They came after Dane in the showers while he had soap in his eyes.
It was pretty much how he'd expected the hit to go down during his first six months in the can, but by the end of the first year he'd dropped his guard and started to grow a little comfortable. You'd think it was impossible, getting used to a place like this, but it had slowly crept over him until now he nearly enjoyed the joint. The crazy sounds in the middle of the night, the constant action, and the consoling security of having bars and walls on every side.
He'd gotten some of his edge back after the fire, but it hadn't lasted long enough. The Monticelli family held Dane in such low regard that they'd contracted outside their usual channels and hired one of the Aryans.
A guy called Sig, who whistled old Broadway show tunes only Dane recognized. Usually from South Pacific
, and Oh, Kay
! It got your foot tapping. Sig had Joseph Mengele's profile branded into his chest. He used matches to singe away his body hair, the black char marks crossthatching his body. This Sig, he was a masochistic pyro who'd hooked up with the skinheads because you could get away with searing yourself to pieces with them. In the name of racial purification.
Dane was in his cell reading when Sig walked down the D-Block aisle holding a little plastic bottle of gasoline he'd filched from the workshop. Unable to contain himself, Sig let out a squeal of wild joy and Dane looked up to see a liquid arc flashing through the air. He rolled over and yanked his mattress on top of him just as Sig tossed a lit match, his eyes full of love and awe. The cell burst into flames and Dane squeezed himself behind the toilet, pressed his face into the bowl to soak his hair, and used his hands to cup water and splash himself down.
This Sig though, he had some issues. He cherished the fire so much that, standing there, he grew jealous of Dane being in the middle of the flames. Tugging at his crotch, he stepped into the cell, spritzing gasoline from his bottle left and right. It was a good thing the mental institutions were even more overpacked than the prisons, or maybe the Monti family wouldn't have wound up with such a schiz.
The flames bucked and toppled over Sig. He flailed, spun, and took a running leap off the second floor D-Block tier.
Dane sat with toilet water dripping down his face while he tried to take in the whole moronic situation. The bulls worked fast with their extinguishers. When they found him he was laughing on the shitter, thinking about how Vinny would react to the news when it got back to him.
It had been funny more than anything, so he grew complacent again. He kept waiting for the family to pay off a pro who would do the job right. There were at least five guys on D-Block that Dane would never be able to take on his best day. But instead of doing him in, they let him read his books, play chess with the old-timers, and even spotted him when he worked the heavy weights in the gym.
Dane had grown especially sloppy these last few weeks, with his grandmother and the dead girl always on his mind. He should've known the hit would happen today, since it was their last chance to make a play while he was still on the inside.
But he'd been worried about getting presentable and smelling fresh for when he saw Grandma Lucia this afternoon. He thought about her slapping him in the back of the head, telling him that just because he was in prison didn't mean he couldn't still look nice.
Dane thumbed the suds off his face and tried to clear his vision as they came at him from the front, standing shoulder to shoulder. They weren't pros. They had the jitters, hands trembling as they held out poorly sharpened shanks.
Mako stood about five-one and suffered from short-guy syndrome. Always getting into everybody's face and tackling the biggest cons just to show them he wasn't afraid. He loved to scrap but never went in for anything much heavier than that. Put a weapon in his hand, and he didn't know what the hell to do with it. Even now he held the shank wrong, high and aimed back toward his own belly, so it would be easy to twist his wrist and get him to fall onto the blade. He looked like he was going to either scream or cry, and Dane felt a sudden wash of pity for him.
Kremitz was an insurance investigator who'd sign off on almost any suspicious claim so long as he got a kickback from it. He'd done all right for himself for a couple of years but finally got nabbed in a sting run by the fire marshal. Kremitz was muscular but gangly, with an ambiguous temperament. He'd used a shiv on his Aryan cellmate a while back but only after being sodomized for about a year. He was known as a wild card on the block. You never knew which way Kremitz might jump.
