My name is David Strauss, but I have entered this place under a false identity. It is all a part of careful planning.
My cell is small and seems smaller thanks to my cell mate, a hulking giant of a man. He seems very much at home, certainly a veteran here in the prison. He continues to sit on the lower bunk and lets me stand with my prison gear in my arms, while he considers which bunk I should occupy.
“Listen punk, I am used to living alone.”
Me too, I thought, but did not dare to speak.
He stood up and nearly touched the ceiling. His massive arms were covered by tattoos, one of which read ‘Mama’s pet.’ I would have laughed but knew that I would certainly lose a few teeth if I did so. Probably matched by a few broken bones chosen at random.
“So, Pukeface, they dumped you on me?”
I said mildly “My name is Robert Bannister. And you are….?”
I was flat on the ground before I realised what had happened. My gear had gone flying all over the place and the bar of soap was in the toilet bowl. My head pained where it had hit the wall.
“You take the lower bunk.” No reason was extended for the slap, but it served its purpose. I was now totally intimidated and under his control. I got up and dusted myself. Gathered my belongings and gingerly sat on the lower bunk.
“Pukeface, pick up your soap too. Else it will clog the drain.”
I nearly justified my new name as I fished out the soap. I swallowed my tears and wondered if I would be able to endure this unforeseen calamity. My plans had not included a giant who would hit me at will.
As I said earlier, my name is David Strauss but I am not telling that to anyone. I was generally called ‘Pencil’ in my organisation because of my tiny frame, as also because I had a pencil always stuck behind my right ear. I kept accounts in a shipping and transport company and needed a pencil always to be handy. The pay was good, very good indeed. That was because I was paid to maintain two sets of books. One for the tax guys and another one for the owners, which was supposed to show the real profits. In fact, for some time now it too was not showing the real picture because of a sweet little scam I was running.
Heck, who am I kidding? I was laundering money for Santino ‘Sharpie’ Rossini, a brutal gangster with his fingers in many pies, both legit and illicit. He was in all kinds of shady dealings like extortion, kidnapping, drugs, slumlord and more, and relied on me to channelize his ill-gotten wealth. But in the process I was able to skim off a healthy little something for me too. That helped in giving Julie, my girlfriend, a life style she always wanted. She was aware of what I did and the private racket I was running. But I was getting worried and sat her down for a talk one night.
“Baby, it is OK to steal from criminals,” she justified.
“Right, but I have drawn up an emergency drill. Just in case they find out.”
She frowned, “How would that happen?”
I gave her a peck and explained, “Santino gives me bags full of cash, which I carry to a guy with whom I have negotiated a deal. This person has restaurants, casinos, gas stations, dance bars, parking lots and such; places which have mostly cash dealings. He mixes Santino’s cash with his collections and deposits it in banks. Takes a cut of 15% and issues cheques to Santino’s legit businesses for services supposedly rendered based on fake invoices raised by me.”
“I get it. But how do you make something out of it?”
I laughed, “For quite some time, I have been giving less cash to the guy. Santino thinks the cut is still 25%, even though I have brought it down. Bulk discount, you know!”
Julie laughed with me, “Smart! But he doesn’t send anyone with you?”
“He used to. But I fed him a story about the guy becoming nervous when I enter his premises with some of his heavy artillery. He then sent me alone but kept a close watch on the money coming in. Still does. But he does not know that the terms have changed. My fear is that someday he may find out.”
Julie thought it over carefully, “So, what is the emergency drill?”
“I have worked it out babe. There are two brown suitcases full of cash in the garage. I have also readied fake IDs for you and me. If you ever receive a text message from me asking if your sister has come home, take these and run. Go to La Paz, Mexico. One year after you reach there, start going to Café Mexicana on every Monday for lunch. I will make my way there as soon as I can, once the heat dies down.”
“Why can’t you come with me?”
I shook my head, “They would have people looking out for me at the airports, bus stands and such. As far as I know, they don’t know about you.”
She looked worried now, “And where will you hide?”
“That is the beauty of the scheme. Safest place for me will be a prison in some other city on a minor charge. I will be OK for money. Have hidden cash in several places. “
Santino did find out. I overheard him in his office one day talking to another businessman, who offered to launder his money at 13% instead of 15% under the present arrangement. I realised the jig was up and we ran.
The bed creaked as Hulk climbed onto the top bunk. I had to immediately lie very flat on my bunk, as Hulk’s considerable weight created a huge sag on the bunk upstairs and my nose had a leeway of only a couple of inches. I passed an uneasy first night and the clanging of the guard’s baton on the cell’s bars woke me up just as I was nodding off. I couldn’t believe that it was morning already.
I sighed and slid out sideways from my bunk. Already inmates in many of the cells were standing near the gates, with tin cups in their hands. Hulk tilted slightly and let off a barrage that boomed like a canon and smelled like a garbage truck. A weapon of mass destruction which left me gasping for air. The guard was back after banging on all the cells in his beat and stopped in front of me.
“Prisoner 23245, why is your mate not up yet? Go and shake him up,” he barked.
I looked uneasily over my shoulder and saw that hulk was stirring and a loud yawn escaped his mouth. Having thus greeted the morning from both ends of his body, he smiled and scratched his armpits.
