Act IV

Thursday Morning:

Jim slid into his seat, anxious for class to begin. With a few chosen words, Jim was sure he could get a message to Blair. He needed to be pulled, and soon. Not only did he have that slime Miller to contend with, but he also was sure his problem with Vinson would only multiply. The problem was he needed evidence, hard facts about what was happening at nights in the workout room. Right now it was just his word. Once on the outside, everything would disappear, the roaring crowds, the betting, maybe even Vinson. If the warden was involved, that man would know to lay low until the investigation petered out.

Jim rapped his pencil on the desk and sat up straighter. He could hear Blair approaching the doorway, chattering a friendly 'hello' to the guard. The murmuring in the classroom died down as Blair entered the room and placed his briefcase on the desk. Blair looked up at the class, and Jim was surprised to see a relieved look on Blair's face. It's almost as if he didn't expect to see me.

Catching Blair's smile as he said 'good morning' to the class, Jim relaxed. It looked like maybe he could be out of this joint by lunchtime.

"Hey, Teach..." Jim started before he was interrupted by a shove to his shoulder.

"Curtis, get your butt out of my chair."

Surprised, Jim glanced up and found Miller standing next to his desk.

"Sorry," Jim said, his voice indifferent, and rose. "I didn't know it was yours."

"Yeah, right," Miller responded. "You think you can walk right in here and take anything you want." Jim was uncertain as to what Miller was trying to prove, except maybe getting the guard's attention.

"Miller, Curtis, knock it off and sit down," the guard yelled from the doorway.

"Hey, the seat's yours. I don't want any trouble." Jim walked away with upraised hands. He couldn't afford to be thrown out of the class.

"Yeah, like that's gonna make it okay." Miller pushed Jim up against the wall.

"That's it," Douglas shouted as he walked up to the two prisoners. "You two, out of class and back to your cells now."

"But..." Jim started to say.

"No talking, move it."

Jim barely had time to glance toward Blair before being ushered out of the door. However, he had plenty of time to look at Miller on the walk back to the cellblock. What he wouldn't give to wipe that smile off the little twerp's face. Damn, he didn't like this, not one bit.

Pushing the cart along, Miller had an extra kick to his step. He was getting out of this joint -- and soon. He looked around at the other cons. Suckers! Not him, though. He knew how to work the system, whether stuck in the slammer or on the outside. There were always two sides to a coin, and who said you couldn't choose both?

Bags were tossed into the cart as he wheeled it down the cellblock. Once again he had to wait for Jim's bag, and Miller eyed him suspiciously. "Laundry, man. Let's go!" he snapped. What the hell was the cop doing? He didn't trust him, but he wasn't worried because he knew he had the upper hand.

As Jim placed his bag on the cart, Miller asked, "You got what I need?"

"It's coming."

"You got 'til tomorrow or you're dead." Yep! He was in control. God! He loved that feeling of power.

And he was no dupe. Smart -- top of Vo-tech school. Yeah, he had the brains of the family. Even that classroom scene earlier hadn't fooled him.

After seeing the looks between Ellison and that teacher, Sandburg, he was sure that the longhaired geek was the inside contact. Either that or the cop had a thing for pretty men. Miller snorted at that thought. He'd fixed him good, though.

Reaching the laundry area, Miller pushed the cart in with the others, then paused, fingering the top bag. Suspicious, he reached inside and felt paper. Pulling it out, he realized it was a note and read the hastily scribbled words: 'Been ID'd. Pull me ASAP.' With a swift kick to the cart, he grew angrier by the minute as the words sunk in. Damn him! Damn that cop! You're not going to pull one over on me!

Miller laughed to himself as he got another piece of paper out from the old notebook he carried. He wrote a new note, folded it, and then stuffed it inside the bag. The soft clattering of footsteps warned him that a guard was coming so he quickly shoved the old note into his mouth. Mmmm. Mighty tasty!

