Once inside the prison, Nat and Angus produced ID, left her coat in a locker, and were ushered through three sets of locked, barred doors, called sally ports. Bulletproof glass covered the bars, which were painted the same cherry red as the entrance. They checked in at the command center and were funneled together through a metal detector and cattle chute to a final set of locked doors, which a female C.O. unlocked and pulled open, greeting Angus with an attitudinal smirk.
"Yo, Holt. Nice suit." The C.O. an African American, had large brown eyes and looked fit and trim in her navy blue uniform. A strand of dark hair curled like a shiny fishhook in front of her ears. "News flash. Jerry Garcia's dead."
"That never gets old." Angus grinned. "Tanisa Shields, meet my colleague, Natalie Greco."
"Hiya." Tanisa shook Nat's hand, but her gaze didn't leave Angus. "Take a lesson, Holt. This girl knows how to dress."
"But I'm wearing my lucky sweater," Angus said.
Tanisa snorted. "Yeah. Lucky I don't set it on fire."
Nat stayed happily out of the fray. She'd changed her clothes five times this morning, mentally going from nun's habit to pup tent to down comforter. She'd finally settled on a brown tweed pantsuit, white tailored shirt, and a Herm¶s scarf in granny pastels. Hank would have approved of the outfit, but he'd left for work early and never got to see it, or to hear that she'd be at a prison today. That, he might not have approved.
"You gotta lose that beard, too." Tanisa clucked. "Looks like you got a damn dog stuck to your chin." She slammed the bars shut behind the three of them with a ringing clang, then locked the door with a large, crude key.
"I love a woman in uniform," Angus said, but Nat wasn't laughing.
I'm locked inside.
Tanisa turned on the rubber heel of her patent work shoe and led them into a wide hallway that appeared to run the length of the building, presumably the body of the T. A black male C.O. stood against the wall, and he acknowledged Angus with a nod. The lower half of the wall was mint green cinderblock, and the top half bulletproof glass, which exposed the inside of the rooms that lined the hallway. A floor of polished concrete shone dully, and the air felt hot and dry, overheated.
"Stop right there." Tanisa stiffened her arm, holding them back, and Nat felt herself tense. A line of red light bulbs protruding from the ceiling and had all flashed on suddenly.
"What's going on?" Nat asked.
Angus turned. "At the end of the hall are the residential pods, and whenever the C.O.s move the inmates across the hallway, the red lights go on. Wait a sec."
"Okay." Nat exchanged looks with the male C.O., who gave her a reassuring wink. In the next minute, inmates in white T-shirts and loose blue pants shuffled as a group from one side of the hall to the other, talking and laughing. Even though they were far away, a few spotted Angus and waved to him, and he waved back.
"My kids," he said softly.
Tanisa chuckled. "Then you need a new family."
Angus said to Nat, "It's only in the movies that a prison eats and exercises together. Inmates live, eat, and exercise in the same pod, which is corrections-speak for cellblock. That's why they're remodeling this facility, to build new pods."
Nat nodded. The inmates kept crossing the hall, the red warning lights flashing.
Angus continued. "They keep movement between pods to an absolute minimum and break up gang members among the pods. Here it's mostly Hispanic gangs, then Aryans and African Americans."
"I didn't know there were that many Hispanics in Chester County." Nat had always thought it was whiter than white out here, but she could see from the moving stream of inmates that her demographics had been wrong.
"They come up from Mexico to work on the mushroom farms and fancy horse farms. Some are gangbangers. It's East L.A. come to Chester County." Angus patted her shoulder. "Don't worry. The gangbangers live in RHU, the rehabilitation unit farther down the hall, far from our classroom."
"That's the processing room, where they handle intake and paperwork for the inmates." Angus pointed to the left, near them. "Here's our classroom, next to it is the infirmary, and behind that extra pods, temporarily converted to infirmary space. They're short some beds."
"This gonna be on the test?" Tanisa asked, and Angus smiled.
"How's your son, by the way?"
"Better, thanks." Tanisa turned away, lowering her arm as the stream of inmates ceased and the bars were locked behind them. The red lights blinked off. "Okay, time to make the doughnuts."
"This way, Natalie," Angus said, and they walked a few steps and entered an empty room off the hallway, its bottom half cinderblock painted white and its top the bulletproof glass. Bucket chairs in white plastic sat scattered around a white Formica table, and on the wall hung a greaseboard. On the board, ACTIONS was scribbled in black Sharpie, with an arrow leading to CONSEQUENCES. It seemed so clichéd that if Nat hadn't seen it, she never would have believed it.
