TIME SPIKE – snippet 38:
The floor felt hard. The light drifting in through the bars and small window was just enough for James Cook to make out the bunk beds and the combination stainless steel toilet and sink, the only things left in the room. As consciousness returned, he began checking the damage to his body. He knew he was bruised and bloodied, but he was hoping none of his bones were broken.
The cement floor felt colder than usual. As James moved his legs, trying to ease the pain in his hip, he realized he was naked. He grit his teeth, staring at the ceiling twelve feet above him and at the single, unlit bulb behind its protective wire mesh, and allowed the reality of his situation to sink in. He could hear screams coming from a cell one row above him.
James took a deep breath, slow and long. Nothing seemed broken, at least. He forced his hands to continue checking the damage done. Half afraid, he touched his rectum. He’d taken a beating, and he was sore all over, but he hadn’t been raped. At least he didn’t think so. If he had been, he’d know for sure the first time he had a bowel movement.
“You be a tough bastard, that’s for sure.”
Startled, Cook looked to his left. The light had been so dim that he hadn’t noticed Boomer in the corner. James nodded at his roommate, and immediately regretted it. The room lurched and spun out of control, causing him to close his eyes. As soon as things settled down and he was sure he wasn’t going to puke, he reached for the orange coverall being offered by the black giant. “Thanks, Boom,” he mumbled.
Another scream went through the cell house.
“Who’s the lucky guy?” Cook asked between clenched teeth.
Boomer looked at the ceiling. “That blonde kid that come in with you. Luff has a few debts, and the kid’s paying ‘em off. Whether he want to or not.”
Cook squinted at him. “You look good, not a mark on you.”
The black man shrugged. “It was your fight, not mine. They steered clear of me.”
James shook his head. He hadn’t expected Boomer to intervene when Butch Wesson and his buddies came into the cell. He was just surprised that Luff hadn’t ordered him taken down too. Of course, they’d have had to send a lot more than the three guys who came in for Cook.
“Yeah, I understand that,” he said. “I just can’t figure out what Luff’s doing. He’s got no love for you, that’s for sure. For that matter…”
Now that his head was clearing and he could think straight, James was wondering why he was still alive.
“This weren’t ordered by Luff. Butch was on his own, settlin’ a grudge.”
Sensing James’ skepticism, Boomer chuckled. “Boy, the only reason you still alive is that Luff put a stop to it. He was pissed as all hell at Wesson. Butch mighta died anyway, after you stabbed him. But Luff shot him. Three times. Then shot one of Butch’s buddies just before he could cut you.”
He chuckled again, with a lot more humor. “I will say I ain’t seen too many sights as delightful as the look on Butch Wesson’s face when you stuck six inches of steel in him. They never expected you’d have a shiv.” He glanced admiringly at the cell window, one of whose bars was now missing.
James looked at it also. That was the last clear memory he had. Seeing Butch and his two buddies piling into the cell, he’d known he was in a fight for his life. He hadn’t expected to survive, but he’d been determined to take as many with him as he could. He’d jumped up, grabbed the bar he’d loosened and sharpened earlier, and things had gone from there. He remembered stabbing Wesson, but that was about it.
“What happened to my clothes?”
“Luff had ‘em strip you down and beat you some. But he didn’t let ‘em go too far with it. He said he didn’t want you too badly hurt. Just softened up some, was the way he put it.”
James started to shake his head, but stopped when he felt the pain that caused. “I don’t get it. Softened up for what? And why would Luff stop Wesson at all? Much less shoot him? He’s got no love lost for me.”
Boomer looked out of the cell, his heavy face pensive. “Luff a smart one, boy. Don’ ever forget that. Real smart. Only way a guy like him coulda made it to the top in here. He thinkin’ ahead. After he shoot Butch and one of his buddies, he was hollering at the top of his lungs. ‘Bad enough the stupid fuck let all the nurses escape. Now he wants to kill the only EMT in the place!’ That’s what he was yelling.”
The Boom turned his head to look at Cook. “That be true? You an ambulance man?”
“Fire department, not a hospital,” James said. “But, yeah, it’s true.” Some fragment of an earlier life’s pride drove him to add: “I was damn good at it, too.”
Boomer looked away again. “I believe that. I been watching you. Studying you. You be damn good at everything.”