Yep! Einstein had nothing on him.

Blair couldn't believe that he was sneaking around the hallways again. Why did it always look easier in the movies? Watching an inmate leave the laundry area, he quickly entered the room, knowing this time where to find the cart.

Jim's bag sat right on top, and Blair fished through the dirty laundry for the note. "Gotcha!" he said, chuckling softly. Opening the slip of paper, he read aloud, "'Making progress. Stay tuned. P.S. The food sucks here.'" Blair shook his head in amusement. "Oh, that's a good one, Jim. What'cha doing? Channeling me?"

He tucked the note safely into his pocket, then turned to leave.

"You lost, Teach?"

Oh, god! In the doorway stood that Nazi mountain of a man. Blair moved backwards, away from the formidable figure, and bumped into a row of shelving. Vinson took advantage of their positions and strutted closer, pressing his large body against Blair's and putting his arms on either side, hands resting against the edge of the middle shelf.

Searching for a guard, an inmate, anyone, Blair looked around frantically. Trapped! He was unbelievably trapped! High metal shelving was behind him, and in front of him was a man -- a man who made the Incredible Hulk look puny.

He thrust his good hand against Vinson's chest in an attempt to push him away, but it was like trying to move a brick wall. All that he accomplished with the futile movement was to give Vinson the opportunity to smirk at his predicament.

Then there was heaviness, hot and sweaty, as Vinson lowered his weight onto Blair, pressing Blair's back painfully into the shelving. Now on tippy-toes, stretching, twisting, squirming against the assault, Blair could feel Vinson's hot breath brush across his face as the con hissed, "I saw you making eyes at that Curtis guy. You into guys?" One hand moved off the shelf, and a thick finger stroked Blair's cheek, stopping at his lips. "A candyass like you could go far in a place like this."

Closing his eyes, Blair swallowed thickly and said, "Uh, I should --"

Before he knew it, a large hand clamped over his mouth, and words, low and dangerous, were spoken. "Should what, Teach? Should scream for the guard? It's a little late for that. There's nobody around -- nobody at all -- just you and me."

Breathing heavily through his nose, with his heart racing, he stared into Vinson's cold, deadly eyes that gleamed with power, hatred and disgust. Blair could read the perverse enjoyment the con was getting from his struggle, as if he were toying with a fly, ready to pluck the wings.

The other hand reached around the nape of his neck, fingers digging into the back of his hair, and pulled him closer. Then the hand dropped to his back, then even lower, giving a little squeeze. "You know what we do at night?

Blair didn't need to imagine what went on during the hours of darkness, and he certainly didn't need to hear the answer. With all his might, he raised his casted left wrist and brought it down hard in a swinging left cross onto Vinson's nose.

Oh, god. His eyes stung with tears at the impact; and intense pain flared up his arm, all the way to his shoulder. Hunched over, gasping for air, he realized that the restraining hands were gone. Immediately, he took off, scuttling toward the door -- ignoring Vinson's howling as the con stumbled away in pain and clutched his bleeding nose.

The roar of, "Ow! You little shit! I'm going to get you!" faded into the background as Blair ran from the laundry area. Slowing his pace to a fast walk once he reached the hallway, he cradled his throbbing left arm to his stomach and bit his lip to keep from moaning. Keep walking, he told himself. Don't look back. Don't you dare look back.

Jim strolled out into the recreational yard and spied Turner up on the risers reading a book. Time was running out; soon he'd be pulled out and he needed information now. Turner's resolve at being a loner was weakening. He could see it in the large black man's eyes, each time he issued a warning for Jim to back off or be careful.

Crossing the basketball court, he picked up a stray ball and tossed it one-handed to a waiting player. As he climbed the bleachers, he knew that he wasn't going to dance around the subject anymore, but be straight with Turner.

"I know what's going on here," Jim said as he sat down.

Turner didn't even look up from his book as he replied, "What do you know?"

