By Karina Gioertz
Chapter 1 Tommy
Tom McCarthy wasn’t a big man. His tall build was lean and slender, yet far from intimidating. These thoughts flashed through his mind as he heard the heavy door slam shut behind him. All of his instincts were screaming at him to spin back around, to call after the guard whose footsteps he could already hear fading, as they moved further down the hall and away from his cell. Tom was prepared to beg, to plead for his life. To say whatever he needed to, if it only meant that he would be released from this place. He didn’t belong there. Why hadn’t anyone understood? He had explained it time and time again, first to the officers who had brought him in for questioning and then again after they had arrested him. He had spent hours discussing the situation with his attorney. A man who had claimed to believe in his innocence and who had made it all sound so simple. Tom’s lawyer had been so certain he would be released, as long as Tom played along, and Tom had played along. He had done everything he had been told, and yet, here he was. He had had an eerie feeling that the judge at his hearing had made up his mind about Tom long before meeting him. Still, Tom had followed the plan laid out for him by his attorney. He had been polite and respectful. Kept quiet, even as the accusations were flying across the room. It hadn’t been until the very end, after the judge had rendered his ruling, that Tom had jumped to his feet in an outcry over the injustice. Even as the police officers were dragging him from the courtroom, Tom had been calling out to the judge, in a last effort, to tell his side of the story. The true story, a version nobody seemed to be familiar with anymore.
It was too late now. Begging for help at this point would do more harm than good. As Tom fought the urge to try and force his way through the barrier that was now the door to his new residence, he remained frozen in place. Unable to move forward and yet, refusing to turn back. Thoughts and memories were flashing before his eyes a mile a minute. He wasn’t sure how long he had been standing there with his blank stare, when his surroundings finally crept in through the mirage of images that had flooded his vision. The lighting was bad as the sun had already set and the interior lighting had been dimmed, still, he could tell that his cell was small. No more than six feet across and maybe 12 feet deep. There was a bed on each side of the room and a stainless steel toilet in the corner over to his left. On the walls above each of the beds, there were small book shelves, and at the very end of the room, staring back at him, was an old radiator that appeared to have a small leak, which was causing a small puddle of murky water to gather on the ground beneath it. The longer he examined the small space, the less afraid he became. Maybe the sheer horror of it all had simply numbed him to his newfound fate, or maybe it was the realization that there was a distinct possibility of survival here. In spite of everything, the necessities were there. If he could only manage to put one foot before the other, to take one day at a time, somehow, he could get through this and possibly return to his real life at the other end. No sooner had he allowed a deep sigh of relief to pass through his lungs and out past his lips, that he heard it. A small sound, no more than a clearing of one’s throat, and yet it was that very sound that caused him to choke on his own breath. Tom wasn’t alone. There was another man in the cell with him, only in the bad lighting he hadn’t seen him until now. Even as Tom became aware of his presence, he couldn’t make out very much about the man he would now be bound to for the foreseeable future. He was lying flat on his bed and appeared to already be asleep. Not wanting to make a first impression as the guy who woke him, Tom decided to follow suit. He quietly inched his way over to his own cot to his right and lay down upon it. For a long time, he just lay there, staring up at the ceiling and reliving the events that had brought him to this moment in time. A moment, he had never seen coming. After all, he had known better. He had been taught better, had learned from the mistakes of others…still, here he was. Exhausted and drained, Tom fell asleep in the emptiness of the dark and hearing nothing more than the quiet snore of his cellmate and the constant drip of the radiator. “There’s comfort to be found even in the darkest corners. In a few days, this won’t be as terrifying…it’ll just be familiar.” And with those thoughts, a dreamless sleep engulfed him. The next morning, Tom McCarthy was dead.
One of the guards, who was just finishing up his shift, found Tom’s body the next morning during his final rounds. “I need back up in Cell Block C15, inmates Praier and McCarthy. Send a medic. It appears there’s been a suicide,” Officer Kane said, as he lifted his two way radio to his mouth. Tom’s cellmate, Richie Praier, seemed to still be sleeping, when Officer Kane called for backup at the sight of Tom’s lifeless body lying on the floor beside the bed he had fallen asleep in just a few short hours ago. There was little question of what had happened. The way his body had been contorted to repeatedly twist the long strip of bedding that connected Tom McCarthy to the exposed pipe of the radiator, was a clear indication that his attempt to die of asphyxiation had been successful. It was nothing more than an automatic reaction to follow protocol, as Officer Kane bent down and reached for Tom’s throat to check for a pulse.
By now, Richie Praier had woken and was curiously examining the scene that lay before him, in what was already a very cramped space. Still, three more prison guards entered the cell. One of which was there to escort Richie from the room. In situations like these, it was standard procedure for the Warden to question the deceased’s cellmate. Even when the cause of death was clear, an investigation of sorts was launched. Partially to give the victim’s family some sort of peace, but mostly to prevent any negative attention the prison might receive from the media following any kind of unusual death in the case of an inmate.
“Praier. Were you aware of this?” demanded Officer Kane, having become suddenly aware of Praier’s presence.