Dane had never gotten used to being naked in front of other men. Not in the high school showers, not in the army, and especially not here in the slam. And now he had to stare down these two with his crank hanging out.
They gaped at his scars, the way they wove up and twisted around to the back of his neck. Dane could brush his hair to hide most of the metal plates securing his skull, but under the showerhead they came up polished and gleaming. The shiv started to dance in Mako's hand.
"How'd they get to you two?" Dane asked, genuinely curious.
"The same way they get everybody," Kremitz said. "They want something done, they put the pressure on until it's done. Me, they reeled me in through my brother. He owes twelve grand to their book. Likes to think he's going to get off the docks by winning on college basketball. He used to get out from under by jacking a few crates, but this time, he gets caught. The other longshoremen kick the shit out of him because he hasn't given anybody a taste. He's got no other way to pay off. So it falls to me to save his worthless neck."
"Sorry to cause you trouble."
"It's not your fault. Just bad luck all around. Except for my brother. He's just an asshole."
Turning to Mako, though, Dane could see the little guy had no excuse except he was scared.
Water swirled madly down the drains. A shadow moved at the front of the showers, where someone was standing guard to keep others out. At least one bull would've been paid off, possibly more.
Dane touched the scars and felt some of the tension leave him. There was power in your own history, in the stupid traumas you'd endured.
"I ain't got nothin' against you," Mako said.
Kremitz agreed. "Me neither. Really."
"I know it," Dane said. He just kept shaking his head, thinking how ridiculous it would be to buy it now, only a couple hours from being on the street again. "I'll be out of here this afternoon. When I'm gone, the heat'll be off you."
"Lis--listen--" Mako had to cough the quiver out of his throat. "The Monticelli family won't forget us if we foul this up."
"Yeah, they will." It was true. This wasn't Vinny's serious play anyhow. It was him having fun, breaking balls, keeping Dane on his toes.
"Those bunch of goomba pricks don't forget nothin' about nobody," Mako whined, shuffling his feet so they squeaked. "If they did, they'd have let you ride out of here."
"It's a different situation."
"And I'm supposed to trust what you say? That they'll fade back?"
"I get told I got a visitor. First visitor I've had my entire nickel in the joint. My pa don't come, my old lady, not even my kid, the little bastard. This visitor's a big guy in an Armani suit, one eyebrow, hands like he goes around slugging brick walls for fun."
That'd be Roberto Monticelli. It took Dane back some, wondering why Berto had come himself instead of one of the family capos or lieutenants.
"Guy tells me I do this to you or I get it done to me. Goes into all this bullshit about blowtorches and meat grinders, how he's gonna mail me to six cities all over New Jersey. Except with him, I know it's not bullshit."
Dane couldn't really help but argue the point. "Most of it is."
"It's the part that's not that worries me."
"Maybe I can help."
"The hell you gonna do that?" Mako groused. Thinking about Berto had gotten him all wired up, given him the shakes. The point of the shiv danced against his T-shirt. "Even if you get out the front gate, you'll be dead before you hit the corner."
"Don't believe it."
"We got no choice."
Kremitz started to steel himself. Jaws clenched, leaning forward on his toes, he was jazzing himself up to attack.
Dane had been a pretty poor soldier overall, but he'd liked the hand-to-hand combat training. His drill instructor would use him all the time as a practice dummy, flipping Dane over his hip and throwing him down in the dirt. Kicking his feet out from under him over and over. The DI would demonstrate how to drive the knife in, how to keep the blade from getting stuck in bone.
Without fully realizing it, Dane had absorbed a lot, and would pull the moves when he got drunk, beating on the loudmouthed Irish officers who called him a greasy guinea. But he never got used to the stockade the way he did the slam, and he couldn't figure out why.
