Chapter no 6

Winter World

JAMES: THE WONDERFUL THING about being in a federal prison is that you get, generally speaking, a little better breed of criminal. Not your common robbers and murderers, who are serving their time in state pens. The denizens of Edgefield and other federal correctional institutions are criminal masterminds. Or at least, criminals ambitious enough to perpetrate crimes that cross state lines or violate a federal statute.

The downside is that they’re likely smart enough to find Pedro and me. My suspicion is confirmed when I hear the dryer at the end of the row swing open. Then the next.

I hear automatic gunfire in the distance. The National Guard has breached. The timing makes sense. They were en route minutes ago. There was no negotiation. They came right in, trying to seize the element of surprise.

The door to my dryer swings open, and a meaty hand swats the sheet away. The man draws back at the sight of me, points a gun in my face, and yells, “Get out!”

I show my hands and carefully move to the round opening. My body hurts all over.

The cadence of gunfire grows louder. It sounds like World War Three out there.

“Shut that door,” the gunman shouts to another inmate. “Get the table in front of it.”

I’m about halfway out of the dryer now. I’d like to get back in. I know what’s coming. Man, these guys are dumb. (I would like to withdraw my previous generalization about the average intelligence of federal inmates.)

“I said, get out!”

As much as I’d like to stay, the gun really sells it.

I stagger out on unsteady legs, like a fawn taking its first steps.

They find Pedro a second later. He comes out too, except he stands proud and sticks out his chest. I like him more and more. I really hope we don’t die here, in the laundry room.

They pat him down and take his radio and the little electric gizmo he used on Marcel.

I slouch against the dryer. Standing hurts.

What I don’t hear-gunfire-tells a story. Whatever war was raging out there is over.

A radio crackles to life-one the prisoners must have taken off another guard.

“To the individuals in the laundry. It’s over. Come out with your hands up. We don’t want any further loss of life.”

The leader of the group of rioters is not what I expected. He’s not muscle-bound or tatted up. He’s a middle-aged white guy with a receding hairline and a day’s growth of stubble. The kind of guy you might see on CNBC telling you why you should buy his company’s stock in spite of a recent earnings report with some very concerning data points. That’s probably what landed him in here.

He paces the room, scanning it, seeing what I already know: no other doors, no windows, no way out. Only a couple of small vents in the ceiling. And unlike what one sees in the movies, these are not big enough for inmates to crawl through.

The rioter’s voice is smooth and unbothered when he replies over the radio.

“We also don’t want any further loss of life. We just want a chance to survive. In case you haven’t noticed, winter is coming. We don’t want out. We just want to be left alone. There aren’t many of us left. Enough to farm the prison land and provide for ourselves-that’s about all. And all we’re asking is that you seal us in this prison. Lock the doors and throw away the key. Use AI drones to kill anybody who breaches the perimeter. We don’t want out. We just want to survive.”

This guy must be the leader of the entire riot. And he’s pretty smart.

That’s probably bad for my life expectancy.

He eyes Pedro. “We have one of your guards.” He holds the radio out toward Pedro. “Tell them your name.” Pedro spits on the radio.

An inmate with blood on his chest and a club in his hand rears back.

“Pedro, do what he says!” I yell. The other inmates stop and eye us both. “Tell them. They’ll get it out of you. This is all going to be okay.”

The leader cocks his head and stares at me. He doesn’t take his eyes off me as he speaks. “Yeah, that’s right, Pedro. It’s all going to be okay. Go ahead.”

I nod at Pedro. Through gritted teeth, he says his name and position.

The leader continues when he’s done. “If you withdraw your troops from the prison and meet our demands, we’ll return Pedro Alvarez safe and sound. He’ll walk right out of here, and we’ll all live happily ever after.”

The guardsman responds. “We’ll evacuate the prison, but I can’t authorize the rest of what you’re asking for. I’ll have to ask. Give us some time.”

“Well, we’re not going anywhere. And neither is Pedro if those demands aren’t met.”

The riot leader releases the radio button and studies me. “Who are you?”

“The guy who does the laundry.”

“And hides in the laundry.”

“When called for.”

He breaks into a smile, but his associates are not amused.

One holds an improvised knife toward me. “He’s a snitch, Carl. I say we gut him right now.”

Technically, I haven’t snitched, only aided our imprisoners, who, frankly, I consider to have the moral high ground here, at least in the case of Pedro Alvarez. Now isn’t the time to split hairs though.

The leader-Carl-seems to agree.

“Finey, you can gut him or do whatever you want with him-after this is over.”

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