In the prison to end all prisons, where men are thrown to die, only one inmate wears chains.
Jackson stepped out of his cell, moving at a leisurely pace. Having been in places like this plenty of times before, he knew that keeping sane was about those little moments of control, even if the only victim of it was himself. Fifteen minutes into the day’s rec hour, and he wasn’t even down in the pit yet with the rest of the prisoners. He leant on the railings of the gallery that ran all the way around the hexagonal tower that had, in the last few weeks, become his entire world. The pit – a wide space filled with metal tables and fixed chairs which now swarmed with orange-jumpsuited bodies – was maybe forty feet below him. Above, more floors like this one: grated metal galleries opening into cells built into the concrete walls. Up there, barely visible at the very top of the structure was a bank of huge, whirring fans, the only ventilation in this, the prison to end all prisons. No wonder they all called it the pit. That was what it was: a pit, in which they’d be thrown, to rot.
He began to walk towards the stairs, controlling his movements, flexing his muscles as he walked, savouring these tiny pleasures. At first this place had been okay. Not so different from any other cell block and, in some ways, better than a few he’d had the dubious pleasure of staying in. But that had passed. It was the sunlight he missed most of all. There were no windows in the cells or anywhere else, and all illumination was provided by fluorescent strip lights. He couldn’t be certain, but he had begun to suspect the rhythms of night and day were observed irregularly – lights-out seemed to come arbitrarily, and he often woke up still tired in the morning, blinking in the artificial light. Another way to shake them up; to wear them down. This wasn’t an ordinary prison, and not just because of the unusual architecture. Everywhere else he’d been, there were things that made life bearable, small things to remind you you were still human. Not here. The food was bad, the rec time was limited, there wasn’t a gym, TV room or library. The only pleasure allowed to them was tobacco, and that was why the fans were always up there, making a low drone that he’d at first found unbearable but which he now barely noticed. Even with them, the pit was filled with a miasma of reeking smoke. If you didn’t smoke when you got here, you soon learned to. It was the only status symbol available, the only privilege to trade, the only way of measuring hierarchy. And men needed hierarchy, even in this place. The guards, with flak jackets marked with a corporate logo and semi-automatics in their gloved hands were anonymous and untouchable. Defying them would get you a bullet in the gut. He’d seen it happen more than once already.
He reached the bottom of the stairs and walked between the tables were the other prisoners played cards, chess, draughts, dice games – anything that would keep them occupied. They were uniformly sallow-skinned from lack of natural light, gaunt, with dark rings under their eyes. Broken men, for the most part. Jackson took a seat opposite Ricky, his cellmate. He was shuffling a dog-eared pack of cards and started dealing without saying anything. A cigarette was perched loosely between his lips.
“Let it go, man,” he said, without taking his eyes off the cards as he dealt them out.
Jackson was looking over Ricky’s shoulder at the big man a couple of tables away. Rommel. A guy almost as big as he was, shaved head, tattoos, white. They both knew how this was supposed to go: they’d both been inside. That was obvious. Jackson took his cards. “I can’t.”
“I told you: it ain’t like that here.” Ricky grinned as he looked at his hand. He had to have the worst poker face Jackson had ever seen. They got along fine. Ricky had been a small-time crook from the Bronx. Nobody special. But one day a dirty cop had beaten his friend to death, and he went on a rampage of sorts. He ended up on the run, nearly reaching the Canadian border before they hauled him in. By that time there were seventeen officers dead, and he was the most notorious cop-killer in the country. Jackson vaguely remembered seeing him on TV.
“It’s like this everywhere. It’s about dominance.” Jackson took three cards.
“You’re wasting your energy. We’re all in this pit together, brother. You know what they do when fights start?” Ricky only replaced one card.
“They start spraying bullets. Other joints, they just break things up, do enough to stop the fists throwing and, if you’re lucky, you get a couple of days in solitary. Here, they ain’t so forgiving. Last time some big bruiser tried to start a riot, there was blood all over this floor.” He nodded down at the concrete significantly, and Jackson followed his gaze, seeing the brown stains.
“I’ve seen fights here.” He pulled out his pack of cigarettes and threw two into the middle of the table between them.
“Sure. Fights. Quiet fights they don’t mind. Guys getting beat up in their cells, who cares? Just keep it out of the pit, right?”
“The guy in the cell across from us jumped last night. You see that?”
“Uh huh.” Ricky put in two cigarettes and added another.
“You don’t sound surprised.”
“It ain’t a big deal,” he shrugged.
“I thought the wires were electrified.” He looked up towards the ceiling, over a hundred feet above his head. The view gave him vertigo. Wide mesh was stretched around each gallery to prevent exactly what had happened.