"I know Camacho died in a fight last night with Vinson in the gym." He paused, letting Turner mull over the information, then continued, "In front of an audience."

Flipping a page of the book, Turner didn't even bat an eye at the mention of Camacho's death, but replied simply, "Guess his number was up."

"Meaning his number on the list?"

Turner closed the book and set it aside. Turning to face Jim, his eyes narrowed, and he asked, "Who are you, man? Ever since you got here, you've been asking questions...way too many questions. Just like this prison guard six months ago. Poking his nose around 'til he got shanked. Want to know why?"

Standing up, Turner looked down at Jim and continued, "He was a cop. Yo, Curtis, you a cop? If you ain't, I got nothing to say to you. If you are, maybe I can help."

"Why would you do that?

"So you can put in a good word for me at the parole board."

Jim took a deep breath. There was no turning back now. "I might be able to. No guarantees."

"What do you need?"

"I need evidence on the killings. Matty Temple, Doc Spenser. You in?"

Turner bent down and picked up his book. His eyes met Jim's; they were solemn, intense, as if conveying acceptance of the offer. "No guarantees," he said as he walked off.

Jim remained seated for a while after Turner left and watched two groups of inmates play a pickup game for a few minutes, then glanced over at the clock on the prison wall. Eleven-thirty. By now Blair should have the note. An hour -- in an hour he should be free of this place.

Blair sat on the exam table waiting for the doctor to return with his x-rays. His arm, now void of a cast, still throbbed. Apparently the whack he gave Vinson cracked his cast, and he could only hope that it also cracked the goliath's nose. He couldn't believe that after the encounter, he managed to sign-out of the prison and drive himself to the small town clinic. For a moment, he thought about going to see the prison doctor, but he was afraid that he might spook Dr. Wilder.

With his upper body only attired in a hospital gown, a slight breeze sent a shiver through Blair as the curtain parted and revealed a familiar figure.

"Hey, Simon, what are you doing here? Didn't I just talk to you?" Stupid question. Of course, he just did. He'd called from the clinic letting Simon know where he was and that he'd have to call him back. Which meant that the captain hadn't been in Cascade at the time, but had actually been somewhere in Starkville -- probably looking for him.

"I was a little bit nervous about leaving you on your own. Thought you might need supervision." Simon eyed the man, shaking his head. "And it appears that I was right. What the hell happened to you, Sandburg?"

"I sort of bumped into an immovable object," Blair offered as an explanation.

"Does that immovable object have a name?"

"Uh, yeah, a big giant of a man named Vinson. But it was just a disagreement, nothing to worry about, Simon," he hurried to add. No way did he want the captain to pull him from the assignment.

Simon raised an eyebrow at the brief account, and Blair ducked his head waiting to be grilled for the full story. When no immediate questions followed, he was relieved that the captain decided to let it rest for now.

"Blair." His name. His first name said with such warmth that it caused him to look up and meet Simon's eyes. "It’s my job to worry, not only about you, but also Jim." With their 'little moment' over, Simon returned to the real reason he was there. "Speaking of Jim, did you hear from him?"

"Check it out." Blair waved toward his jacket lying across the chair. "The note's in the side pocket."

The captain crossed the room and retrieved the crumbled paper from the pocket. Unfolding it, he quickly scanned the words, laughing at the last line. "The food sucks here. I suppose he's right. It's probably worse for him with his sense of taste." He set the note aside. "You see him today?"

"Briefly. He was at my class this morning, but another prisoner started an altercation and both he and Jim were thrown out of the classroom. I never had a chance to speak with him."

"I don't like it. You think someone was trying to keep Jim from talking to you?"

"I don't know. It seemed like a typical fight, territorial and all that stuff, over a stupid chair. I don't think anyone there suspects me." Blair paused in thought. "But you know what? I did see Dr. Wilder last night. She said she might be able to get Dr. Spenser's old files. Maybe that'll be enough and we can pull Jim. How long did Maggie say it would take to get him out?"

