the table nearest the back wall of the chow hall and shoved my plate of watery eggs, soggy bread and mystery mush aside. The chow hall was a good stage for a fight. I’d seen plenty of scraps go down here—food trays flying, scalding coffee searing faces, eggs splattering on walls.
Frida, today’s planned attacker, was small and wiry like me, but she had big hands for grabbing hair and gouging eyes, and a nose that looked like it had been broken more than a couple of times. I locked eyes with my challenger across the hall and her cronies looked over their shoulders at me. Everybody in the hall knew it was on. A fight is a good distraction, so it’s useful to know when one is on the cards. Fights tie up guards and direct the surveillance cameras to a certain place in the room. I knew when Frida and I got together there would likely be other incidents around the chow hall. Someone shanked. Drug deals made. A smattering of robberies of weaker inmates for food, drugs, or phone cards.
A woman at the head of the queue dropped her just-received tray from chest height, spraying food everywhere, drawing over the two guards in the room to assist in the cleanup. An inciting incident to kick things off. Frida stood and started moving down the aisle toward me. I was so focused on Frida as I got up and started walking to meet her that I didn’t even think about her strategy.
I heard the squeak of a rubber shoe on the tiles behind me a second before an arm came around my neck.
I KNEW THE second girl by her smell alone. Mel Briggs hardly ever left the smokers’ corner of the yard. I reached up as she tried to drag me backward, grabbed a fistful of her hair and twisted out of the headlock, bringing her face down on my knee. The crunch of her nose on my kneecap was like a starting gun. The women around me stood in unison, a wail of surprise, horror, excitement rising up from every mouth. I landed an uppercut to Mel’s face while she was still bent double, in case she had any stupid ideas about recovering for a second run, then I dropped her limp body on the floor.
Three seconds. Frida hadn’t counted on me disposing of Mel so quickly. She had used the time to take out her shank, though, a long splinter of plexiglas wrapped in electrical tape. I’d never resorted to constructing a shank of my own in prison. I’m dirty but I’m not a cheat.
Frida swung the shank at me wide and hard, going right for the face, a novice move. If you want to fight with blades you need to dance close, hug your victim to you, go for the fleshy parts—the stomach, thighs, flanks. I leaned back, gave the shank an inch clearance across the bridge of my nose, grabbed Frida’s arm and shoulder as her balance shifted, and used her own momentum to drive her forward into a nearby table. Women watching dove out of our path. I grabbed her hair, lifted her head, and smashed her face into the table a couple of times. I could feel the impact reverberate through the steel tabletop, into the legs bolted to the floor.
The alarm above us had started wailing seven seconds into the fight. Guards shouted, trying to get through the wall of women near the counter. Red lights flashed on the ceiling. Eighty percent of the women in the room dropped flat on the floor as they were supposed to, hands over the back of their heads, fingers interlocked.
But Frida wasn’t giving up so easily, and neither were her friends.
I turned and received a palm in the face, the force of the blow snapping my head back. I grabbed a tray and batted the new challenger away with it, fell on top of her, shoved the corner of the tray into her eye socket and drove her head into the tiles.
Frida was there when I stood up again. I took a couple of jabs in the ribs and used the fury that the pain awoke, dumping adrenaline into my system, to lash out with a hard right to her cheekbone. I felt the skin split under my knuckles. I went for another blow as she fell backward away from me. Frida was out cold before she hit the ground.
The shouting of the guards was lost in the blaring of the alarm, the screams from the inmates still standing, and the ringing in my ears from the blow to the face. I stood and examined the blood on my hands, wondering how much of it was mine, as the guards swarmed me. The men swept my legs out from under me and shoved me to the ground. I realized Dolly was lying right beside me, having hit the deck when the fight started. We met eyes as I was cuffed from behind.
“See you in a couple of days, Harry.” She waved a finger clamped to her head.
“Don’t sell any of my shit, Doll,” I said as they dragged me away.