“They are. But if you’re determined enough…” He glanced at Jackson. “You gonna see my bet or what, man?”
Jackson grunted. His hand was shit, but he raised Ricky another cigarette anyway. “You get a lot of jumpers?” He’d seen two already, and he’d only been here three weeks – at least as far as he could tell. There were no calendars and no clocks in the pit.
“A few. Mostly it’s easier to get your cellmate to do it though.”
Jackson raised his eyebrows. “For real?”
“The guards don’t care?”
“Nope.” Ricky sighed. “Ah fuck it, I fold.” He threw his cards down.
“Yeah. I had a pair of threes.” He flicked over his cards. The faces were stained and yellowed.
“No, I mean about the guards.”
“We kill each other and they don’t lift a finger. It’s fucked up.”
“This world is fucked up, buddy. That’s why we’re in this fucking tank. C’mon, what did you have?”
“Jack shit.” He turned his cards over.
“You son of a bitch…”
Jackson looked up at Rommel again. He hadn’t taken his eyes off him all the time they’d been playing. “That Nazi piece of shit has his eye on me, I’m telling you. Look, maybe you think this place is different, but every joint I been in you got to establish a pecking order, right? And I don’t do well at the bottom of the heap.”
He started to stand, but Ricky pushed him down. Jackson was stronger, but he let his cellmate win this time. “Seriously: it ain’t worth it. Trust me. Listen,” he said, leaning close, “I told you the deal here. We’re the worst of the worst, right? Serial killers, rapists, kiddie fuckers, cop-killers.” He snorted. “Multiple life sentences, no parole. No visiting hours, no time off for good behaviour, no privileges, no nothing. Just a fucking hole in the ground.”
“It ain’t a hole in the ground. I saw it from outside.” He hadn’t even known what state he was in, but judging by the terrain it was somewhere in the Midwest. A flat nothing, and through the grills on the prison wagon he’d made out a concrete tower, like a grain silo, rising up into the cornflower blue sky. They drove through a scuzzy shithole town, some skidmark on the ass of America. To think, his last view of the outside world would be downtown Bumfuck, Iowa or whatever. He hadn’t even known this place existed. No one here seemed to have either. Ricky was right: it was where they put the worst scum of all. Why they didn’t just execute them, Jackson didn’t know. Maybe there were secret cameras and this was some fucked up reality show, entertaining America. It wouldn’t surprise him.
He looked around the pit at the other prisoners. Most of them looked like the hardened criminals they were, but there were others, furtive, grey-haired men. The perverts. They lasted the shortest time of all. There was no segregation here. When word got round, their days – even the excuses for days they had here – were numbered. Jackson supposed the pit was a method of execution after all; the slowest, cruellest one imaginable, driving men insane and letting them kill themselves and each other.
“Three years I been in here,” Ricky said, out of nowhere.
“Uh huh. Close as I can figure, anyway. Three years since I saw the sun. Three years since I drank a beer. Three years since I fucked a girl. Some guys – guys like you, maybe – they fight to pass the time. But me, I just wanna survive.”
“I dunno. Maybe this place’ll get shut down. Maybe they’ll let us go. Maybe fucking…I dunno…Amnesty International will protest about it.”
“No one care’s about us.”
“Man’s gotta have hope. Don’t you miss stuff?”
“You ain’t got a life out there? A woman? A job? Kids?”
“You’re lucky then, I guess.” He started to deal again, but then a hush came over the other prisoners. Ricky turned and then made a face. “Oh.”
“What is it?” Someone was coming down the stairs from one of the upper levels, escorted by two guards. He wore the same orange jumpsuit as the rest of them, but he clinked on the grating as he walked.
“Old guy. Been here since forever.”
He came down the staircase opposite then, still flanked by the armed guards, and Jackson saw he was chained hand and foot. He shuffled along, a bent old man with wispy grey hair, glasses and pale skin. He looked sick. The guards led him over to an empty table and he sat down, shifting his legs awkwardly as he slid onto the bench. There was a pack of cards on the table and he opened it and started laying them out. Jackson couldn’t see what he was doing, but the guards retreated and left him to it.
“Who the hell is he?”
“No idea. Everyone calls him Chains.”
“I never saw him before.”
“They only let him out once a month.”
Jackson stared at the old geezer. Everyone slowly returned to what they were doing. “They keep him chained, and he only gets let out of solitary one hour a month?”
“How the hell should I know? You ever known a guard in this place who tells you anything?”
“What did he do?”