"An hour, maybe less."

"What do you want to do?"

"If Jim says he's okay, then he's okay. Give him another twenty-four hours."

The conversation between the two men was interrupted as a young doctor entered the cubicle.

"Looks like good news, Mr. Sandburg. There doesn't appear to be any substantial damage to your wrist. You might have bruised it slightly, there's a little swelling, but the bone is healing fine. In fact, I think we can forgo putting a new cast on the arm. Instead, a splint should support the wrist adequately for the remaining weeks. Just try to be a little more careful. I'm going to give you Tylenol with codeine for the initial discomfort, and after that Tylenol should handle any little aches or pain."

Blair nodded, relieved that he hadn't re-injured his wrist. There was no way he wanted to miss tomorrow's class and miss seeing Jim.

Thursday Evening:

Dinner was over, and he was still here. Feeling anxious and uneasy, Jim paced along the fence in the rec yard. "Come on, Simon, where are you?" He needed out -- things were starting to heat up. Miller was breathing down his neck for a free ride out, Turner knew he was a cop, and Vinson -- well, Vinson was definitely plotting something.

Looking around at the security, he read the sign posted. 'Warning: anyone attempting to cross this fence will be considered attempting to escape. You can be shot.' The sign was there as a deterrent, Jim knew that, but was it impossible to escape? He walked along the fence, studying the fortified barricade.

The first fence was about eight-feet high, topped with Constantine wire. Directly after that was another fence with sensors. He knew that it only took a couple of pounds of pressure to set the alarm off. Then rows of Constantine wire with small, sharp razors surrounded the prison. And finally, there was one more fence, most likely another sensor fence.

No. There was definitely no way over the fences. He needed another way out. Perhaps...?

It was then that he remembered the storage area and the vent with the open shaft. Even if it didn't lead to the outside, it could provide a place to hide. Tonight -- that's where he'd go. However, he needed to make his break before lockdown.

Checking to see where Vinson was, Jim spied him across the yard with his gang, their heads together, obviously in some sort of scheming or planning mode. He listened in.

<He doesn't leave the yard alive, Cooper. You got it?>

Jim didn't need a reference book to know who 'he' was. Avoidance was the name of the game, and he immediately turned around to go inside. Before he reached the door, falling in by his side were Vinson and Cooper. Jim kept walking, ignoring their presence, but at the same time on alert, ready for when they made their move.

Then something surprising happened. First one, then two, three, four black men -- no, even more now --surrounded him like a protective shield, blocking Vinson and his gang and allowing him to reach the door without incident. Turner was there, too. Shouting back at Vinson that they'd got him first.

He heard one inmate say to Turner that they were square now, evened up. Jim wanted to stop, whether to offer thanks or just to reassess the situation, he wasn't sure, but then Turner urged him on, saying, "Keep moving. We're on our own."

Together they walked down the hallway, no one talking until they turned a corner, and then Turner spoke, "Thought about what you said. About the parole board. You straight?"

"Absolutely. You can count on it," Jim said unwaveringly. He'd be there personally; he now owed this man his life.

"Here's what you got. High rollers driving in, betting ten grand a pop on the fights. Nobody who comes is going to say a word 'cause they're all accessories to violent crime."

"What about Matty Temple?"

"Vinson killed him in the ring. He was going to rat on the fights. Right now you got a bigger problem than making a case. Vinson's coming for you. You gotta get your people to pull you out."

Jim knew that Turner couldn't have been more right with that statement, however, he didn't think it was going to happen. "I put out the word. Something must have gone wrong. I got to get out on my own somehow."

Turner just stared at him with an incredulous look on his face. "You're crazy, man."

"Check it out. There's this open shaft behind the metal shop. Where does it go?"

"Steam plant."

"And after that, where?"