TOX BARNES WAS sitting at a table with his feet up on the dancers’ stage at the Eruptions Club. The door opened behind him, far across the empty room. In the whiskey glass near his elbow he noted the reflection of a tall man with a thick frame, broad shoulders leading to a bulging neck and a boxy head. It was a silhouette he recognized. Tox shook his head and sighed, set the newspaper he had been reading on his lap and took a packet of cigarettes out of his breast pocket. He was going to need one.
The big man who sat down beside him said nothing at first. Tox lit his cigarette and exhaled as he picked up the paper again.
“Imagine the Telegraph trying to come up with a headline for this,” Tox said. “Deputy Police Commissioner visits Eruptions in uniform.”
“Eruptions?” Woods asked. There was no sign inside or outside the club to indicate the name of the establishment.
“It used to be called the Boobie Bungalow. It’s an improvement.” Tox grunted. “What the fuck do you want?” When he exhaled smoke at the commissioner, he noticed the state of the man beside him. He was worn and tired, his name badge askew and hands clasped tightly in his lap.
“I need your help,” Woods said. “I haven’t been able to contact my daughter in eight days.”
“Well, she’s not here,” Tox said.
“There has been no activity on the credit card I gave her, or on the phone number I knew her to have,” Woods continued, ignoring Tox. “I have a pair of detectives on the case, of course. But as the days are passing I’m beginning to think I have to go harder at this. Bring in the big guns. I need you, Detective Barnes.”
“Meh.” Tox waved the older man off. “You don’t need me.”
“If you needed me, you wouldn’t have said you haven’t been able to contact your daughter. You’d have said she was missing. You’d have played it straight. But you, me, those strippers over there at the bar and every other human being with any kind of connection to current affairs in this country knows Tonya Woods is a crackhead and a washout. Eight days? She’s probably just had a good score and is on a binge. You’ll find her on your doorstep wanting money for a re-up on Monday.” He went back to his newspaper. “And don’t call me detective, arsehole. Not while I’m suspended, under your orders.”
“Look.” Woods leaned in close. “What happened with the Regan Banks case is over. I’m lifting your susp—”
“Over?” Tox sneered. “It’s not over. Not while I’m suspended, Edward Whittacker’s suspended and Harriet Blue’s in jail. Over? Listen to you, you self-righteous prick. I bet you thought it was over when all the magazines stopped interviewing you about your magnificent work on that case.” Tox waved at the women standing at the bar, slender, tanned beauties in fluorescent-colored G-strings. “Britney, dump this idiot back out on the street where you found him.”
“Barnes.” Woods stood as the woman in towering heels started walking toward him. “My child is missing. And my grandchild is with her.”
Tox heard the strain in the old man’s voice. The rumble of genuine panic thrumming through the words. He’d heard it many times before in his career. He didn’t lift his eyes from the paper.
“I’ll go,” Woods said as Britney took his arm. “But I came to you precisely because of what happened on the Banks case. You, Whittacker and Blue—you found that man and you stopped him. I took credit for it, yes. I had you all punished for it, yes. But I’m a man with his hat in his hand here. I…I know it’s different this time with Tonya. I know she’s really gone.”
WHEN DOCTOR GOLDMAN was dealing with more than one inmate at a time, one would be chained to a table in a tiny surgery while the other was seen to in an identical room next door. It was not the most secure arrangement. From the chair in which I sat, one hand cuffed to a ring on the edge of the table beside me, I could reach all kinds of things with my free hand—rubber gloves, cotton swabs, disposable rubber objects in packets. If I really went for it, I figured I could even get to the phone on the counter against the wall.
A guard whose name I had never learned was watching me silently from the corner of the room. I leaned across the table anyway, grabbed a jar of gummy worms and extracted one. She didn’t stop me, but she didn’t take one for herself when I offered.
I sat quietly memorizing all the extension numbers inside the prison, a game I played with myself now and then. There were posters listing the numbers on the wall of every office, classroom, and workroom. I closed my eyes and tested myself.
Cleaning store, 333. No, 334.
Bernadette Goldman, a short and plump woman with wavy auburn hair, came back into the room, tearing rubber gloves from her fingers. The inmate in the other room had caught a shoe in the face during the chow-hall fight. I’d been escorted to the medical rooms behind her, following a trail of blood that dripped from a cut above her eye. Frida and Mel Briggs had been transported from the prison to a local hospital.