“I told you,” Ricky said, sounding irritated, “I got no fucking idea.”
Jackson looked around. He knew some of his fellow prisoners’ stories: they were all murderers, and most were hardened killers. Gang-bangers, psycho cannibals, guys who kept women chained up in their basements for years, and all the kiddie-fuckers with their terrified furtive glances around the room. The worst of the worst. So what could this guy have done to be treated this way?
“Anyone ever talk to him?”
“Not that I ever saw.”
Jackson licked his lips and started to stand up.
“Hey, what you doing? Leave that fucker Rommel alone…”
“I don’t care about him. I’m gonna talk to Chains.”
“What? Are you crazy?”
“What does it matter in this place?” No one stopped him as crossed the pit and took the seat opposite the manacled prisoner. He had the cards laid out in a game of patience, and he was concentrating all his attention on playing it. Alone of all the inmates, he wasn’t smoking.
“What’s happening, pops?”
“If you’re planning to attack me, you might want to rethink it, son,” Chains answered without looking up.
“Why? You think you can take me?”
“Not me. Them.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the guards who now waited at the bottom of the stairs, watching them.
“They’ll protect you?”
“They want me alive.”
Chains finally looked up. His eyes were blue, and his gaze was surprisingly steady. “What do you want?”
“I was curious.”
“You. Why are you wearing those?”
“I don’t know about you, but they didn’t give me a choice of clothing.”
“Not the suit: the chains.”
“To stop me escaping I suppose. Same as the bars, the locks, the walls.”
“No one else wears chains.”
Chains smiled faintly. “That’s their problem, not mine.”
“What did you do?”
“What does it matter?” He was still placing cards carefully, stopping every now and again to consider a move.
“You know what I did?” Jackson asked.
“How could I? When do you think the last time I read a newspaper was?”
“I’m a killer.”
“You and everyone else in here, son.”
“Not just any killer though,” he said, lowering his voice, “a stone-cold killer.”
“Right. Big strong man. Very impressive.”
“I was just a two-bit thug once. But I found I had a talent for murder, you know? Pretty soon, I was taking jobs, taking out people who pissed off the wrong men. Men, women, I didn’t give a shit. I was the best. Know how many I killed?”
“No.” Chains still kept his attention on his game.
“Three-hundred-and-seventeen.” If that impressed the old man, he didn’t show it. “I tried going legit once,” Jackson went on, “joined one of those security companies in Iraq, you know? Thought I’d kill some people on the government’s dime. But they were no better than the lowlifes I used to run with over there. Amateurs. Sloppy work all round. So I came home and kept doing what I did best. Sniper rifle, garrotte, knife, my bare hands. Whatever the client asked for. By the end it was all really classy. Russian mobsters with big white houses and little white wives who sometimes wanted things done clean, sometimes messy. To send a message, you know?”
“Fascinating,” Chains said.
“I’ve asked around a little. Far as I can make out, no one here’s killed more people than me. I was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. For real. They don’t come much more dangerous than me.”
Chains looked up. “Am I supposed to care about any of this?”
“No. But what I can’t figure out is why I’m allowed down here every day, why I’m allowed to walk around without cuffs on, and you ain’t. What did you do, Chains? How many did you kill?”
The old man looked down at his cards. He seemed to have reached an impasse. With a heavy sigh, he scooped them up and started to shuffle them into the pack again. “What makes you think I killed anyone?”
“Everyone in here did. You said so yourself. Even the perverts. If all they did was get a little too familiar with their nieces, they’d be in with general population. These are the real sickos. And you gotta be the sickest of all, right?”
Chains smiled faintly. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “Perhaps. You want to know how many I killed?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t kept count. But I think it must be in the thousands by now.”
Jackson stared. “Thousands?”
“Yes. Probably. More every day, in a hundred different ways. That’s why I’m here, my friend. I’m here to prove there is such a thing as justice.”
“This place isn’t about justice,” Jackson said. He looked up again at the bleak hexagonal tower that was now his entire life. He did miss some things. The wind on his scalp. The rain on his skin. Freedom. He’d never had much of a home, never had a girl for more than a night, never even thought about kids. Killing was all he cared about. He missed that most of all. In here, he was nothing. None of them were. Just men thrown in a pit to die.
“The only justice to be found here,” Chains said, “is right in front of you. I’m living proof that the system works.”
“Oh yeah? You’re the one guy who deserves to be here, because you killed so many people?”
“Yes indeed. Thousands of men are dead because of me. So I rot in here with the rest of you.”
Jackson shook his head. “How could you kill so many?”
Chains started to stand up and the guards moved towards him. “I designed this place,” he said simply.