"You're stuck. No way out. Unless..." Turner paused for a moment. "I worked a crew that laid pipe down there. There's dozens of these tunnels and shafts all around the steam plant. You find the right tunnel, and it's a straight run to the river."

"Thanks, man." Jim walked back to his cell, thinking about what Turner had told him. It looked like that would be his way out -- through the metal shop. Tonight he'd make his break. One way or another, he was leaving Starkville Prison and the horrific memories it contained behind.

So, far it'd been easy to elude the guards as he left cellblock 'B' and made his way to the metal shop. With his senses tracking their whereabouts, he timed each movement carefully. Nearing the metal shop, Jim jerked in surprise when a hand reached out and grabbed him.

"You going somewhere without me, Cop?" Miller hissed. His eyes flashed with anger and mistrust.

Great. How'd he miss Miller following him? He'd been so focused on the guards and the security, that he never heard the footsteps behind him. Escaping without detection was going to be difficult enough, now it just increased times ten. "I'm working on it. Now get out of here." Come on. Just leave.

"You're taking off. Well, I'm going with you."

Jim knew that it had been too much to hope for Miller to be sensible; and he couldn't stay in this hallway forever. Another plan was needed -- quickly -- and he decided for a little intimidation. Grabbing Miller by the shirt, Jim shoved the con against the wall and whispered heatedly, "Listen to me, Miller. You just stay cool. I told you I'd take care of you." He gave the con an extra shake, then started to walk away.

Miller followed, trailing after Jim, his voice rising in volume with each step. "Yeah, you try leaving me here, and I'll go right to the warden, man. I'll rat you out."

Damn! The little weasel had him. Jim spun around and pointed his finger at the con. "All right. You screw up and we're both dead. Now let's go."

They continued down the hallway, and then entered the metal shop. Heading straight to the storage area, Jim stood in front of the security panel and punched in the code.

"How'd you get the code, man?"

Ignoring the question, he hurried to open the door. The security camera in the corner hadn't gone undetected by him, and he knew that they had to get out of view quickly. Once inside the small room, Jim located a screwdriver and began removing the vent cover while directing Miller. "Get the flashlight and wire cutters."

He set the cover aside and climbed through the opening. Miller was quick to follow. As soon as they were both inside the shaft, Jim lifted his face upward, feeling the air current brush across his face, then said, "This way"

Walking only several yards through the tunnel, their forward movement was halted by a grated gate blocking their exit. "You got those wire cutters?" Jim asked.

Miller handed him the cutters, muttering uneasily, "Come on. Come on." The con shuffled his feet nervously and took a quick glance over his shoulder, then raised the flashlight to shine on where Jim was working.

With a quick squeeze, Jim snapped the chain that had secured the gate and swung it open. All of a sudden, footsteps from behind them echoed noisily in the tunnel, and he heard a loud shout. "Don't move! Hold it right there!"

Turning around, with hands raised, Jim saw two guards, Burnette and Douglas, approaching them; rifles were pointed at their chests.

"That's far enough," Burnette warned.

Miller edged closer. "Mr. Burnette. Mr. Burnette, sir, there's some...something I got to tell you about this guy.

Jim knew it! He just knew he couldn't trust Miller. That two-timing son of a bitch! Out to save his own skin. Standing there, Jim fumed, wishing he could wrap his fingers around Miller's neck. That'd keep his mouth shut.

"Save it. Get out of here." Burnette jerked his rifle toward the exit.

"What?" Miller sounded puzzled by that offer, and Jim was just as confused. What was Burnette up to?

"The river's that way. Go on, before I change my mind."

Taking a step, Miller hesitated and looked back, unsure what to do. Then he turned around and ran. He'd only gone several yards when the loud report of the rifle reverberated through the shaft.

Jim stared in disbelief as Douglas lowered the rifle. It had been murder, plain and simple, without hesitation, without remorse. And what about him? Was he next?

Burnette strutted over to Jim and said, "You're going to work a little harder to die."


Act V