“You can leave us,” Goldman told the guard. “Harry’s a regular here. I’m fine.” The guard shrugged and left. There were two panic buttons in the room with us, and Goldman wore a sensor on her hip that, if tilted too far, would bring a swarm of guards down upon us. But she and I had spent hours together in this small room. She knew I was no threat.
“What’s this?” I said. “No hello? How are you? How was your morning?”
“Oh, jeez, Harry, I’m sorry.” She snorted. “I guess you’re just in here so often I forget sometimes that you actually leave.”
She gestured to my bloody clothes, hands, and face.
“Who was it this time?” she said, tilting my head and feeling in my scalp for abrasions or bumps.
“I didn’t see nuthin’,” I said in my best criminal scumbag voice.
“Seriously, though. You need to cut this bullshit and let them put you in ad seg. You’re going to run out of luck one of these days.” She started wiping my nose and cheeks of blood like a mother cleaning gunk off a kid’s face. “You take the wrong kind of blow and you could be killed. Or you could get permanent brain damage. All it takes is one good hit.”
“Who says I don’t have permanent brain damage already?” I asked.
“True. You’re definitely crazy, no doubt about that. Maybe I should send you for a psych assessment. That’ll get you into ad seg.”
As an incarcerated cop, I should have been put into protection or “administrative segregation,” a section of the remand center where inmates likely to be targeted by other prisoners were held for their own safety. Most of the inmates there were women who had killed children, who would be prize targets for beatings. Money and fame could also put a person in ad seg. But I hadn’t been put into protection when I first arrived at Stillwater, probably because of a paperwork bungle, and that had carried over to Johnsonborough. I didn’t argue. I knew that the ad seg ladies were locked up alone twenty-three hours a day in featureless glass cells. Those women were twitchy, wild-eyed creatures deprived of sensory stimuli and hungry for attention. Ad seg was a step above solitary. Solitary was in the bowels of the prison, where the shit and vomit on the walls escaped the eyes of inspectors from the Justice department and prisoner advocates. I’d always submitted to solitary, but whenever the prison had tried to stick me in ad seg I’d had a “fainting spell” and been taken to the medical office.
Goldman took my face gently in her hands and felt my cheekbones and the bones around my eye sockets with her thumbs. I closed my eyes and let the weight of my head rest in her hands just for an instant—a second or two of trust, safety, relishing the kindness and care of another human being. For a moment she stopped feeling the bones and simply held my face. Confused, I opened my eyes and found her looking at me with an expression I couldn’t read. She let me go.
“If they put me in ad seg I won’t get my gummy worms,” I said. I reached for another.
“Cute.” Goldman smiled. “Well, I’ve felt your nose and it doesn’t seem broken this time. I’m worried about this, though.” She poked me in the swollen flesh beside my nose. “I wonder if we should get an X-ray.”
“Which bit are you talking about?” I felt my face. “The zygomatic bone or the maxilla?”
“Goodness.” Goldman’s red lips spread wide. “You’re a doctor now?”
“I know the names of the bones I break the most,” I said. “If I ever have a kid I’m calling it Metacarpal. Regardless of gender.”
“Metacarpal Blue. Sounds like a rapper. I’m talking about both the maxilla and the zygomatic,” she continued. “Any pain in your upper jaw?”
“I really think it’s fine, Goldie. Gimme some ice. I’ll lie down for the rest of the day.”
“If only all my patients were as medically trained as you, Harry.”
“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” I said. I allowed a small whine to enter my voice. In truth, I wasn’t concerned by how long the trip would take or how boring the wait in Emergency would be. I wanted the prison population to hear that Frida and her friend had been hospitalized, and I hadn’t. Everything in prison is about image.
“You know…” Goldman said. Her voice was low. “I’m willing to help you out here.”
“Oh?” I glanced at the window to the hall, where two guards were walking past. “What’s the plan? You stick one of the guards with a syringe full of fentanyl and I steal his gun, we blast our way out?”