“No, sir. I slept like a baby all night” replied Richie, trying to conceal the faintest hint of a smirk.
Kane made a sound that resembled a “humpf” and said, “Nevertheless, the Warden will want to see you. Delgado, take him” He pointed at one of the guards who had answered his call for backup. Delgado quickly stepped forward to take a hold of Richie Praier.
He stood completely still, as Delgado prepared him for his walk to the Warden’s office. Being patted down and chained by the wrists and ankles was as routine to Richie Praier as brushing his teeth. Once Officer Delgado was sure that Praier had been secured, he proceeded to escort him from the cell and out into the hall.
As Richie entered the Warden’s office, he glanced around the familiar room. He had been there plenty of times before, and as usual, not much had changed. The desk remained cluttered with papers and files. An empty coffee mug served as a paper weight and various pens and pencils were stuffed into what appeared to have been the cardboard cylinder left behind from a used roll of toilet paper. It had since been transformed through some sort of arts and crafts activity that took place at kindergarten. Filing cabinets lined the walls, all of which were covered in picture frames. Most of them contained photos of freckled faced children with rusty red hair, identical to their father’s, Warden Neally who was currently seated behind his desk. He was facing Praier and Delgado with his backside, as his chair was turned towards the window.
Officer Delgado stood there for a moment, quickly sinking into what was becoming an increasingly uncomfortable silence, before trying a quiet cough to get the Warden’s attention.
“Sir?” he finally asked, when coughing didn’t work.
At last the Warden spun around in his chair to face them. Although the moment he did, Delgado found himself wishing he hadn’t. The Warden’s expression was that of a man who was silently fuming, brooding furiously and ready to blow at any moment. However, when he spoke, he demonstrated a controlled tone that neither matched nor diffused the feelings he was so clearly displaying on his face.
“Thank you, Delgado. I can take it from here,” he said curtly, nodding at Delgado and directing his gaze towards the door. Delgado was happy to jump on his subtle cues.
“Yes, sir.” He replied, as he hurried from the room.
Meanwhile, Richie Praier remained standing in the middle of the room facing forward and not saying a word. Warden Neally was now carefully examining the man before him. Intensely searching for even the slightest indication of guilt or wrong doing. He was certain it was there. The question was simply a matter of where, not if. Never if.
“So…I hear we’ve had another incident.” He finally said, clenching his teeth together as to keep the anger from escaping his gut and exploding all over the small room.
“Suicide, Sir.” Praier replied without skipping a beat. The answer was generic. Rehearsed, almost.
“So I’ve been told.” The Warden was growing more and more agitated. Praier however, was not fazed by this in the slightest.
“It’s a real shame.” He said, without even a hint of regret in his voice. It was all the Warden could do to keep from lunging at Praier’s throat from across the desk.
“Yes, I’m sure. Listen carefully, Praier!” Warden Neally bellowed. “I intend to have this investigated to the fullest extent. If I hear that so much as a single hair of yours was found within a three foot radius of that boy’s body, I will have the State attorney’s office breathing so far down your neck, you’ll feel the hot air coming out of your ass! I don’t care if you’re serving one life sentence or twenty. It’s all the same to me. And if by some miracle I get a shot at getting you the death penalty, believe me Praier, I’m gonna take it!”
By the time he finished his rant, the Warden was just inches from Praier’s face, who seemed not only calm and unfazed by the Warden’s threats, but added insult to injury by allowing his pale, thin lips to ease into an arrogant grin, as he simply responded, “Yes, Sir.”
Stunned by Praier’s reaction, Warden Neally took a step back. Feeling suddenly let down after such an elevated state of emotions, he lowered himself a bit and sat on the edge of his desk, as he continued to contemplate the truth he knew was hidden behind Richie Praier’s face of stone. Unable to delve any further beneath the surface, he finally reached for his intercom and pressed down the button.
“We’re done in here. Send Delgado back in.”
Moments later, the door opened and an agitated Officer Delgado re-entered the room.
“Get him out of here.” The Warden spat, giving one last show of the disgust he felt in regard to the prisoner standing before him. Having already turned around to face the window once more, he was not aware of the fact that Delgado was not only hesitant to follow orders, but was actually frozen in place, unsure of how to proceed. Finally, he cleared his throat and said, “Sir, his cell…”
Without turning around, Warden Neally responded, “I think he’ll do just fine in solitary for a week or so. Give him some time to grieve the loss of his cellmate without any interruptions.” Then he leaned his head towards Praier ever so slightly, to ensure that he was able to see that it was now the Warden who was smiling.
Delgado quickly fell back into routine procedure, as he gripped Praier by the wrists and began to lead him out.
No sooner had Delgado answered and the two men had left the office, making their way through the prison and towards the solitary cells that Praier would reside in, until further notice.
Meanwhile, the Warden remained standing in his spot, gazing out through the window. Staring at a view that consisted of orange jumpsuits and barbed wire and yet seeing nothing at all. Praier had created quite a mess this time, but if nobody could prove it, maybe no one would ever need to know.
To Be Continued…
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