Mako and Kremitz weren't going to be too tough so long as he didn't slip on the wet tile. They didn't know how to work as a team, standing too far away from each other. They swept out clumsily with their shanks and both of them tightened up, lurching, wanting to end it fast. Faces growing more grim, but with a hint of pleading in their eyes.
The drill instructor would call Dane and another guy over, tell them to charge at him. He had this one routine where he'd maneuver past Dane, grab hold of him by the elbows, and use his body like a shield to block the other soldier's attack. Dane would be standing there like a bag of potatoes, getting the crap beat out of him while the DI let out a brash chuckle.
Dane had never tried the move and decided this might be a good time. He dodged past Kremitz, hooked him by the elbows, and swung him around into Mako's face. Mako let out a grunt of surprise and jumped back, under the steaming force of the shower. Dane kneed Kremitz in the thigh from behind, brought him low, and shoved. The sound track from a Stooges short couldn't have made it any more perfect. Kremitz and Mako clunked heads and dropped their shivs, slid to all fours in the soapy water.
Dane couldn't help himself and let out a chuckle of his own. He hated the sound of it, but there it was. You were nothing but an amalgam of your influences. He grabbed one of the shivs and stabbed both men in their upper legs, in the thick meat of the muscle where it wouldn't do a lot of damage. He twisted the blades just enough to make the wounds look especially ugly. Mako and Kremitz both started to scream, and Dane said, "I'm doing you a favor, so shut the hell up."
While they writhed on the shower floor Dane ducked back under the showerhead and rinsed off the rest of the soap. Blood swirled near his feet. When he was finished he toweled off and got dressed, listening to them groan through their teeth trying to swallow down the pain. They rolled and squirmed across the tiles.
"Sheezus shheee-it!" Kremitz hissed. "Y-you crippled us!"
Moaning, Mako stuck his face in the drain, blowing bubbles as he gripped his leg to hold in the blood.
"You're both going to be fine. Say that you got into a fight with each other."
"You'll be in the infirmary for three or four weeks. You're not hurt bad but they'll want to keep an eye on you for infection. After that, the bulls will toss you into solitary for at least another month. By the end of your run, I'll either be dead or this shit with the Monticelli family will be cleared up."
"You sure . . . about that, Johnny?" Mako whimpered.
"Even if I'm not, you're better off than I would've been, right?" Dane let out a slow smile. A part of him wanted Mako to end it now. Cut their throats, finish it the right way. You don't injure the enemy, you eradicate him. His fingers twitched. A small, sharp fury nearly broke free from the center of his chest, but as he felt himself about to take a step forward, it receded. He almost wished it hadn't gone. "Don't fuckin' complain."
Mako grabbed him by the ankle and squeezed once, as a sign of thanks. Dane combed his hair back, checked himself in the mirror to make certain his grandmother wouldn't give him a rough time.
He walked out past the guards on the Monti payroll, gave them a grin and a little salute. He felt good, stronger than he had earlier in the day, more settled. He'd been half wondering if he'd had a death wish, and the answer seemed to be no. Still, it was the kind of thing you couldn't be a hundred percent sure about.
When he got back to his cell, the girl he'd killed, Angelina Monticelli, was sitting on his cot.
"Oh Christ," he said, his scars suddenly burning.
She wavered for a moment, fading and reappearing, then vanished, leaving an old man sitting where she'd been--Aaron Fielding, a neighborhood grocer and fish seller buried a couple of rows from her in Wisewood cemetery. The guy was always smiling and letting the kids steal cheap candy bars from the wire racks at the front of the store. He'd let out this heavy, booming laugh whenever something hit him just right.
But old man Fielding had a wild and desperate look to him, colorless eyes flitting all over the place, hinges of his jaws pulsing. He raised a hand to Dane in a gesture of pleading. "Johnny, I need--"
"I can't talk to you right now, Mr. Fielding," Dane said, his voice hard, flat. "Later."
Excerpted from Headstone City by Tom Piccirilli. Copyright © 2006 by Tom Piccirilli. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.