"I'll go get 'em." Tanisa turned, leaving the door open. "Be right back."
"The heat's good, at least," Nat said after the C.O. was gone, just for something to say. The air in the room was hotter than the hallway, bringing up the smell of institutional disinfectant and body odor. She understood now why the inmates wore only undershirts and she instantly regretted her wool suit. Tweed was so supermax.
"It's because of the construction. Excuse me a sec." Angus took off his fisherman's sweater, yanking it over his head until his ponytail popped free. He tossed the sweater, inside out, onto the table. "Parts of the building are open, and the cold air gets in, so the thermostat overcompensates. It's been like this all winter."
"Tanisa will guard us during class, right?" Nat asked, but just then inmates began to file in through the open door—about fifteen men in T-shirts and blue scrub pants, worn with a variety of nondescript cotton sneakers. All shapes, colors, and sizes were represented; inmates had mustaches, plastic glasses, neck tattoos, and a gold chain or two, but they were all about the same age range, in their thirties.
"Good morning, gentlemen," Angus said with a smile, stepping to the head of the table. "How you all been?"
"Fine," answered a thin inmate, taking the first chair. The other inmates answered "good" and "good to see ya" with obvious warmth as they walked around the table and settled into their seats.
"See y'all," Tanisa said, then left, and no other C.O. came to replace her, which was when Nat got her answer.
Yikes! She and Angus were going to be unguarded, and the inmates weren't wearing handcuffs. Again, if she weren't living it, she wouldn't believe it was done this way. Angus rolled up the sleeves of his workshirt, and Nat held her papers to her chest, sweating through two layers of clothes and one security blanket. She avoided eye contact with the inmates, who seemed to look away from her, too, their heads down and manner subdued, like a class that hasn't done the reading. Ever, in their whole life.
Angus rubbed his hands together. "Gentlemen, I thought we'd do something different today, because by now you most definitely need a break from the Personal Choices lecture."
They all chuckled, and Nat braced herself to get started.
"This is Professor Natalie Greco, and she teaches a class called The History of Justice, in which she talks about law and justice. Is that something you gentlemen have any views on?"
"Hell, yes!" called out a heavy inmate, and they all laughed.
"Good. Now, before we get started, I see two new folks in the group." Angus gestured toward the end of the table, where two inmates sat, one burly and tattooed, and the other, slimmer and wearing glasses held together with Scotch tape. "I'm sorry, do I know you two?"
"Kyle Buford," answered the burly inmate. Crude blue tattoos blanketed his overdeveloped biceps.
"Pat Donnell," said the one with the broken glasses.
Angus frowned slightly. "Who admitted you gentlemen to the class? I don't remember getting your files."
"I dunno," Buford answered, and Donnell nodded. "They just told us to come and start today. I guess we were next on the list."
"I'll look into that, but welcome. Please, everybody, go around the table and tell Professor Greco your name. We'll make like summer camp, only it ain't summer and it sure as hell ain't camp."
The inmates laughed again and introduced themselves to Nat one by one, which put her more at ease. Their names, their voices, and their smiles transformed them from anonymous inmates to people, and it perked them up, too. Their aspect seemed collectively to change, eyes brightening and chins up, and they shifted forward in their seats, as if they'd reclaimed their identity. She remembered Angus saying that he treated the inmates as individuals, and she could see the effect of this.
"I almost forgot. Before we start, some old business. Remember we spoke last week about the staph infection issue?" Angus paused, and heads nodded. "I wrote the warden a letter, and he says there will be no transfers because of MSRA."
"Come on, bro!" an inmate said, scowling, and the other inmates started grumbling. One called out, "You can die from that sh—, thing!"
"Sorry, but that's the best I can do." Angus held up an authoritative hand in his loose workshirt, its baggy elbows thinned to a soft, washed blue. "MSRA is a common bacterial infection in prisons. Also in hospitals and schools, by the way. They're not gonna start transferring your ass outta here. This is the newest prison in the county. None of them is as clean as this one."
"That's 'cause they got me cleanin' it," a younger inmate called out, a gold crucifix looping his neck. Everybody laughed, even Nat.
Angus continued. "Allegheny County is where those two guys died, and you're better off here. Wash your hands as much as you can. The warden did agree that anybody with an open cut has an expedited pass to the infirmary. Just let one of the C.O.'s know."
"How much we owe you, mouthpiece?" the inmate with the crucifix asked, and everybody laughed.
"Nothing, and please, don't shake my hand." Angus shoved his hands in his pockets, and they all laughed again, including the skinny inmate in the front, who raised his arm cautiously.