He leveraged his massive body to an upright sitting position. “You got heart, too. And you be honest. So I decided you okay with me. I told the rest of the boys.”
James nodded. His kept his face impassive, though, letting no sign of his relief show.
Before the Quiver, the Boom’s pronouncement would have meant James was safe for the rest of his stay here. The Boomer’s gang was the smallest and in some ways the oddest of any of them. But with the Boom as its head, nobody messed with them. Not the white supremacists, not the hardcore black gangs, not the Hispanics. Nobody.
Now, he didn’t know. If Luff hadn’t pulled off his uprising, things would have been the same. But with Luff running things…
Boomer seemed to be reading his mind. “We deal with Luff, we need to. But like I said, he thinkin’ ahead. And you ain’t the only con with skills. Lot of my boys got ‘em. Not medical, though.”
That was probably true, now that James thought about it. For all the Boom’s occasionally erratic and explosive temper, being a member of his gang was a relatively sane experience compared to some others. It even had two white members. For form’s sake, they insisted they were actually part something else—Puerto Rican, in the case of one; Jamaican, in the case of the other—but James didn’t think anybody really believed that, not even the Boom himself. Adrian wasn’t surprised that men who’d had a life before they got sent up wound up drifting toward Boomer’s people. He’d done it, himself. He knew that John Boyne, for instance—he was more or less Boomer’s top lieutenant—had been a machinist before he got sentenced. And his had been the sort of crime you might get from anybody, not that of a hardened criminal. He’d caught his wife cheating and killed her lover.
Several of them were like that. Two were auto mechanics, another was a pipefitter. He thought the skinny Mexican kid they called Jalapeno had even been a computer programmer. Something to do with computers, anyway.
“You think you can make a deal with Luff?”
Boomer nodded. “Think so. I not lookin’ for trouble. And I don’ think he is, neither.” The pensive expression returned. “’Course, in his own way, Luff be the craziest fucker in here. He get it in his head to do something, be hard to stop him.”
James finished putting on his coverall. When he was done, Boomer said: “Your old roomie, Paul Howard. He be dead.”
James forced himself not to show the shock. “Who did him?”
“No one. He just up and jumped from the fifth tier.”
Suicide. The coward’s way out.
No. James didn’t accept that. Paul Howard hadn’t been a coward. But he had been marking the days until he could go home. He’d only had a few months left on his sentence, and his wife had stuck with him all the way through. He had kids who’d come to visit him also.
Now there was no going home. He must have seen no reason to spend the rest of his life in this hellhole.
“Terry Collins also dead. Somebody blew his head off during the takeover.”
“They sayin’ it was one of the women in the infirmary. That’s where they found his body. But they don’t seem to believe it much.”
He rubbed his shaved head with a hand the size of a baseball mitt. “Don’ believe it myself, neither. Which one coulda done it? The old ones? The one just had a baby? The black girl with her belly cut open? And where would they have got a gun anyway? Nah. I figure it had to have been somebody else. But who? The guards was all locked up and accounted for.
He gave James a sly little look. “They’d prob’bly think you done it, ‘cept they know you was locked up too. You got ‘em spooked a little, the way you don’t look like much but took out Butch—hell, did it twice—and the way you don’ never have no expression on your face. You wadn’t an ambulance man, Luff prob’bly have a stake driven through your heart like they do in the movies to them vampires.”
James didn’t say anything. And didn’t let anything show on his face.
“I hear you be a real Cherokee,” the Boom said.
Cook shrugged. “More like one-half. But I’m on the tribal rolls and the truth is there aren’t too many full-blood Cherokees left any more. Hell, any kind of Indian. We’re almost all at least part white. And in the case of Cherokees and some of the other southern tribes, a lot of us are part black too. I know I am. I’ve seen old photos of my great-grandmother.”
Boomer grinned. “Nah. She was prob’bly just sunburned real bad. Livin’ out there on a wild Injun reservation.”
James grinned back. That made his face hurt, some, but it was worth it. Someday, that exchange of grins might save his life.
Afterward, he realized that was probably the first expression he’d let onto his face since he’d come through the gates, and had to fight off the sadness. He could remember a time when he’d laughed a lot, and never though twice about smiling at people.