“No threats to the prison staff, Harry, please.” Goldman rolled her eyes. “I have to report those. I’m talking about diagnosing you with a mystery illness and putting you in the infirmary for a week of observation. Unexplained low platelet count. I do it all the time. They have books in the infirmary. There’s a TV.”
“Thanks,” I told her. “But no thanks. I need to walk out of here, head high and eyes bright. You know how it works.”
She nodded. The guard who had escorted me to the surgery room leaned in the doorway.
“You’ve got a visitor, Blue. Let’s go,” she said.
Goldman and I looked at each other.
“It’s not visiting hours,” the doctor said.
“Yeah,” the guard said, smirking. “But this guy doesn’t need to wait for the schedule.”
I WAS BROUGHT to the door of the interview room, but when I saw who was inside I turned and tried to walk away.
“Harriet.” Deputy Police Commissioner Joe Woods stood up from behind the table. “I really need to speak to you.”
“I don’t have time for this.” I struggled with the guard. “I have more enjoyable and important things to do than waste my morning sitting here while this idiot gloats at me. I’ve got a ten o’clock appointment to have my eyes scratched out with a fork. Excuse me.”
I tried to get away but knew it was no use. The guard dragged me into the room by my cuffs and I let her, tired from the morning’s dramatics. I noticed the red light on the camera in the corner of the room was out. My head was throbbing as the guard took my wrist and started chaining me to a purpose-built handle on the tabletop.
“I’m not here to gloat,” Woods said. “And you don’t need to lock her down, officer. She’s fine as she is.”
“What’s the matter with you?” I said. “Are you having short-term memory problems? You called me a dangerous, violent criminal in the press. You’re not worried I’ll leap across the table and bite your face off, Hannibal Lecter style? Because I’d sure like to. I didn’t eat any breakfast.”
“Inmate Blue!” the guard barked, having finally grown weary of my antics. “I’ve just witnessed you threaten a visitor, the Deputy Commissioner of Police no less. I’m going to have to write you up for—”
“Please, please—just leave us.” Woods put a hand up to settle the guard. “I don’t want her cuffed. I don’t want her written up. I don’t want us observed. We’ll be fine. I promise.”
The guard left in a huff. A coldness came over me. This wasn’t the Woods I knew. The Woods I knew was snide, resentful, and underhanded. He had done everything in his power to put me behind bars for taking out Regan Banks, and he had stepped on, betrayed, or used the people I loved at every turn to do it. I knew immediately that something was wrong, and thought of my old boss, Chief Trevor Morris. He’d suffered a heart attack on the night that I was arrested for killing Banks.
“What’s happened? Is it Pops? Is he OK?”
“Harry, I’ve come because I have an offer for you,” Woods said. “I want to get you out of here.”
WOODS PUT HIS arms on the table and edged closer, conspiratorial. I noticed for the first time that he had lost weight. His neck was leaner than it had been when I last saw him, and stubble trailed into the collar of his uniform shirt. I sat back in my chair, would have pushed the chair away from the table if it wasn’t bolted to the floor. This man was not my friend. He was a vindictive narcissist with a badge.
“Look, you deserve to be where you are. We both know that.”
“Great start,” I said.
“You went after Regan Banks, deliberately and with calculation,” Woods reasoned. “In your pursuit of him you committed a multitude of criminal offenses, including evading police, breaking and entering, vehicular theft, and assaulting multiple officers and civilians. Then you murdered Banks, just as you said you would.”
“Thanks for the trip down memory lane.”
“I have the power to quash all of the subsidiary charges against you.” He folded his hands on the table between us. “I can have the charge of homicide knocked down to manslaughter. With my support, and testimony from Detective Whittacker, I’m confident we could get you diminished responsibility or provocation. You’d get time served, a good behavior bond maybe. With such a defense, and considering how bad a trial would look for the police department, I believe that if I took this to the Director of Public Prosecutions, well…The DPP is a good friend of mine. We went to university together.”
I said nothing.
“All this would take is a couple of phone calls from me.” Woods looked at his watch. “You could be out on bail by the end of the day, and could return to your job in six months or less.”
I stared at Woods. He had practiced this speech a few times. It was convincing, tempting. He didn’t need to put the icing on the cake, but he did.
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- Mar 30, 2021
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