“Prisoner 9754, if you are not out of the bunk in ten seconds, you are looking at time in the solitary,” barked the guard again, as his partner also came and stood next to him. He likes to live alone, I thought, and prayed that Hulk gets hauled off to the solitary. But Hulk knew better than to tangle with the guards and he climbed down, pushed me out of the way and stood in front of me. Soon, the cell doors clanged open and we moved out in a single file. I knew better than to make eye contact with anyone and shuffled along with downcast eyes.
I kept my head down for the next three months and hoped that I will get time off for good behaviour and be out of this place in another six months. I had been sentenced to two years in jail on a breaking and entry charge, to which I had pleaded guilty and saved the Government a lot of expense and time. That was part of the plan too.
I settled down in the routine, got pushed around by the hulk often but managed to survive. That routine was broken today. I was minding my own business and moved along in the line that snaked through a large dining area and made slow progress towards the serving counters. When my turn came, I extended my tin cup and kept my eyes down. Did not feel like picking up the sorry excuse of a biscuit, which had become soggy from the carelessly splashed coffee. I was about to move ahead when I heard my name whispered.
I almost dropped my cup in shock and glanced up. The prisoner who had served me was also looking down and whispered from the corner of his mouth, “Exercise yard. Be there.”
I walked in a daze to the farthest row in the dining area and drank the lukewarm brown water that was masquerading as coffee. Raucous conversation flowed around me but I was oblivious to the din. My head was in a whirl and I wondered who had found me here. I glanced at the guy who had served me. His head was shaven and sat on muscular shoulders. Thick eyebrows shielded his mean looking eyes and his thin lips were clenched tight. He looked vaguely familiar, but I could not remember where I had seen him before. I finished my drink and went with the other prisoners for a shower. Did the tasks assigned to me and then back to my cell.
Another hour passed and it was exercise time. I went along with the masses and entered the exercise yard on the right side of the quadrangle. I had hardly ever come to this side as it was not really my thing. I preferred to spend time playing poker with some similar sized inmates in the other half.
The exercise yard had dumbbells and weights haphazardly littering the ground and I walked over there as I had been bid. It was necessary for me to find out who had identified me and what he wanted. My accoster was straining under a bar of weights, doing bench presses. He got up on seeing me and walked to a corner, followed by me.
“Looksee, looksee what I found here,” he said.
I kept my counsel. He turned and squinted at me.
“Where have you kept the money?”
“Huh, what money?”
“Don’t mess with me. We know you have skimmed close to a million.”
It was actually more than that but I was not going to correct him.
“How did you find me?” I bleated. I could place the man now. He was Carlos, one of Santino’s enforcers.
Carlos stared at me with eyes full of malice.
“You really are smart, ain’t ya? We have all spent the last few months searching for you and getting crap from Santino. And here you are hiding in a prison. I could kill you right now for the grief you have given me.”
I was trembling in shock and fear. Did Santino know I was here?
“Bad luck that I was hauled in for the ruckus I created in a bar near here. Got sixty days in the slammer. But then I get kitchen duty for the first time today, and who do I find? A rat everyone is looking for.”
I bit my lips and suppressed a shiver.
“I am out in another fifteen days. Santino will get the word out to some people in here once I tell him about you. Maybe I too will come and have the pleasure of torturing you.”
I could not say a word as my throat had dried up.
Carlos laid a heavy hand on my shoulder, “Santino has offered ten grand for information on you. Oh boy, will I have a fling with that moolah!”
I felt like a deer standing in the headlights of an onrushing truck. My mouth opened and shut but no words came. My mind was whirling at top speed trying to find a way out. And it came unexpectedly due to that most basic failure of human beings. Greed.
Carlos looked around and said, “Listen. No one knows I am here. Give me half and my lips are sealed. As far as Santino is concerned, I will still be looking for you in different places.”
He tossed his cigarette and crushed it under his foot.
“As I see it, you will die a slow death and still reveal where the money is hidden. Or give me half and live happily ever after. Make a smart choice. Think it over in the next couple of days.”
He turned on his heels and walked away, leaving me holding on to the wall for support.
The next few days passed in a haze. I was not sure if I could trust Carlos, but could not see any other options. I did my assigned work swabbing the floors of the prison in auto mode as I imagined the worst.
After three days, Carlos was back in the kitchen and looked at me hard as I received my slop from him. I gave a small nod.
“Same place today,” he said.
I joined him in the afternoon in the yard.
“There are two bags buried in the forest. They contain about four hundred grand. This is a map showing the exact location,” I said, showing him a piece of paper. He extended his hand to take it.
“I have your word that nothing will happen to me now?”
He took the paper.
” Yeah. Boy scout’s honour,” and laughed.
“I will tell that you have extorted a million from me if Santino tries to hurt me here.”
Carlos looked hard at me as he computed, “Won’t happen.”
Carlos went away after completing his sentence. One day soon after, I was assigned to work in the library, sorting old newspapers, arranging books left on the table, dusting etc. A carelessly tossed newspaper was open at a page and Santino’s picture on it caught my attention. The news said that Santino had been killed along with many of his gang members in a police encounter. A few had escaped and a massive manhunt was underway to catch them. The news was about two months old.
I realised that Carlos had taken me for a ride.
He is in for a big surprise if he thinks that he will be able to enjoy the easy money he got from me.
The two bags whose location he has are part of a larger stash located at different places on different occassions. These two bags contain my last skimming just before I had to run. They hold ransom money for a kidnapping in which the police had been alerted. Carlos does not know that.
I am pretty sure the bills are marked and can be traced.
If you step on a snake, you will be bitten. It just doesn’t matter if you are bigger than it.