"Can I ask a question, Angus?"
"Isn't Damian coming today?" The inmate was so thin, the bones of his sternum showed through the V-neck of his undershirt. "I wrote up some facts for my petition. He said he wanted it."
"No, sorry. Damian's sick. Give it to me and I'll make sure he gets it." Angus picked up the brown folder that the inmate slid across the table, opened it, and skimmed some papers, typed in old-fashioned Courier font. "Looks good, Jim. Great job. You had a public defender at trial, right?"
"He had a pubic defender!" interrupted Buford, the tattooed inmate.
Yuck. Nat stiffened.
Angus looked up with a deep frown. "That's enough of that, Kyle. We have a guest today."
"Only jokin,' man." Buford looked away, his reddish blue eyes scanning the others for approval.
"We don't joke like that here," Angus snapped. "You're new, but you know better. If you wouldn't say it in front of a C.O., you don't say it here. Please apologize to our guest." "That's okay," Nat interjected, wanting it to be over.
"It's all right."
"Ready to start then?"
No way. "Sure." Nat stepped forward as Angus stood aside, setting her accordion file on the table but not feeling brave enough to get her notes. She could teach the lesson by heart, though it would be hard to stay on message with Buford's eyes boring holes into her underwire.
"Well," Nat began, "thanks for having me today. Before I start, let me ask you a question. Has anybody read The Merchant of Venice?"
The inmates' expressions went uniformly slack, which she should have expected. At the end of the table, Buford chuckled and shook his head. Angus folded his arms and glared at him.
An inmate raised his hand. "I think we read it in high school. It's from Shakespeare, right?"
"Yes." Nat smiled, then got a better idea. "Let me ask you this instead: How many of you know what a shylock is?"
"You mean a shy?" the heavy inmate asked.
"Like a dude who lends you money?" another chimed in, and every hand shot up around the table, the inmates' faces quickly reanimating. They wanted to learn, she just had to figure out a way to reach them.
Buford lifted his illustrated arm. "I'm hot for teacher," he said, then burst into laughter.
"That's it." Angus stepped forward, his expression grim. "You're outta here, and I'm making sure that—"
Suddenly a siren outside the door burst into an earsplitting alarm. Nat jumped at the sound. Angus whirled to look out the door. Eyes flew open around the table. The inmates started leaping out of their chairs, shoving them and each other aside and shouting, "Lockdown!" "Go, go, go!" "It's the lockdown siren. We gotta go!" Inmates bolted for the door, bottlenecking at the threshold.
The announcement system burst into sound: "We are in lockdown! Repeat, lockdown! All inmates proceed to their pods without delay! All inmates proceed directly to their pods!" The male C.O. who had been standing outside the room took off down the corridor.
"What's happening?" Nat yelled, beginning to panic.
"Stay with me!" Angus grabbed her hand, yanking her out of harm's way just as the inmates rounded the table, heading for the door.
"Move, lady!" they shouted.
"Go, go, go!"
"We gotta get outta here!"
Suddenly Nat felt like she'd been hit by a truck. It was Kyle Buford, barreling into her. The impact threw her backward, knocking her wind out. She tried to get out of his way, but he was in her face, so close she could smell his breath. Then she realized that Buford wasn't trying to get to the door, he was trying to get to her.
Nat screamed as Buford wrapped his arms around her, squeezing her tight and tackling her. She fell backwards and banged her head and tailbone against the concrete floor. Pain arced through her head and back, momentarily immobilizing her as Buford clambered on top of her. Tears of fright sprang to her eyes. She couldn't catch her breath. His body was a deadweight. She couldn't believe this was happening. It was chaos. Everything was unfolding too fast to process.
Angus grabbed Buford by the shoulders, but the inmate twisted around and elbowed him viciously in the mouth, sending him staggering backward. Nat punched out with her fists. Buford grabbed a clump of her hair and slammed her head into the concrete. Her head exploded in agony. Her hands stopped punching and fell back against the floor. Buford was on her, trying to kiss her, his tongue thrusting into her mouth.
No, please don't.
Nat flailed out but couldn't stay conscious. The siren sounded far away. The loudspeaker announcement blared from another place and time. Angus grabbed Buford again, but the inmate threw himself back down on Nat, covering her like a mad dog, clawing her shirt open.
Buford reached her bra and grabbed her breasts. She hit him but then went weak. Her head thundered. She couldn't stay awake. She couldn't stop him. The room went dark.
2009© by Lisa Scottoline. All rights reserved.